Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

A few weeks back we announced a new interview series here on the site and our first subject we asked was DeRuyter Butler, head of architecture for Wynn Design and Development. Mr. Butler was gracious enough to accept and we began gathering questions.

The interview questions came from the readers. We then whittled them down to what we felt was a good mix of questions covering multiple topics and sent them off.

The answers to the various questions that got passed on are after the jump. Questions are in bold and his responses follow. An apology if your question didn't make the cut, there were quite a few great questions and we had to limit the number to keep this reasonable.

I think Mr. Butler's detailed answers will thrill anyone interested in Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio and resort design in general. We're lucky to start our interview series with such an interesting subject.

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Are there specific design features of other Las Vegas casinos that you think are particularly well done?

DB: Las Vegas is a very exciting city and has so much to experience in the way of entertainment and dining. In my 20 years here, I have seen it grow dramatically and along with this growth have come growing pains normal to any rapidly expanding city but also many new and innovative ideas. I try to stay on top of the new developments but there have been so many, it would be a full time activity to keep up with all of them. I am somewhat partial to projects that we have developed as they have typically been more innovative and bring new levels to entertainment and raise the bar for other developers to respond to. The public expectation has also similarly grown so that what was spectacular only a few years ago is now a ho hum design. This has also spurred developers to continue to pursue a next generation “spectacular”. On grand scale, I am the biggest fan of the development progression reflected in Mr. Wynn’s projects and in the evolution of design ideas evident from Mirage to Bellagio and finally to Wynn. Las Vegas has been a melting pot of ideas, some good and some not so good and there is a general spirit of the next “one upsmanship” between very competitive companies, each trying to outdo the rest. There are however very interesting and successful spaces in many of the casinos in Las Vegas. A few of my favorites spaces at other casinos are “Sensi”, a recently added dining experience at Bellagio, the Ka showroom at the MGM, Tao ultra lounge and night club at the Venetian, the landscape design at the Marriott in Summerlin and the new Forum addition at Caesars. There are a few others that I have heard about but have not yet experienced such as the Pure nightclub at Caesars and Mix at Mandalay.

To what extent has Wynn Macau been tailored to meet Asian sensibilities / preferences and what are the key differences with Wynn Las Vegas (apart from the obvious - size)?

DB: When first considering a resort casino in Macau, we visited to gain as much insight as possible into the local hotel casino environment and the people who visited the casinos. What we discovered was the popular casinos were like “old Vegas”. That is the popular ones were very old and rundown, dirty, filled with smoke and had antiquated slot machines. The environment was very unsophisticated and very unlike Las Vegas, yet they were packed with people, round the clock and they were stacked up in line waiting for their turn to gamble. Nevertheless, it was critical that we gain an understanding of what made things tick there. To bring our style to Macau could be a huge success or a huge disaster. Do people there gamble and enjoy the poor environment as it exists or do they gamble in masses because that is all that was available? We chose to conclude (and at great risk), that people all have the same basics needs and desires and have appreciation for beautiful things. We have taken “the high road” so to speak. Wynn Macau has been developed with the same fundamentals and principles that we strove to promote at Wynn Las Vegas but with some modifications tailored to the local preferences we discovered. There are fundamental human nature appreciations, regardless of cultural and language differences. Natural light, integration of the indoors with the outdoors, beauty, warm and cozy spaces, intimacy and good ventilation. They have a strong preference for Baccarat and a very small presence in slots but we concluded slot marketing was non existent and the obsolete machines did nothing to attract or entice players. They don’t drink alcohol or appear to appreciate lounge type entertainment so our service bars and lounges are designed to adapt to those functions as they develop. We have consequently also provided an emphasis on the game of preference, Baccarat, but will be introducing a slot program similar to that used in Las Vegas with refinements that make slots an important part of the total entertainment experience. We are also providing a guestroom compliment that rivals or exceeds most hotels in the world in anticipation that a demand for first class accommodations will develop. We learned the locals do not lay out in the sun so the pool deck is scaled back a bit from what we have done in Las Vegas but it is still used as the backdrop for the arrival statement and to several of the restaurants and lobby lounge.

What aspect of Wynn Las Vegas are you the most proud of? What aspect of Bellagio?

DB: When given the assignment of designing and developing Bellagio, it was to be the most innovative, sensitive and extravagant resort/casino ever developed with new ideas and guest experiences, not just more of the same. That is to say, not necessarily spend money for the sake of spending but rather to pioneer and develop new ideas and concepts that had not been done before, for any resort of this size. We strove to achieve certain basic goals such as a much stronger integration of the indoors and outdoors than we had done at Mirage, a more intimate feel than Treasure Island and a more luxurious interior than we had done at the Golden Nugget. Bellagio’s success was widely acknowledged as the best resort in Las Vegas and likely the world when it opened. Shortly after opening, the merger of Mirage Resorts and MGM was announced and Mr. Wynn departed the company to start over again. He immediately purchased the Desert Inn, including the golf course. After studying the existing operation and buildings for several months, we concluded the amount of money and work necessary to remake the Desert Inn was not practical and no matter how much money and time was spent, would not result in anything more than a typical Las Vegas casino and certainly nothing that could rival Bellagio. The “new” assignment was to now come up with a resort and experience that would surpass what we had designed to be the world’s most innovative and extravagant resort. It would be difficult to spend more money so that made the challenge even greater in that the new resort should surpass Bellagio but hopefully at a more reasonable budget, also considering 5 years of inflation. One thing in our favor was that if anyone could understand Bellagio’s strengths and weaknesses, it would be those who originally designed it, which was us. After very carefully studying what wound up most successful and what could have been done better, we identified the strengths and shortcomings and then set out to make appropriate corrections and to devise enhancements to the most successful ideas. At Wynn, we capitalized on a better integration of indoors and outdoors, better control of guest perception and discovery, natural light introduction into the heart of the public areas and making the guest experience much more intimate. The latter was deemed one of Bellagio’s greatest shortcomings, the sheer size and distance to travel between guest destinations. Wynn has a much denser integration of guest destinations making travel distances a fraction of similar distances at Bellagio. Probably the most innovative and new development of Wynn was the concept of a boutique hotel within a large hotel. The suite experience is a very tight and intimate experience with all of the suite guest favorite amenities within a hundred feet of their arrival, checkin, elevators, the suite, the most special dining venues, the VIP pool deck and of course entertainment, the Baccarat, high limit slots and private gaming areas. I am not aware of any other major hotel that can provide such an intimate experience and yet be a part of such a major entertainment complex. This is one that challenges every other resort where it counts the most, with the super high end guest.

What was it like designing for a project to be built in a country so far away, like you are doing with Wynn Macau? Tell us about differences in regulations and how any additional design constraints impacted your work. For example, I've been told that casino floors in Macau have to be physically separated from all-ages public areas - is any of that accurate and how do those types of issues impact your designs?

DB: Some basics about our Macau development and cultural differences are noted in the question above. Technical challenges we encountered in designing a project in Asia relate to different construction methodologies, limited availability of products and materials or the time and cost to research and find comparable products to what we are accustomed to, use of metric vs. imperial for measurements and dimensions, time zone as they are 15 hours ahead of us and most importantly, the building codes. The Macau building codes are based on Portuguese civil law as the Macau was governed by Portugal until it reverted to China and became a Special Administrative District in 1999. The local building code was not developed to address many of the design and safety aspects for concerns we had and understand as we design projects in the United States. There had never been a need for codes that address many of the issues we encounter here day to day. We had to prepare an analysis and document many of the differences between codes to ensure the local agencies that the resultant building would be safe and meet with the intent of their codes while making the building compliant under our codes. The IBC code has recently been recognized throughout most of the United States as a “national” code. Review under the IBC in English was ultimately accepted but there were still challenges as local building officials were unfamiliar with the IBC and had some translation difficulties. This required a code specialty consultant engaged to represent the Macau government on interpretation and enforcement of the IBC as the building code. Other aspects that were requested by the government are the segregation of the casino from other public areas of the resort. Even though the casino is a major component of the facility, public circulation and access to most of the resort were required to be accessible without going through the casino. This is very similar to regulations for Atlantic City casinos so this was not very difficult to address without compromising the design. In Las Vegas, structural design is analyzed for wind load and earthquake loads. In Macau, they have severe typhoons and wind load is extreme and governs the structural design.

How did you end up first working with Steve Wynn? Have you always been interested in hotel/casino/resort development?

DB: I began my Resort/Casino career with The Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. I was laid off from an engineering firm in Philadelphia during an economic downturn and had made contact with the Architect for Resorts International in Atlantic City. I was hired at Joel Bergman’s new firm working for the Golden Nugget as a temporary draftsman in 1982. When I started working for the Golden Nugget, I had no idea what a casino was or how complex of a facility they were. I quickly learned in order to design one, you have to first understand virtually every detail of how they operate. In addition, to design a successful casino, you have to also take the customers perspective and think like a customer. What will customers like and how will they perceive things? What is important to the customer? The temp position eventually turned into a permanent position and as I worked my way up in capabilities, I came to prepare the drawings for a major expansion of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. With the sale of Mr. Wynn’s Atlantic City Golden Nugget, he elected to relocate Atlandia, the in house design firm to Las Vegas to build The Mirage. From there, I worked on major remodels to the Golden Nugget, the Golden Nugget in Laughlin and next, Treasure Island. In 1993 Mr. Bergman left Atlandia and I assumed the role of Director of Architecture and by that time had 11 years of background and experience with Resort/Casino Design. My first major project completely on my own was Bellagio. From a very early age of 5, I loved to build and design unique structures out of whatever building toys were available. Some of which were tinker toys, Legos and Lincoln logs. I tried to use the basic parts provided but come up with different and unique configurations so I think those early challenges developed into a career of pretty much, doing the same thing but with different “building blocks”.

The 'mountain' is almost too close to the main building to appreciate its beauty from restaurants and patios facing it. Did property limitations constrain the set-back of the main resort building, or did you design it this way for intimacy?

DB: The “mountain” is very deliberately sited in its proximity to the various venues it provides a backdrop for. There are 5 separate and independent water features enclosed by the mountain. Each one has a unique theme but all are based on controlling the mood and intimacy through the use of natural landscape materials, proximity to water and the control of light. Intimacy is a very important part of the overall experience and the mountain was used to preserve that. It was conceived with the intent of blocking out the surrounding distractions of the strip; the Fashion Show cloud, the Frontier marquee sign, the low level westerly sun and even our own “Eraser” Marquee sign. We felt the natural mood we were trying to convey would be compromised if the cloud were visible as a backdrop. We spent an extensive amount of time designing the mountain height and placing each tree very carefully to ensure all of the surrounding distractions were blocked from view from virtually all major vantage points. We used computer modeling, photo analysis and numerous scale models of not only the mountain but the surroundings as well to guarantee proper placement and that we achieve our goal.

How, if at all, will Encore be integrated into Wynn Las Vegas to create a seamless experience for guests within the property.

DB: From the onset, Wynn was planned to have the ability to attach very seamlessly to an undefined development to the north at some point in the future. We designed the main self park garage so that it could provide access to both Wynn and whatever was to come to its north. The public promenades were designed to be extended for public tie-in in two locations, one of which had an empty building shell designed along its length for future retail along this promenade. The second of which integrates the convention facilities of the two projects so that they operate as one. We designed the utility infrastructure to be extended into Encore so that all of the utilities and back of house connections would all integrate the two facilities. To the guest, the two will operate as one and we fully expect guests will visit both for dining, entertainment and recreational activities. Encore will have a different theme in that it will be a bit more hip but many of the same design principles such as integration of indoors with the outdoors, intimacy of scale, landscape backdrops and natural light will provide some similarities with the décor differences providing a different mood to suit different tastes.

Some observations have been made that there are not enough elevators to provide superior service, especially in comparison with Bellagio. How are decisions on the build-out of support services made when designing a new project?

DB: In designing and programming both Wynn Las Vegas and Bellagio, I used performance standards established by the industry and my own experience with previous hotels we have developed. One thing I learned from Bellagio was that as the average guest grows older in the American population, long walks to get to and from guestrooms is problematic. The design principles used for the Wynn hi-rise were new and somewhat untested. We wanted to shorten the hallways and succeeded in making the average deluxe room guest walk no more than 200 feet as compared to Bellagio, Mirage, Treasure Island and other large hotels which have 360 foot long hallways. Similarly, in the suites, the Wynn guest walks no more than 100 feet, also compared to 360 feet in the other hotels. We achieved this by going taller, 45 floors and also by segregating the hi-rise into deluxe rooms on one elevator system and suites on a separate system. We did have some elevator problems initially and some were related to the fact that at the opening, we had numerous trades still working in the building completing punchlists and testing systems. We also were unable to have the building turned over early enough to conduct extensive staff training and coordination, which we are known for. In-spite of the drawings for the tower having been completed 3 years before hotel opening, the building was not made available to staff until the final few days before opening. This created undue burdens on the elevator system as everyone was learning how to work more efficiently and get used to a new resort facility of over 5.7 million square feet that was overrun with guests from day one.

What is the influence of market research on the resort's design? In other words, is the overall design developed first and 'tested' with focus groups of key customer segments or are elements of the design based on customer preference research done in advance?

DB: Detailed and technical market research has not played as major of a role in our development process as one might expect. Market research is only as good as the questions posed, the prospective guests interviewed and the honesty and understanding of those providing their responses. Not to say there is no value in marketing research but we have historically relied largely on our extensive experience and customer reaction at our previous hotels to gauge customer sentiment and design to what the public wants. We capitalize on addressing very basic human nature principles in our designs and customer reaction has been overwhelmingly as expected. We know basic desires in human nature are to be in spaces that feel cozy but not squeezed, to be in the hub of activity but not be overrun, to be able to see and be seen but not be a spectacle. Other basic principles are to have access to natural light, a strong integration of the outdoors with the indoors and warm and friendly colors and lighting. We also integrate a certain amount of discovery whereby you don’t walk in and see everything. We control views and perspectives so that you have to travel through from space to space to experience places in sequence from any given vantage point. You would never get this kind of insight from marketing research and we believe that is what sets our projects apart from the rest of the industry.


Read archived comments (5 so far)
March 6, 2006 7:31 PM Posted by doctor_al

Outstanding interview, with fascinating insights into the design process for Wynn's places. Excellent questions, and kudos to Mr Butler for sharing his thoughts in depth. Great stuff.

March 6, 2006 11:25 PM Posted by gilli

Fascinating and educational. Between your interview here and Steve Friess' interview with Steve Wynn on podcast, we have fantastic insight into Wynn's designs. Really outstanding. If we can continue with insights like this from the other major companies, it'd be incredible.

March 6, 2006 11:30 PM Posted by Hunter

This is the first in what I hope is a series of 'real' interviews with casino execs. I'm working on the second subject but I don't have anything to announce yet.

March 6, 2006 11:34 PM Posted by Mike E

Excellent interview.

I think I speak on behalf of all of us who contribute regularly to this blog and would like to thank Mr. Butler for not only accepting our questions, but giving us such detailed and thorough answers. Thank you Mr. Butler!

March 7, 2006 8:21 AM Posted by Brian Fey

Very Nice, Thank You both for your time, and the thought that went into this. Any new info on Wynn is always great to have!