Betting on a new game in town

Entertainment: The resort is trying its luck with new marketing strategies

Destination: Las Vegas

March 19, 2000|By Paul Lomartire | Paul Lomartire,Cox News Service

In the new Las Vegas, showgirls and mobsters are out. Artists and acrobats are in. Mom, Dad and the kids on a budget are out. Conventioneers on corporate expense accounts are in.

Chefs and trendy restaurants are on hotel marquees, not big names playing big rooms.

In the new Las Vegas, it's easier to find a coffee bar than a liquor bar.

Caesar's Palace has a Zen meditation room and a replica of a famous Buddhist landmark, Thailand's Brahma Shrine.

The sidewalk in front of the Bellagio resort's fake, 8-acre Lake Como is packed for operatic water-fountain shows.

If bloated Elvis were alive in the new Vegas, he'd be a ride.

Vegas is now an adult theme park with long walks, long lines, high prices and gimmicks.

At the Bellagio hotel, tourists line up, $12 in hand, to see 25 paintings by masters including Monet, Matisse and Miro. At the Venetian hotel, a gondola takes tourists through a mall on a romantic ride past Brookstone and Banana Republic for $10. At the Paris Las Vegas hotel, a trip to the top of the fake, 50-story Eiffel Tower is $8.

The Vegas Strip, this planet's most neon-drenched street, offers moving sidewalks, escalators and trams connecting monster, 3,000-room hotel-cities -- four new ones in the past two years -- that reinvent Vegas' tradition of themed hotels.

"It's all oriented around money," says Larry Mullen, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "The hotel occupancy rates have to be 90 percent or above or they get nervous. But they somehow manage to maintain that. It's one-upmanship. 'I can build a bigger and better and more interesting, more glitzy and glamorous whatever to attract people and get them to stay at my hotel.' They're already talking about the Mirage. It's been up about 10 years, and they need to reinvent that."

Steve Wynn started the monster hotel frenzy when he opened the 3,044-room Mirage in November 1989. The son of a bingo supplies salesman with Maryland roots spent $620 million to build the Mirage and its fire-spewing volcano, lobby rain forest and 20,000-gallon aquarium with sharks. Wynn again upped the stakes last year with his Bellagio resort.

Wynn's Picasso at Bellagio and Renoir at the Mirage are the first Vegas restaurants to win Mobil five-star restaurant ratings.

Vegas abandoned the early '90s marketing drive to attract families. The amusement park MGM built behind its hotel is closed and being downsized. At Bellagio, a guard stops anyone with children and allows the kids through only if they're registered guests.

"The emphasis now is going after the convention business," explains author Andres Martinez, whose new book "24/7" chronicles a monthlong gambling marathon in the new Vegas. "Some of these resorts now make more money on stuff other than their casino, which would have been sort of heresy in the good ol' Vegas of the '50s when they would give away everything to suck people into the casino -- cheap buffets, cheap rooms, free drinks.

"But now at new resorts like Bellagio and Venetian, you can spend $200, $300 a night if you're there for a convention," says the former Wall Street Journal reporter.

"I think they've very wisely become what I like to call a permanent World's Fair," says Martinez.

A 1998 report by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority showed that for the first time, dining, shopping and entertainment surpassed gambling as a lure for tourists.

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