Making the News

NWA World Traveler

Originally Published:Saturday, March 1, 2008

"The change was profound and incalculable," says Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer. "Before July 2003, Atlantic City was effectively a local convenience-driven destination." With the Borgata, the historic boardwalk area and city now draw new customers: younger, more affluent and less interested in gambling. With them, more conventions and A-list entertainers have rolled in.

"It's becoming a spot on the concert map," says Pollock, citing an eclectic lineup including Fergie, Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones.

Leaving Las Vegas

By David McKee
NWA World Traveler

Luxury casinos are staking their claim from Detroit to St. Louis, wooing visitors with haute cuisine, spas and shopping.

It's preview night for the annual Auto Show, and the crowd is sprinkled with men in tuxedos and wing collars and women in sparkling evening wear. It's a scene made for James Bond, martini in hand as he casually scans the tables for a game of chemin de fer. Even though the casino is buzzing, with colorful clusters of players at the table games, it never feels crowded, thanks to spacious aisles, bright lighting and a high ceiling that crowns the casino floor with an artistic pattern of curves and sharp, geometric angles. And this, 007, is Detroit. The MGM Grand, to be precise.

A decade ago, non-Vegas casinos were, by definition, inferior to what could be found on the Las Vegas Strip. But with the rising demand for luxury, an increase in legalized gambling and Americans' growing wish to "get away from it all" - if only for a night or a weekend - that's quickly changing. The elegant design, world-class service and panoply of amenities that used to be associated exclusively with Las Vegas can now be experienced from Atlantic City, N.J., to St. Louis. If it works in Vegas, developers reason, why not elsewhere?

"People are ready for this," says Todd George, general manager of Pinnacle Entertainment's brand-new Lumière Place in St. Louis. "There's a more educated traveler. As their free time decreases, they expect a lot for their 'free-time' dollar and are willing to pay for it." And research shows that casinos are popular: More than a quarter of U.S. adults, or 56.2 million people, visited a casino in 2006, according to polling data from Harrah's Entertainment/TNS.

The trend is evident at the MGM Grand Detroit, which feels every bit as high-end as a Strip resort - if not better. The casino resort, which opened in October, offers cutting-edge design, top restaurants, a palatial spa, comfy hotel rooms, buzzing nightlife and, of course, plenty of gambling. It's all packaged in a clean, well-lit setting, graced with touches of intimacy and fine art.

That's the handiwork of designer Laurence Lee. Players "don't feel so penned in," compared to, say, Treasure Island in Las Vegas, says Scott Grigg, public relations director for MGM Grand Detroit. Some of the approx-imately 4,000 slot machines were recently pared back to make room for even more table games, but the bread-and-butter slot player still has myriad games from which to choose.

What Happens in Vegas . . .
MGM Grand Detroit is just one mani-festation of a trend that's seen opulent, Vegas Strip-worthy casinos springing up in smaller, regional markets not associated with "destination resorts." When it comes to travel expenses, many people expect "better stuff on the road, because in the modern world, many are making their homes more like resorts and spas," says travel writer Ken Van Vechten.

As is often the case, legendary Las Vegas casino designer and developer Steve Wynn (dubbed by Time magazine as "the gaming industry's most brilliant designer") set the tone, opening the first non-Vegas luxury casino, Beau Rivage, in Biloxi, Miss., in 1999. It was a learning experience. MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman, who was with Wynn back in '99 when Wynn designed the likes of Bellagio, Treasure Island and Mirage, likens it to taking a Vegas hotel "and plopping it down somewhere else."

They found that what's popular in Las Vegas doesn't always translate to other markets. "In Biloxi, it was standard fare to have a seafood buffet on Friday night," Feldman recalls, but Beau Rivage execs initially nixed that, as they did Southern cuisine in general. "That didn't work," he says, laughing, "and the public told us so by going to everyone else's buffet."

However, Beau Rivage's mix of a luxury spa, high-end retail, restaurants and posh hotel rooms set a trend. "Beau Rivage has ended up on the Condé Nast Traveler list of 'Places to Go' for several years," Feldman says, "and there aren't many hotels on the Gulf Coast making that list." The Beau Rivage casino was built on a barge, and the owners have spent sufficient funds to stay there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

MGM Mirage, the parent company of MGM Detroit and the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and Luxor in Vegas, is trying to take the lessons learned from Beau Rivage and apply them in Detroit. The goal is to "create a place that's got a wonderful personality," and stimulate repeat business, Feldman says. Even casino staples such as the food court and the buffet are cosseted within a subdued, elegant design you'd be hard-pressed to find in Vegas. The strategy seems to be paying off.

"The whole purpose is to place gambling in a larger entertainment context," Feldman says. "You want a place where people want to go after work and let their hair down."

The company's goals are the same at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa (which it co-owns with Boyd Gaming, and which set new luxury standards for the longtime coastal casino capital) and its projected MGM Grand Atlantic City - a nearly $5 billion resort with three towers scheduled to open in 2012. It's not the only company following the "new Vegas model" of giving clientele a variety of luxury options beyond gambling.

"Every other [casino] megaresort I've seen outside of Vegas has been a true megaresort," says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor. Maybe they're not comparable to Bellagio or Wynn Las Vegas, he says, but certainly to The Mirage, the trailblazing Steve Wynn resort that started the luxury casino trend back in 1989.

The 1950s Vegas model of cheap rooms and food is history, supplanted by "high design," and four- and five-star quality. The hotel rooms are critical, according to Feldman, who says it's important that they're spacious, beautiful and well-appointed.

Feldman and Grigg agree that MGM's goal in Detroit was to create a place that appeals to non-gamblers - one that would bring them downtown for dinner or nightclubbing, even if they didn't pull one slot handle. The finished product features two high-end Michael Mina restaurants, Bourbon Steak and Saltwater. Buzz radiates from the subdued, centrally located U-Me-Drink to a piano bar (Intice), a rum-and-tequila bar (Agua), Ignite's cigar lounge and V, an evening lounge that features its own go-go dancers.

If you're feeling extravagant, try Mina's dining scene. Saltwater, as its name implies, is dominated by seafood, including the lobster pot pie that Vegas diners may have sampled at Mina's Nob Hill. Bourbon Steak's menu is also heavy with Mina favorites, including three varieties of French fries and his beloved truffled macaroni and cheese. His touch with steak remains unparalleled, as a tender and juicy filet mignon attests. Unlike the open layout of Saltwater, Bourbon Steak is dominated by a warren of intimate dining booths, fashioned from recycled materials.

MGM Grand Detroit also has the added benefit of building on the city's cultural resurgence, which includes two other new casinos, the Greektown and Motor City. "When I left [Detroit]," says Curtis, a Motor City native, "it was heavily depressed." Now, MGM Detroit has "provided umpteen things to do in Detroit."

Over the Boardwalk
While the Beau Rivage sparked the trend of luxury casino destinations, the success of the Borgata in Atlantic City added fuel to the fire. From its opening in 2003, Borgata radically altered perceptions of what was possible in Atlantic City, long written off as a day-trip market for the blue-hair set. Borgata targeted customers who either hadn't been to Atlantic City or had gone there and not liked it, Feldman says.

"The change was profound and incalculable," says Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer. "Before July 2003, Atlantic City was effectively a local convenience-driven destination." With the Borgata, the historic boardwalk area and city now draw new customers: younger, more affluent and less interested in gambling. With them, more conventions and A-list entertainers have rolled in.

"It's becoming a spot on the concert map," says Pollock, citing an eclectic lineup including Fergie, Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones.

The Borgata combines nightclubs; luxurious, large hotel rooms; Spa Toccare; and a bevy of restaurants headlined by the likes of celebrity chefs Mina and Bobby Flay. It's been so successful that the 5-year-old resort has spawned a second hotel, the in-progress Water Club. It also has forced all its Atlantic City competition to play catch-up.

"The Borgata showed that if you add those amenities, there's a huge, untapped demand," Pollock says. The celebrity chefs found that not only was Atlantic City up to their level but demand was insatiable - so much so that people sometimes wrongly assumed they couldn't get into the marquee restaurants if they tried.

Borgata revolutionized visitors' Atlantic City expectations, just as The Mirage did for Las Vegas. It won't be alone for long, though. In addition to MGM Grand Atlantic City, at least two other multi-billion-dollar megaresorts are on the way.

Older casino-hotels also have stepped up to take greater advantage of the oceanfront location. Once upon a time, the boardwalk and beach were just backdrops for the casinos, which "could have been built in Indiana," Pollock says. Now there's a marina, more beach bars and "a pronounced effort to [incorporate] the natural amenities."

Meet Me in St. Louis
The newcomer among the non-Vegas luxury resorts is Pinnacle Entertainment's Lumière Place in St. Louis. General Manager Todd George says it "timed out perfectly" with a larger resurgence along the city's Mississippi River waterfront, which includes lofts and hotels near the Gateway Arch. "There's very much a Vegas feel, but we wanted something that the St. Louis people could feel proud to call their own," he says. "They no longer have to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to get this kind of treatment, service and product."

Developers say Lumière Place's Four Seasons hotel will easily rival the Four Seasons in Chicago, one of the luxury hotel chain's crown jewels. Its spa will afford views of the Gateway Arch while providing what George describes as an "escape from the city in the middle of the city."

Lumière's star chef will be Hubert Keller, who is bringing his Burger Bar concept (offering what one might call "designer burgers") from Vegas' Mandalay Bay resort, as well as SLeeK, a big-ticket steak house "that morphs into a nightclub," during the wee hours.

Casino managers attribute this luxury dining trend to the Food Network and TV shows such as "Iron Chef," which have made the Kellers and Flays of the world household names.

While its hotels weren't scheduled to open until late-winter or early-spring, George says Lumière Place already has attracted out-of-town tourists, including "a ton of visitors" in town for a Pittsburg Steelers-St. Louis Rams game in December.

We'll Always Have the Strip
Although Vegas may feel like it's come to a city near you, no one would argue that Sin City has been supplanted. "Part of what makes Vegas so unique in the world is its scale," says Feldman, and the new crop of U.S. casinos aren't always a bargain alternative, either. "There is no downward pressure on prices at all because there's no competition," he says. "If you want to be on the Strip, you're not going to be satisfied by Detroit." Still, for new casino cus-tomers who don't have the time or money to fly to Nevada, Vegas style has come to them.

Pollock looks at this trend through the lens of our frenetic, contemporary lifestyle. Hotel stays will be shorter in Atlantic City, he says, but repeat business will be higher. If you live on the East Coast and don't have much vacation time, for example, "you're much more likely to come to Atlantic City to get that experience." He likens it to the Southern California family who will go to Disneyland if they only have one day for recreation, but might opt for Disney World if they have a week. In other words, "There's only going to be one Las Vegas."

No Stakes, Low Stress

Beyond the gaming tables, casino spas and shops offer opportunities for luxurious indulgence.

Long before the video-poker era, early 20th-century elegance first lured the rich and famous to the French Lick Resort Casino in French Lick, Ind. Celebrity visitors to the resort's French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs over the years have included Al Capone and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Recently restored to gold-leaf elegance, the two spacious spas and long promenade of upscale stores impart a feeling of historic grandeur. Visit frenchlick.com.

 

Try the ultimate sensory luxury at Spa Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Mich. - a "cherry pedicure and manicure." There's also "cherries and cream" (no tasting, please), where a hot bath is drawn with salts and cherry essence oil. The bath is followed by a refresher massage using the spa's signature cherry oil. Visit grandtraverseresort.com.

On the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, Montbleu Resort Casino & Spa combines a touch of Las Vegas with California mountain majesty. The resort's Aveda Lifestyle Salon & Spa boasts eucalyptus steam rooms and inspirational views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Visit montbleuresort.com.

Want to go back to the source? For the best in casino spas, there's always Las Vegas. One of the finest is South Sea-inspired Spa Mandalay at Mandalay Bay, where experiences such as "volcanic dust mask" and "Fijian sugar polish" summon thoughts of exotic - and forbidden - beauty rituals. Visit mandalaybay.com.

- Jane Ammeson

David McKee writes for the Las Vegas Advisor and lives in the one and only Sin City.

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