Las Vegas has been a dazzling escape for grown-ups since its inception. However, it has been through many interesting phases, from the 1930s to the mid-century era personified by Elvis and the Rat Pack. In the 1990s and early 2000s, hotels and businesses endeavored to make the city more “family friendly,” while top chefs from around the U.S. and the world helped the city transcend beyond the familiar Las Vegas buffet.
Though the kinder, gentler version of Las Vegas initially proved successful, it is going back to its roots to regain relevance with the worldly, experienced traveler. This time, they’re doing this by going beyond the Strip to the original “Downtown,” which is undergoing perhaps one of the most extreme makeovers in U.S. urban planning history.
Downtown Gets “Zapp-ed”
Five years ago, some economists believed Las Vegas’ best days were behind her. While things were rough on The Strip, its downtown was falling into a greater state of disrepair. Though the five-block Fremont Street Experience and a handful of old-school casinos brought in tourists, it needed more than a shot of adrenaline.
Even in the downturn, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh saw potential in downtown, reaching out to and visiting its businesses. In 2010, he found out that the Las Vegas city government decided to build a new city hall nearly a mile from the old one. This idea sparked interest in Hsieh, as Zappos for years had been based in Henderson, 20 minutes from downtown. While they were located in a beautiful office park, the company grew so much that it was split up over three different buildings– not an ideal arrangement for a business.
When the old city hall building became available, Hsieh launched into plans to build out the structure into a corporate campus for Zappos. Though his team visited many corporate campuses across America, they were particularly impressed with New York University in New York City, where campus buildings blended seamlessly into the community. This, in turn, provided the inspiration for The Downtown Project, an umbrella organization covering many elements of the area’s urban renewal, via a $350 million investment by Hsieh and other donors. The investment breaks down into $200 million for real estate development and $50 million each for small business investment, tech investment, and arts and education.
The ambitious plan went into effect, allowing Hsieh and others to make other kinds of investments that would build the community out by bringing in new tech jobs, innovations, and small businesses that would attract visitors and locals to the downtown area, according to Communications Director Maria Phelan. As things evolved, the Downtown Project transcended from a sweeping revitalization into a brand, a vision, and a purpose, overseeing nearly 300 companies that came together to constitute the new downtown.
“The goal and purpose of the Downtown Project is to help make Downtown Las Vegas a place of inspiration, entrepreneurial energy, creativity, innovation, upward mobility, and discovery. The community-oriented organization does this through the three Cs of collisions, co-learning, and connectedness in a long-term, sustainable way,” explains Phelan. “DTP’s small business team has been very focused on investing in businesses that are the first, unique, or best. While there’s a lot of restaurant investment, there are other things like a yoga studio, boutique food shopping, Mint Locker [a dry cleaning and laundry service, where customers deposit their clothing in lockers installed in a building], and other services needed to keep residents and workers engaged.”
The Downtown Project has set the stage for investments in numerous destinations that are changing the way locals and visitors think about Las Vegas. For starters, there’s the aptly named INSPIRE (inspirelasvegas.com), a multi-venue complex at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard, Fremont Street, and the future. The space supports meetings, entertainment and civic functions, and also features convention/conference space, multiple cocktail bars, outdoor patio areas, a 150-seat theater, rooftop beer garden, and the Inspire News Café, a newsstand that just happens to have a stylish café built into it.
Downtown is also being redefined by the arty and family-friendly Container Park (downtowncontainerpark.com), which represents the practice of “up-cycling” on a large scale. Former storage containers are repurposed into one-off boutiques and stores, restaurants, and elevator shafts, while other reclaimed materials make up large artwork/sculptures, a children’s play area, an all-ages treehouse, and an outdoor grass/stage for concerts, plays, festivals, and events.
Rather than rely on kitsch, The Mob Museum (themobmuseum.org), designed by the team behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., is in the education business. The exhibits tell the story of organized crime’s and law enforcement’s historic impact on Las Vegas with ongoing support from a board of former FBI agents, former police officers, historians, and experts. The Mob Museum cost approximately $42 million to construct and was funded through local, state, and federal grants.
Win, Place, and Show
Elton John, Celine Dion, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and the Cirque du Soleil juggernaut have perpetuated the Las Vegas tradition of “residency,” or extended stays on The Strip. While 2015 is shaping up to be a big year for residencies (with more marquee celebrities and new entertainment concepts making commitments to Vegas), the biggest—and most exclusive—event will be May 2, when Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao finally touch gloves. More than six years in the making, this clash of two of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world is expected to fetch close to $40 million in ticket prices at the 16,800-seat MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Star-studded residencies include Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn’s Together in Vegas at Caesar’s Colosseum (beginning June 17 and booked into December), Mariah Carey at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace (starting May 6), and Journey (April 29–May 16).
At the Wynn Las Vegas’ Encore Theater, Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers reconcile the format of classic Broadway performance with contemporary stage work and choreography. The 90-minute production salutes Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, and others through 34 singers and dancers, a 30-piece orchestra, musicians, dazzling scenery, and costumes (wynnlasvegas.com).
Las Vegas Facts & Figures
FOUNDED May 15, 1905
LEGALIZED GAMBLING SINCE 1931
POPULATION OF LAS VEGAS METRO 2,062,254
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TOURISM 26%
INTERNATIONAL TOURISM 20%; top markets (in order) Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, Australia and China.
METRO GDP $95.9B
THE “STRIP’S” GAMING REVENUE $6.5B
DOWNTOWN GAMING REVENUE $501mm
MAJOR COMPANIES Zappos, MGM Resorts International, Caesar’s Entertainment Corp., Wynn Resorts, Citadel Broadcasting, Petroglyph Games, Li-ion Motors, Deluxe Marketing Inc.
2014’s Record Returns
41.1m Total visitors
~ 5.2m Delegates attending a convention, trade show, or meeting
22,103 Conventions, trade shows, or meetings staged
$45B Economic impact generated by tourism for the local economy
376,000 Local jobs supported by the tourism industry
Good Neighbors on the Ultimate “Main Street USA”
Much has been done to make The Strip sleeker, sexier, and more inviting for business and recreation. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Las Vegas and The ARIA Resort & Casino, both located in CityCenter, one of the world’s largest sustainable developments, are emblematic of the changes reshaping Las Vegas Boulevard and the surrounding area.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Las Vegas is a sensory experience akin to its parent hotel in Hong Kong and sister property in Macau, from the 392 Asian-inspired private suites and rooms to the public areas’ serene non-gaming environment, to sublime fine dining (Twist by Pierre Gagnaire; Mozen Bistro), and dramatic cocktails (Mandarin Bar). There is also the blissful Tea Lounge and Poolside Cabanas for informal meetings or post conference gatherings. The Mandarin Suite, Emperor Suite, and Taipan Suite for corporate high rollers are dressed to impress and perfectly appointed for small-scale entertaining.
The property’s precision service and attention to detail carries over to its business and meeting components. Technological features include Wi-Fi access throughout the property, broadcast fiber optic cable infrastructure in each meeting room, satellite and teleconferencing facilities, high-resolution digital display signage, ceiling-mounted LCD projectors, and automated blackouts in the main ballroom.
In addition to a well-appointed business center and menu of secretarial services, an event manager and event concierge are available to assist clients and their delegates before and during an event. There is also a multi-lingual team to address an event’s interpreting needs as well as extensive translation services for an additional charge.
While there is gaming at the ARIA Resort & Casino, it does a fantastic job of reconciling business and leisure. The stately, futuristic tower designed by architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli has been awarded LEED® Gold certification by The U.S. Green Building Council. It is the largest building in the world to receive that level of recognition, and also has the distinction of being two AAA Five Diamond hotel experiences in one, with the ARIA Resort & Casino and ARIA Sky Suites.
ARIA’s Sky Suites provides the most discerning guests with exclusive extras, from limousine transportation to and from the airport to a personal greeting upon arrival into Sky Suites’ private porte cochère. 2,000- to 7,000-square-foot “Sky Villas” are one- or two-story retreats that function as a private estate designed for the guest’s corporate and recreational needs during the stay.
The property’s event space is an impressive 300,000 square feet, encompassing three levels and 38 meeting rooms with energy-efficient lighting and water-saving fixtures. Four ballrooms accommodate gatherings from 10 to 5,000 attendees, and three feature fully functioning theatrical stages. The “wow” factor is further enhanced with environmentally sound architecture paired with stunning natural light.
ARIA is also noteworthy for its top tier fine dining venues, including the Jean Georges Steakhouse, Chef Masa Takayama’s barMasa, and the 9,000-square foot Javier’s (decked out with Dodd Mitchell interiors) featuring Julian Serrano’s modern Spanish cuisine. ARIA also provides access to Shadow Creek, consistently ranked among Golf Digest’s Top 10 courses in the U.S. Besides being a visually striking course, it has extra luster as the home of the annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational, one of celebrity golf’s most popular events, attracting such names as Wayne Gretzky, Aaron Rodgers, Mario Lemieux, and Julius Erving.