The esteemed Mr. Simpson is back with his latest column. This time around the bend, he'll share his thoughts on the opening of the Cosmopolitan as well as discuss a recent stay at Aria.
I'm going to begin this column by taking on the Cosmopolitan opening. I wrote in my last column that "it wouldn't surprise me if it's more than 10 years after Cosmopolitan opens until a new resort premieres" on the Strip and for that and other reasons the property's scheduled opening later this month has excited many folks who keep close tabs on the casino resort business. The property looks great from the outside. I really like its signage (particularly its "THE COSMOPOLITAN" sign on the roof and its cool vertical Strip-front marquee). Photos of Cosmo's interior that have been released and leaked also look very good.
The Cosmopolitan combines with CityCenter to form a mini-skyline to the center Strip, a distinct modern presentation which I find appealing. On the other hand I've long questioned whether the architecture will appeal to Las Vegas visitors conditioned to more whimsical competition. I also am skeptical about Cosmo's ability to generate the returns Deutsche Bank needs to justify its nearly $4 billion investment. Competing with MGM Resorts, Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands for casino play will be a significant challenge for Cosmopolitan due to its lack of an established player database, and competition for higher room rates and occupancy will also be tough. Deutsche Bank has exceptionally deep pockets and can shrug off a slow start, but I can't believe long-term ownership of the property is its preferred game plan.
Another possible negative is connected to the challenge of opening a new property. Even with a couple of slow late December weeks to iron out the wrinkles before city visitation spikes for New Year's, Super Bowl weekend and Chinese New Year, opening is a high-pressure period that requires quick and smart personnel evaluations, a lot of service fine-tuning and possible significant operational adjustments. Major or lasting problems could be disastrous, so the pressure will be on Cosmo management to evaluate and adjust appropriately.
Feedback on Cosmopolitan's financial performance out of the box will be limited to room-rate surveys, anecdotal reports and whatever property management decides to publicly disclose, but consumer feedback should be readily available and will be closely monitored.
I think the property's pre-opening public relations effort has been strong and there seems to be a good vibe and expectation of success by the small slice of the public that pays attention to casino openings. My prediction for Cosmo's consumer response is qualified: I'm optimistic, but the opening shakeout is a big obstacle. On the financial side, I'm pessimistic. Very pessimistic.
My girlfriend and I stayed at Aria for the fifth time Thanksgiving weekend and I can report that we had no customer service issues. During our first two stays -- right after CityCenter opened -- we had a few minor issues with AT&T cell service, housekeeping and checkout. But the last few visits have been great with no negative issues. Service at check-in and at the Player's Club was exemplary. Our room was very clean and housekeeping service was timely and efficient. We ate one meal on property, at the buffet. The scheduled remodeling of the buffet has yet to take place, and the price was similar to past visits ($36 for brunch). The big change I noticed is that king crab has been replaced by snow crab, a significant downgrade considering that the buffet price approximated Bellagio and Wynn's buffet brunches. Buffet cleanliness and service were fine, normal for Aria.
I'm writing about our stay as a way to introduce a thought I've had recently as I read comments on Las Vegas casino-related blogs that seem to delight in slamming the hotel. Aria is a very nice property, better than every resort in Las Vegas not named Wynn, Encore or Bellagio. It's important to separate Aria's (really, CityCenter's) financial troubles from the experience it provides guests. If asked whether I'd recommend Aria to someone seeking to visit a casino resort on the Strip, I'd wholeheartedly say "Yes." I like its look. The hotel rooms are great. The casino is darker than many, and I like that. The registration area is bright and beautiful. I like its fountains, sculpture and other art. The parking garage is well-designed, expansive and bright, even if its tunnel entryway is less expansive than the wider ones at Bellagio, Wynn and Encore. The main porte cochere and entry circle is beautiful. I haven't seen Viva Elvis, but even if it is as bad as many say, guests don't have to see the show. I've criticized the hotel's placement on the property footprint, its somewhat difficult access for Strip pedestrians and its lack of a Strip marquee. But those limitations don't really matter to Aria guests.
I was reading the list of finalists for the Vegas Tripping 2010 Trippies awards (votes for Hunter's Two Way Hard Three blog and his [our] Vegas Gang podcast are appreciated) and one Aria-related option surprised me. On the positive ("Best of") side, how can any rational person justify a final five for best Strip hotel that includes Tropicana and doesn't include Aria? Tropicana? Wynn, Encore and Bellagio definitely belong. Mirage, less so, but it's not preposterous. Tropicana -- no way. My final five, in order, would be: Wynn, Bellagio, Encore, Aria and Venetian. (Palazzo, Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay, Mirage and MGM Grand in 6th through 10th places, respectively).
-- Jeff Simpson, December 2010