These are uncertain times even in a city that has such unbreakable optimism that others have always called it foolhardiness. But now even the relentlessly positive conversations one has in Vegas have been breached by headlines from outside town. There was a time, just a few months ago, that was truly not the case and it was said by casino executives, though not for attribution, that Vegas doesn't have recessions. A low dollar meant only more foreign tourists. But the majority of our tourists statistically come from Southern California. And the obvious has hit home: Hard times for them mean hard times for us. Now people do not say that the national economy won't impact Vegas. Local giants Harrah's and MGM-Mirage have had layoffs. And locals who once scoffed at the idea that Vegas could ever overbuild with hotel rooms now take that notion seriously as 20,000 to 30,000 more rooms head toward completion in a city that expects occupancy rates to stay above 90%.
But even in a time of doubt there are plenty of exciting things on the horizon. Sorry for that transition. I mean only that there is a lot happening here and, speaking truth, Vegas is all about money, and hard times here usually mean everything is cheaper for tourists. This is a time to fight for a bargain, and you will get it no matter what range you shop. Here are five things worth coming to town to check out in coming months.
4: Aliante Station (opening in November). It used to be that a locals casino was of interest to only locals. There were key ingredients like a movie theater, a food court an arcade and gambling. Certainly properties like Palms and Rio had locals as costumers But both were within blocks of the Strip. With Green Valley Ranch (which I live across the street from), a locals casino truly proved able to offer an alternative to tourists searching for a high-end experience away from the bustle of the Strip. When Green Valley Ranch proved a worthy alternative to a nice Strip hotel to a certain segment of the travel market, locals casinos finally found a way to get tourists away from the Strip who few even aspired to reach before Green Valley Ranch opened. It probably helped with tourists that a cable television show was made about the casino. After Green Valley Ranch, Stations perfected this approach with its next offering, Red Rock Resort. Red Rock offers among the most scenic locales in Vegas, and nature aside, there is even a beautiful view of the Strip in the distance. People from out of town love the exclusive feel of the place while, like all Stations casinos, the property also services its neighborhood with a food court and movie theater. But Red Rock Resort has also offered talent competitive with the Strip, including Kanye West's most recent concert in Vegas. I also wrote on the Buffet about the principals of Jane's Addiction playing together this weekend at Red Rock. That said, Aliante Station seems a more modest affair. But it is telling that even a modest affair in Vegas these days includes a bar with bottle service and a 700-seat showroom and six restaurants. There is also a value to all these new showrooms because even at a local casino they need acts of national stature to sell that many seats. The new showrooms (the Hard Rock, see next item, is opening another one) are the primary engine behind the increasingly unpresendented concert diversity of the offerings in Vegas.
3. Hard Rock renovations (ongoing). At one time the Hard Rock was the rare off Strip casino that carried the prestige of the Strip. Even tourists not staying there wanted to visit and see the memorabilia or play the Sid Vicious slot. In fact, back in 1999 the Hard Rock was easily the coolest resort in Vegas able to enjoy strong local support while becoming a first-choice tourist destination too. Then the Palms opened in 2001 and simply did a far more sophisticated and impressive job at understanding and marketing to the best elements of the Hard Rock's clientele both locally and with tourists. After "The Real World" aired, the Palms pretty much aged the Hard Rock overnight into a Boomer place while the young and hip began migrating to the Palms. Then the nightclub revolution happened, making the Strip a much cooler destination for L.A. elites than the old days. And even the Rio of late has made a play for what was once the audience of young too-cool-for-Vegas types that made up the Hard Rock's core audience. That few now object to Vegas in the way the Hard Rock could wink at while capitalizing on in 1999 has also been a factor. There is little irony anymore in there being the rock casino. But while all the Hard Rock's competition caught on to how to market to the next generation, little changed at the venerable property. Now finally the results of $800 million in planned renovations are beginning to show. A rock concert bar called Wasted Space already has its doors open, with a grand opening on the way. More openings in retail, a new nightclub, a revamped concert venue and numerous other improvements not yet announced are all set to open in the 12 months. The result, one hopes, will again make the Hard Rock one of the best destinations in Vegas. This is a property all Vegas benefits from keeping at the top.
2. Cirque's Believe starring Criss Angel (October at Luxor, grand opening). Angel has become quite a controversial local presence since the show was announced. As a result, there is a lot less good will toward this show than one would expect from such an interesting combination of talents. Angel's edgy performance art is a lot closer to the street performances that the Canadian circus troupe left behind decades ago in its ascent to becoming the leading entertainment company on the Las Vegas Strip. When Believe opens, the Angel vehicle will be the sixth permanent show Cirque has sandwiched between a couple of miles of Las Vegas Boulevard. Yet no one seems concerned if Believe will oversaturate the market because of the star: Criss Angel. Few entertainers have that impact. This show fails or succeeds based on Angel. And Angel has proven to be fantastic at pulling in an audience. Also, the Angel opening must be seen compared to what the rest of the Strip is up to doing. Other shows set to launch include Donny and Marie at Flamingo and Danny Gans at Encore. In terms of excitement, Believe is truly opening without competition.
1. Encore (end of year). The online system will not accept reservations before February. But Encore is set to open by the end of this year. Las Vegas has a lot of new Strip resorts being planned and built right now as part of the latest construction boom. The most impressive is the six-tower CityCenter under construction as a partnership between MGM-Mirage and oil rich Dubai. The first of this new wave of resorts to open was Palazzo at the start of this year. Since Palazzo is physically joined (especially for back of the house functions) to the Venetian, the two combine to make Venetian/Palazzo the structure with the most hotel rooms of any resort in the world. But for locals the real excitement is saved for the opening of Encore near the end of the year. Why? Steve Wynn. From Mirage to Belagio to Wynn, no one has a better track record at amazing openings to even more amazing resorts. Steve Wynn is his own category, and he has set the standard for decades. Encore, Wynn's latest, will be examined by his competitors and customers as a measuring stick of the possible for all the other resorts. (Photos by Sarah Gerke)