Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

This is part one of a three part series about the problems that MGM Resorts International faces at CityCenter and how those problems may be impacting the important relationships they need to run their businesses.

Based on fascinating new insight into operations at the various CityCenter components, we dive deep into how the complex is doing and how bad things might get.

The other parts of the series will be posted later this week.

Part One - this post
Part Two - Sept. 8th
Part Three - Sept. 9th

Please leave all comments about the series on this post. It's all after the jump.

We all have relationships - friends, family, co-workers, employees, vendors, customers and even strangers. In many ways, we are defined by these relationships, be they well-nurtured, in need of repair, recently salvaged or even permanently severed. This is true not just of individuals but also of corporations - especially a giant hospitality company that aims to serve its guests well, day in and day out. When important relationships go sour, the thunder of the resulting shockwave can be deafening, destroying much in its path. Today, in September 2010, I believe that several of MGM Resorts' key relationships have already or are in danger of being significantly damaged, perhaps permanently. To really understand how badly things have gone off track, we have to first look back.

Amazing how much has changed in a year. Twelve months ago, CityCenter was still mostly mystery. In September of 2009 we were being subjected to the banal 'remember to breathe' Aria advertising campaign. In November, I was invited to tour the construction site and my first impressions on property were mostly positive. There was a lot of interesting stuff to take in: Mandarin's 23rd floor lobby and bar, opulent suites at Aria, a lobby and check-in area flooded with light. Beyond just that, there was an enthusiasm in the air - CityCenter was beating the odds - despite setback after setback, the doors were going to open. Given everything that had happened up to that point, it seemed like quite an accomplishment.

Opening day, I sat with a bunch of other media types, listening to speeches from the major participants: MGM folk, Dubai World representatives, architects, builders, chefs, etc... Everyone involved seemed very proud of their latest creation and in that sense, rightfully so - the project was truly a massive accomplishment. There were some obvious black marks - my room at Vdara had non-functioning locks and windows so dirty that it literally looked like grime had been sprayed from a pressure hose. Ok, so maybe the young lass just had some opening jitters - I've never been to a flawless hotel opening so that wouldn't be anything new.

Just hours before the public would be invited in, construction crews were still roaming about, busting their asses in the final hours to get everything ready. The employees had worked incredibly hard all through the construction process and seemed excited to have finally reached the finish line. Little did they know that the next few months would mean fewer shift hours, workforce reductions and generally being asked to do more with less.

The complex opened to what I would charitably describe as 'mixed reviews' from guests. Tales of service woes, non-functional room technology and sometimes downright surly service weren't uncommon in the first months. I've stayed at Aria (twice), Vdara (twice), and Mandarin Oriental (unfortunately only once so far) and personally experienced the guest services roller-coaster that many others have also reported.

To be fair to MGM, I don't think there's much debate about the current operating environment in Las Vegas: tough as hell and not getting much better anytime soon. A lot of external forces are working against the company. While that may be true, I don't think that gives them a pass. It's well documented that as the economy declined throughout 2007-2009, management made little effort to alter the project's design, even as it became clear that people were going to be spending less and less money (and time) in Las Vegas.

What do you get when you combine the most expensive private commercial development of all time, a 50% ownership stake purchased by a sovereign investment behemoth that's since experienced it's own financial implosion all opening into a terrible economy? Sounds like fertile ground for conflict and also for a very interesting story. From what I'm hearing from people inside CityCenter, interesting barely scratches the surface.

According to my sources, the economic reality of CityCenter's first months have caused massive stresses on many of the key relationships that built MGM into the Las Vegas powerhouse that it is today. Will these relationships weather the storm? Could these issues spill over and impact the rest of MGM's wholly-owned resort business? How the hell was this even allowed to happen? To get this bad? Let's look at some of these relationships in detail and discuss some of the most difficult problems that CityCenter faces.

Employees and Unions

Of this entire list, it's hard to imagine a single group more impacted than the CityCenter employees themselves. When it comes to cutting costs, this is the first place management looks - freezing salaries, slashing benefits and cutting hours. The employees that have been able to keep their jobs are being asked to do more, sometimes for less money. It's a tough situation - finding another job in Vegas is next to impossible so you stay where you are, no matter how bad it gets.

Could more cuts be coming? Many of the employees at Aria and the rest of CityCenter came over from other MGM properties, maintaining their seniority and related benefits. It would be employee morale suicide to attempt to deviate from those established parameters and I can't imagine that the MGM folks on the joint venture (JV) board would allow it, despite how tempting it might seem. Some things do deep, long lasting harm and this would almost certainly be one of them.

About half of the workers in the complex are unionized, giving management less flexibility when it comes to adjusting their hours and wages. That said, negotiations with the union last year gave MGM the ability to reduce the split of full time/part time workers from the 75% / 25% standard to the 60% / 40% they're averaging now. Those reductions were designed to be temporary and are scheduled to expire in December. I'd bet my lunch money that CityCenter will ask for an extension. Will the union be asked to make more concessions to help the company get the property into the black? It's certainly possible, though not clear how they would react.

MGM has a bunch of other properties it has to worry about (ya know, how they actually made money last quarter) - maintaining good relations with its unions is critical and any action that the JV takes at CityCenter could have an impact down the line for other properties in the MGM portfolio.


With management reducing employees and hours to reduce costs, of course there is potential for customers to take it in the teeth. In Aria's case, a guest staying today vs. earlier this year will notice fewer restaurants open each night, a pool cafe that is closed during the week, hours at the bars and lounges reduced and fewer employees to help them on the floor. On the flip side, the hotel has been more aggressive with promotions in the form of lower room rates and resort credits for longer stays. There are deals to be had if you seek them out.

In December and January, there were multiple reports of guests asking to be relocated to Bellagio from Aria - a combination of service glitches and issues with the new in-room technology were often to blame. Those problems seem to have ebbed - based on my own data from Vegas Mate, I'm seeing better customer reviews for Aria in the past few months. That said, there's still a long way to go in this department and all the cuts make that more difficult to achieve.

Condo Owners

Ownership in one of the several condo towers was meant to be a key part of CityCenter's financing and profit potential. With the collapse of the economy and the difficulty in obtaining a mortgage these days, many of the folks that originally put down deposits are now trying to re-negotiate, either for smaller spaces / fewer units or in some cases, just walking away from deposits altogether.

CityCenter needs to make ownership more appealing while also reducing their own costs to carry the unsold inventory. As with the rest of the property, my sources tell me that all options have been considered, including closing amenities that residents might consider vital, such as the spa at Vdara. Supposedly these drastic measures have been largely rejected with a new focus on a possible leasing program for the unsold inventory.

Didn't want to plunk down $5 million for digs at Mandarin? You might be able to lease a unit for less than $2/square foot if some of these concepts get off the drawing board.

In addition, MGM needs to step it up when it comes to benefits of ownership with exclusive access to lounges, restaurants, shows and other amenities: make living in CityCenter seem like access to a special private world, not like a mistake or a foolish decision that your friends make fun of. Word of a upmarket grocery store in The Crystals is back on some people's lips - that kind of thing would help but it's only a start.

That's it for part one. More impacted groups coming in the next installment. Part two is coming tomorrow, Sept. 8, 2010.


Read archived comments (62 so far)
September 7, 2010 9:18 AM Posted by steve_c

Great report, Hunter! Looking forward to part 2.

September 7, 2010 9:20 AM Posted by mac78130

Leasing for Vdara and Veer is already taking place

September 7, 2010 9:24 AM Posted by mike_ch

I saw the spa and salon at Vdara as a waste target almost immediately. I browsed it once while considering getting my hair cut at a hotel salon. It's cute but small, hidden on a higher floor down the hall from the property's mail room (??), and it wasn't open or doing anything at all on the Saturday in April that I went to go look at it, and the Aria service can be easily reached from an escalator next to the backdoor entrance.

CityCenter has three such facilities between Vdara/Aria/Mandarin and I suspect with Bellagio's facility not too far from Vdara either, it's just all a bit too much.

Another issue? That coffee shop is just WAY. TOO. BIG. The menu was still limited and overly fartsy (bleu cheeseburgers still rule) when I looked at it, and the catfish fish & chips I had on New Years Eve for dinner was gone, so I don't think I'd eat there again.

According to VT, they're going to throw a freakin' MILLION DOLLARS on the buffet's dining room, which appears to me that they still don't get what the heck they're doing. That kind of thing should cost about a third of that.

I'd say that it's time for the designers and interior masters to shut up and let the money people concerned with making a profit speak, but the problem with this company is they already are. That's why everything the company touches outside of this property, from the MGM Grand food court to the Luxor renovation, looks so cheap. And Murren himself is a money guy. What are they doing out there?

"Oh well," says old warhorse Bellagio; "I guess I'll carry your load, too."

September 7, 2010 9:26 AM Posted by BigHoss

Good story, Hunter.

I'd like to be able to admire the kind of corporate confidence it took to get City Center this far in this economic climate. Undoubtedly, there have been some positive effects on the Las Vegas job market with payrolls from earlier construction jobs and current resort jobs.

The ugly flipside, though, seems to indicate that very corporate confidence came from the unrealistic excess that put the city and nation in this kind of a spiral.

What about MGM's debt? They seem to be able to barely operate, let alone service the enormous pile of corporate obligations. Isn't there a huge balloon payment coming due in the next year or so?

It will be interesting to watch.

September 7, 2010 9:28 AM Posted by Hunter

Yes, we look at the situation with the banks in an upcoming segment.

Still to come: celebrity chefs, Cirque, retailers, Dubai World, Perini, banks and hotel partners.

September 7, 2010 9:33 AM Posted by Hunter

Yeah, we're just getting started.

September 7, 2010 9:41 AM Posted by detroit1051

Great stuff, but I'll wait for the 2nd and 3rd parts before posting my questions/comments. However, your embedding supporting links throughout the post is very helpful.

To show how things have changed since December 2008, here is a link from a NV employment blog which is titled, "CityCenter Will Be Our Savior."

September 7, 2010 9:48 AM Posted by mike_ch

Here's another thing I've wondered, and I kind of am surprised Hunter didn't address it:


I never hear anyone talk about Haze. I never hear anyone talk about The Bank, either; in fact I heard more chatter about that space back when it was called Light.

I only ever hear about those Wynn/Thomas/Drai collaborative mixtapes.

Now, part of that is that I hang out with a bunch of Wynn groupies ( ;D ) but I know Pure is still hoppin' and that the Palms clubs aren't nearly as exclusive as they used to be thanks to the shrinking audience. I know the pool/dayclubs have taken so much club audience this summer that it seems like the only people left who want to party at night is about just enough to fill up XS and a couple other places.

But given it's location and being the only establishment of the big revenue generators that are nightclubs, why do I hear nothing about Haze? I never see it active because I'm not on the Strip late at night, but I've gone down to that level and it's a pretty dull and unimpressive entrance (they've begun putting a booking man at a podium at the top of the escalator) and all pictures of the place that I see are nothing mindblowing. There's little blotter in the celeb press of people ripping up the floor there, except for Michael Jordan's kid who shouldn't have been there (hello, lax staffing. That would have been caught at TAO.)

With as much money being thrown around as there was in CC, this place could have been an out-of-this-world experience that gave people the experience of a drug trip without having to take anything. Instead it looks like the usual OONTS OONTS OONTS room, maybe even a little less unique than Bank.

Why is that? This is the place that's supposed to 'reset' the city, after all. It was advertised with an incredibly pompous "okay, NOW Las Vegas is worth going to" campaign that was supposed to bring in some sort of extremely sophisticated people from the plutocratic oligarchy who consider themselves elite enough to not even mention Vegas without a note of disgust.

Would a good club scare those people away? If that's the case, why not make something that they would like? Why just one more face in the crowd?

Maybe I was expecting a bit too much (okay, probably, given that I was expecting a Tokyo-style explosion of coloured lighting and maybe some fancy contemporary work of art hanging from the ceiling.) But it just seems like Aria falls flat in the two areas (VIPs and clubbing) that kept the Venetian alive when it's casino had no pull, and is starting to overtake casino revenues for Wynn. That stuff is vitally important. Why did you make Silk Road so elaborate that it's bathroom (with sinks inside the stalls) look like a Kubrick movie, and just forget about your nightclub?

September 7, 2010 9:57 AM Posted by John

I went to The Bank a couple of weeks ago and the place was packed to the rafters on a Sunday night.

Also, the spa inside Vdara is probably near a mail room because it was originally designed to be a hotel and condos (duh).

Just saying.

September 7, 2010 10:46 AM Posted by mike_ch

Oh, they'll get people in there one way or another. I was just saying that as far as 'buzz' I heard more from The Bank back when it was called Light, even in it's later years.

September 7, 2010 11:12 AM Posted by MikesLasVegas

Stayed at Aria last week, I was very excited to be there and excited that I got to check in to the room at 11 am! Not often in Vegas that you get to do that. when I got up to the room first thought was this is amazing, second thought why are there finger nails on the carpet, how come the lights in the bath room don’t work (only 1 would turn on) and last how come the door to the toilet doesn’t close. For a hotel that opened in 2009 things should have been better. Things around City Center went much better I noticed two broken windows on Veer and one of the walkway overpasses. I have been going to Vegas since 1993 and it seems to me that when MGM took over Mirage and Mandalay the level of quality automatically went down and City Center just kept that level the same. I will give Aria a second chance in a few weeks when I go back hope things get better…

September 7, 2010 12:08 PM Posted by Chris77

I think that the reality may be that MGM knows and has known for some time that CityCenter would likely sink the company, and possibly all of Las Vegas along with it. By the time they realized that however, construction was already past the point where finishing it, opening it, and operating it (at an expected daily loss) still penciled out to be a slightly slower death for the company than if they just shuttered the site and wrote off the entire cost. And the 1 in a million chance that Vegas recovered could be only be taken advantage of if the property was operating, so they figured opening was, by a hair, the lesser of two evils.

September 7, 2010 1:19 PM Posted by Chooch

The only thing I know about Haze is that Michael Jordan's son Marcus Tweeted that he dropped $35k there a few weekend's ago.

Problem is, Marcus is only 19 years old. Now Haze has the Nevada Gaming Control Borad on it's back.

September 7, 2010 4:05 PM Posted by briguyx

Yes, it seems like there was more heat and promotion for Eve at Crystals than there ever was for Haze. It doesn't seem like MGM has done any special promotions for the location like celebrity hosts or special parties to get the word out. Same with the pool area, lost in the buzz for places like Encore and Wet Republic.

But then I think promotion has been a problem because people that don't follow Vegas that carefully have no idea what City Center is. The promotion was diffused between the various names of CC, Vdara and Aria.

I think we'll know that MGM really plans to fix things when they decide to add a moving walkway to the strip!

September 7, 2010 4:27 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

If Haze is packed on weekend nights and has people dropping $35,000 in one night; it would seem to me that, maybe, they don't have to advertise it much.
If MGM can bust out Dubai World and get their other noteholders to take some of those Harrah's haircuts, I would think they can ride this thing out.
I wonder who has had bigger write downs and debt swaps; MGM with City Center, or Harrah's after privatization?

September 7, 2010 4:31 PM Posted by John

Okay, come on now. There's probably one or two celebrity hosts at Haze every week. Katy fucking Perry was there not too long ago. Come on! Stop saying that people don't follow Vegas that carefully and speak to a subject you yourself have little or not knowledge of.

September 7, 2010 6:44 PM Posted by Gypsy

And what effect, if any, does Katy fucking Perry have on business levels? Nobody goes to clubs to watch celebrities drink (more than once).

September 7, 2010 7:01 PM Posted by Sandyastrogl1de

I think the very core of the problem is that Jim Murren decided to tell the customers what they want instead of listening to what they want. Steve Wynn can do that, because he possesses a modicum of style of his own and also because he surrounds himself with others knowledgeable in the ways of style and customer service. Jim Murren is an accountant surrounded by yes-men.

September 7, 2010 8:50 PM Posted by John

Gypsy dude, I was speaking to the promotional push behind Haze. To which there is oodles.

Hell, I barely see billboards and advertisements for The Bank, but judging by my experience on a Sunday night, I don't see it closing down any day soon. There are still crowds at Jet, Pure, Tao - clubs in Vegas, at least a certain pedigree, aren't going anywhere.

Anyway, eager to read parts two and three.

September 7, 2010 9:56 PM Posted by mike_ch

John, I know Katy Perry appeared at Haze. I asked the guy at the escalator podium whether she was actually going to sing or just stumble around drunk, because one thing I'd pay for and the other I wouldn't. Suffice it to say, I didn't go.

My point perhaps is that back in the heyday of these places, celebs would show up without signage and marketing pitches. LAX started with this kind of stuff for the first few weeks (I seem to remember Britney and Christina both in the same month), and then celebs simply showed up impromptu.

September 7, 2010 10:12 PM Posted by briguyx

I just looked it up. Katy Perry at Haze in January, a ways back. I'm just saying that following Vegas news on the net from here in L.A., I see plenty of club news and red carpet photos from clubs like Pure, LAX and even Studio 54 but never Haze.

I'll also still stick to my theory that people that don't follow Vegas carefully (I'm certainly not talking about people that come to this website and other Vegas blogs, I'm thinking of people that go to Vegas once a year) have no idea what City Center is, unlike say when Wynn did commercials for Wynn and Encore...

September 8, 2010 1:00 AM Posted by John

Mike_ch, quite frankly, I'm surprised you left your downtown stomping grounds to even venture into Aria. I'm also surprised that you'd pay to see her singing or getting drunk, but that's neither here nor there. My point was that there is promotion for Haze, and yes, celebrities go there. If people still go to LAX, that's their problem. Also, if you have a problem for Light Group run club, perhaps it's the Light Group's problem and not MGM's.

Sad fact about Eve is that I have only ever hear about it whenever a celebrity goes in there. Living in Vegas, I have never heard from anyone who isn't a PR person about it. They consistently need to shore up business. Looking at the line and crowds around Haze before the door opens, I think they're doing okay.

Do people not know what CityCenter is? Maybe. Probably even. Then again, I meet locals here that haven't even been inside Wynn Las Vegas, let alone The Palazzo, Encore, or anything in CityCenter. Something tells me if your average American was asked about it, they wouldn't know because they're too busy trying to stay employed at the moment. If this were 2006, something tells me that CityCenter wouldn't have it quite so rough and we'd be talking about how the folks at MGM built in the right place at the right time.

Maybe if they had better odds on Blackjack, or maybe if they had looser slots, maybe if they did $1.99 steak and eggs, or maybe if they Harmonized all of the condo-hotels, maybe if they had a club for passed-it middle-aged folks - maybe, maybe, maybe.

September 8, 2010 5:24 AM Posted by mike_ch


"My downtown stomping grounds"? I go downtown for a discount meal on the occasional evening, but I spent 2006-2008 going to the Strip pretty frequently. I liked Aria and wrote a mostly positive New Years review of it in January.

I even said that I liked Aria simply because I was getting tired of Vegas and Aria was so un-Vegas that it risked damaging itself by daring to be too different. I still don't think the whole post-modern architecture thing is a problem, I think it's credibility problem is based in reviews databases like Yelp and Vegas Mate. There's just been so many customers turned off compared to the other resorts and venting online.

Do you have me confused with another blogger who left the city recently? I'm not that old, I'm not that tall, and I'm not that casually lecherous. I'm the guy who has Aria and Mandarin as his only five-snowflake hotels on his VT profile.

Does Light market the club, or does MGM? Because a lot of what I'm talking about is two things: one, the club seemed kind of an afterthought behind the amount of effort put into condos and dining rooms and suite technology. Two, since opening they haven't really saturated the billboards and magazines with ads for it like you see for the Wynn clubs, the Palms clubs, etc.

I'm not sure whose problems those are.

"If this were 2006, something tells me that CityCenter wouldn't have it quite so rough and we'd be talking about how the folks at MGM built in the right place at the right time."

It's almost like Jim Murren made a conscientious decision to not adjust the product in reflecting changing market conditions.

It's almost like this is a problem. And it's very nearly like cutting service while keeping prices, and running the place with a skeleton crew, will permanently damage their ability to draw ultra high end image they intend to seek out.

"We keep raising prices and cutting service, and we're still not making any money! What could the problem be?"

September 8, 2010 5:34 AM Posted by detroit1051

I'm enjoying all this, but I wish I didn't have to jump back and forth between here and VT to get the whole story. I was going to wait to read Parts II and III before posting, but I can't wait.
It's clear to me that CityCenter will never become a "city center" no matter how hard Murren wants it to be. It is primarily the backdrop for a huge casino resort, Aria. Aria's success is critical to MGM's health, and yet Aria's physical location is not conducive to success on the Vegas Strip. Aria needs to draw average mid-American tourists into the casino, bars and restaurants. The huge setback from the Strip is a deterrent to that. Since I haven't been there, I'm speculating based on photos, but how can Aria better connect with the Strip?
How about tearing down The Harmon and making that northeast corner of CityCenter (next to Cosmo) the grand entrance into Aria and CC? Harmon's rooms will not be needed in Vegas for decades, and the construction defects resulting in The Harmon being cut in half make it a permanent image of failure. Tear it down and create a landscaped park entrance to CityCenter which would appeal to the Strip pedestrian traffic from the LV Blvd-Flamingo 4-corners: Cosmo, Bellagio, Paris-Bally's, Caesars, etc.
Photos make me think a corner of Crystals is currently in the way of direct access into Aria, but that corner of Crystals could be reworked, better integrating The Crystals and Aria into one entity.
Why are Bellagio and Wynn/Encore so appealing to pedestrian traffic? Because of the warmth and softness of landscaping and water. It may not be desert-like, but it's what appeals to most visitors. Murren may have wanted CityCenter to be an enclave unto itself, but it ain't workin'! Turn Harmon's site into the new main entrance into CityCenter with moving walkways The current "Park Avenue-wide" entrance doesn't do it.
There! I've solved Murren's problems. :)

September 8, 2010 6:06 AM Posted by mike_ch

Detroit, I'm not entirely sure the problems are location based. Encore is really, really tough to get to, requiring you to go through some really odd and out of the way corners of Wynn (think of where the Monorail bus used to pick up in the old 2005-2006 days, past the doors to Le Reve) and most people step out of the Wynn shopping arcade having crossed a bridge from the mall or Palazzo (or a second from TI) with tired legs and a nagging wish to sit down. Yet for as much as I don't care for it, Encore has always done good business with one sacrifice (low room rates) or another (parygoer crowd.)

Sure, movators (moving platforms) through the Crystals would help. In fact, Crystals itself has numerous accessability problems. These range from dead-ends to nowhere, such as where they recently put up a graffiti commission though supposedly this space was intentionally left blank due to a lack of tenants. Crystals is also a real stretch for ADA compatibility: only the side of the tram platform opposite Aria has elevator access, the other half is escalator only and is off-limits to someone in a wheelchair. At the heart of the mall around Puck's restaurants is more escalators and stairs.

From an endurance and disability standpoint, I could go on about Crystals for a while. But Encore has proven if the word of mouth gets out, people will make the walk. The path over the strip from PH is pretty direct (though you have to tour around the rock gardens and barricaded walls of Harmon to enter) and I suspect Cosmo will do more to raise Aria's boat than to sink it.

I think step one is better signage, ESPECIALLY inside Crystals but property-wide. Step two is to make Crystals more appealing to a wider-ranged crowd than they have now so that that Modest Means and Leisure Buffs can find reason to be there, not just Mature Wealth and Boomer Barons. After all, they're about as rare as a unicorn right now.

The only other suggestion I might have is to consider who wants to live next to a casino. I know a nice old lady of pretty wealthy means who lives smack dab next to Red Rock, and she walks over all the time. That's the kind of person the condo sales people wish they would have, but she would prefer Red Rock over Aria because they have a Bingo room. I know that might make people laugh, but the kind of people who want to have a home or a second home in the setting they've built, they usually don't play the same games as tourists do.

September 8, 2010 7:44 AM Posted by mike_ch

I just read part II.

It's interesting how so many years on, with much exotic competition that spends so much money just making a statement, Bellagio is still the place to beat on the Strip. There just isn't any stopping that place, and it's almost a license to print money. The only downfall is that the owner put up such a tab that they have to keep the presses running for some time.

I believed before, and I still believe that a certain amount of sacrifice was going to have to be made at Bellagio to "cheapen it" and steer luxury seekers to CityCenter. What's talked about is more or less the same strategy but they're doing it to CityCenter.

I mean, I frequent the lunch buffets mid-strip, and I know after Chuck's news yesterday I'll give the Aria buffet one more try to see what they offer and don't at lunch and based on what's there I might take that money to Bellagio in the future instead.

The JV point, though, was something I didn't anticipate. I knew they'd have to do a scorched earth strategy on Bellagio and move it down to a four-star property to put all their eggs in Aria, but at Aria they only make 50% of the goose's gold, and they make 100% at Bellagio.

Now I have to wonder if there's a scorched earth policy going on at CityCenter to eventually buy out the Dubai industry. It's a really risky move, because even if you get total control of the thing you will have done so by turning off customers and devaluing it's brand equity.

September 8, 2010 8:51 AM Posted by Javi

With the model they currently have, Condo sales do seem to be integral to CityCenter's success. However, when CC was still in its construction phase, they couldn't predict how bad the house bubble would burst. And now, sale prices for these condos are but a fraction of the amount MGM would like to have sold for. I'll go out on a limb and say that most of these condos that have been sold before the bubble were for those people who would not use CC as a primary residence.

In order for the condo sales to recover @ CC, the Las Vegas housing market in general has to recover, which is something that is simply beyond MGM's control.

As an alternative, you can sell some of the condos at Manadrin Oriental and Vdara as hotel suites until the market recovers, then turn around, do a little renovation, and try to sell them again.

September 8, 2010 9:34 AM Posted by erzeszut

I have to disagree with Mike, and say that I believe a large amount of CityCenter's problems ARE location-based.

Murren stubbornly stuck to his belief that the casino was the least important part of the project, and so he stuck it at the back of the property. To a pedestrian walking on the Strip, it's not at all clear where the casino is, or how to get to it. The complex looks intimidating and unfriendly from street level.

I know of a few people who visited Vegas, stepped inside the Strip-front Crystals entrance, said "Oh, a fancy mall, this isn't for me" and turned around and left without getting anywhere CLOSE to Aria.

In this economy, high-end shopping isn't going to draw in a lot of foot traffic. And really, I think that was unrealistic, regardless of current conditions. Do the people shopping at Versace, or Prada, arrive on FOOT, walking the Strip with the porn-slappers and the drunk douchebags carrying plastic guitars full of Michelob? Maybe they do.

But it seems more likely to me that they arrive by car, by cab, by limo. And in that case, why are you wasting your Strip-front property on high-end retail? Wouldn't it have made more sense to bring the casino right to the Strip, to catch the casual passers-by?

It seems that Cosmopolitan has learned from CC's mistake, and has redesigned their Strip-front space, bringing their casino closer to the front. A wise move.

I stayed at Aria in January. I liked the rooms, had no technical issues, and didn't see the unfriendliness of the staff. It was a very pleasant stay.

Yet, on two visits since then, I haven't stepped foot back inside Aria, or on the CC grounds at all. Why? Almost entirely because it's a pain in the ass to get in and out of.

Mike's point about Encore also being a PITA to get to is well-made. But I don't know how many people "wander" into Encore without having a specific destination in mind, or without already being Wynncore guests. I would guess that Encore doesn't get too many "casual" Strip-walkers.

September 8, 2010 9:35 AM Posted by Javi

Celebrity Chefs:
I have read somewhere (sorry, can't remember) that people are starting to notice that the same ole chefs (Robuchon, Batali, et al.) are just opening new restaurants that don't deviate too much from their namesake's formulas. I mean c'mon: how many Wolfgang Puck restaurants do we need? What they need to do is to try to infuse some new flavor and use local or unknown chefs (like Cosmo) and take a risk. Although, I do think that Jean-Phillipe Patisserie is expertly placed within the main casino area and does well.

Retail: Ugh, Crystals. Personally, I think it's the biggest problem that CityCenter could have. The high end stores I don't mind. It's just the layout of the place that really gets to me. If you're there for the first time, you're very likely to get lost or lose sense of direction. For example, Wynn gets it right: From Sands Blvd, you enter from the south, there is a straight walkway with stores abound, but there is no deviation from the path in order to get to the casino. Oh, not so with Crystals! There is a lot of foot traffic on this side of the strip - CC needs Crystals to become more inviting for those pedestrians.

My recommendations for Crystals:
A.) Have better access to the tram from Las Vegas Blvd. It's bad enough to where you have walk west towards the casino, THEN back east to get to the tram.

B.) Complete the paths on the second level. If you look at the property map of Crystals, the only way to get to Aria is to be on the second level. (Map: If you get on the escalators closest to LV Blvd, then you have to go around. There needs to be a pathway on either side of property #241 imo to have better traffic control.

C.) More or better signs! If the eventual destination is to get to Aria, then better signage to from Las Vegas Blvd. is needed. Some of the issues relate to point B, but it's all the same.

D.) Add a fourth tram stop at Aria. I know this might not be doable, but c'mon. Why build a tram if one of them isn't going to directly stop at Aria?

E.) Add more middle tier stores. It would help fill up occupancy, and it would help lessen the stigma of elitism that high end stores tend to carry.

September 8, 2010 10:01 AM Posted by mike_ch

erzeszut, walk-ins being greeted with high-end shopping has done nothing to stop the success of Bellagio or Wynn, both of whom have bi-directional, not very wide pathways to traverse down before you even meet a slot machine.

Why is it people will walk past high end shoe stores and more than one Rolex outlet at Wynn, but turn away upon walking into Crystals?

It's not that the casino is too many steps away, it's that the directions are not too clear.

September 8, 2010 10:15 AM Posted by hail2skins

Wish they would've done a better job thinking about pedestrians walking from Bellagio to Aria as well. I went through the spa tower and the corridor down to the Vdara entrance was stark and sterile as hell. And then you exit Vdara and have this "traffic circle" area to navigate to get to Aria's rear entrance. All so unappealing, and I agree with Detroit's point about that aspect as compared to Bellagio and Wynn. I long had a similar complaint about Mandalay Bay.

September 8, 2010 11:10 AM Posted by detroit1051

The comment about high rollers winning at Aria and then losing it back at other MGM properties is fascinating. With Dubai World's financial position, they'll keep a close eye on this. They can't permit MGM to steer big players to other properties, but how can they control it or investigate to see if MGM is really doing the steering? The entire MGM / DW issue may be The Big Story in the coming year.
A Tesla retailer would add to the image of Crystals. With most prospective customers coming from Southern California and with a third(?) of Vegas customers also coming from there, sounds like a smart move. Justified or not, Tesla generates buzz.
I don't see how a grocery store would work. Whole Foods or any similar store wouldn't generate a profit without all the originally planned condos sold and occupied. Tourists get their sundries at CVS or Walgreens, and besides, they don't buy arugula while vacationing.

September 8, 2010 8:36 PM Posted by DavidF

I stayed at the MO over this past summer, on the basis that at the (right after EBC Opening) that Wynncore was going to be Dbag central, that the SkySuites (my first choice) were getting Poor Reviews, and the MO was getting very good ones.

Given the rep that the MO brand has for service, I came away thinking it was good, but not great. Front Desk and Housekeeping left a lot to be desired, it was only the service elsewhere, particularly the pool area – the best in LV right now, if you want a peaceful respite from the typical scene, that would convince me to give it another go. Having said that as MGM version of the Tower Suites, it fails, I know its role is to be an exclusive seclusion, but it it has no easy way to get to Aria, I would say its easier to get to Monte Carlo.

As for the rest of CC, Don't get me wrong, especially have been given the tour, you can see no expense was spared, but from the very start I have wondered what the appeal was of a Office Park Themed casino (I still wonder what happened to the Wernham Hogg Ultralounge). Aria has to the worst on the strip for Pedestrian access. I am wondering how far back it is compared to Bellagio – at least with the latter you have to option of a covered walkway and/or the lake to look at on your way in.

One of the things that bemuses me about Veer is that they have the lights on in Empty Apartments, to give the illusion of occupancy. I understand why, to have it in total darkness would be sad, but its hardly in tune with the Leed certification, especially as they keep then on during the day.

As for the Crystals, I am surprised with the Numbers funnily enough I can see a High End Grocery store working, not necessarily a full blown store, but an Express/Mini version, there isn't anything else like it on the Strip. As for an Apple Store, isn't it a requirement to lease space in the Crystals that the Store be a “Flagship”. I can see that being a problem, although maybe now MGM is not so picky.

Wonder what Leonard thinks of all of this, I miss his contributions (I can't believe I just wrote that!!)

Katy Fucking Perry - not many people know that is her full name..........

September 9, 2010 7:27 AM Posted by BigHoss

The key: "... extending the current maturities, many of which should be coming due sometime in 2012. I'd imagine the viability of the enterprise relies on being able to roll those forward past their current dates."

The tragic flaw: "... the amount of ego invested, ..."

It's amazing the project made it this far. Thanks for your fascinating work.

September 9, 2010 7:54 AM Posted by parchedearth

While some of the recent changes at Aria are small steps in the right direction (i.e. increased casino lighting), alot more needs to be done. The changes/upgrades at MC make absolutely no sense to me (e.g. Minus5, the new Pub same as the old Pub). Nothing has been done at Vdara and Mr. Chow's will suffer the same fate as Silk Road. Two of the minor successes at Crystals were the PUB and Beso, and as a result they went ahead and opened Mastro's and Social House which sit empty most of the time. It is abundantly clear that MGM and specifically Murren have no idea how to run a casino property and what will work in appealing to the customer base. I suggest that MGM hire a casino expert to advise them on what works at their properties.

September 9, 2010 8:17 AM Posted by jinx

Very nice piece Hunter, some interesting insights. I do wonder how well some of those Crystal sales numbers are bumped up due to big wins by some of the players too, but those spending that kind of money likely do regardless.

By far the biggest crime in my opinion is being so accessibility unfriendly. I understand the concept was to have condo owners as a majority of the base, but when you build X number of restaurants and lounges you have to realize that tenants alone (especially part time ones) won't be able to fill all of them nightly.

On Haze, I've heard some buzz on the ground at night when I've been on the strip about it, from times I've walked by it, it seems to do fairly nice business. It definitely seems to be going for a Bank vibe. A bit more exclusive and high end, a place people know rather then have to market for it. Eve seems to have no buzz for nightlife that I've seen, but I wouldn't expect the same buzz for it, traditionally mall clubs have a bit of a different clientele in Las Vegas, and their marketing seems to approach it in that manner.

When I visited Crystals it reminded me of a sterile Forum Shops, I got 20 steps in and turned around and left. Between the high end that I have no interest in window shopping and 'knowing' that it would be a logistical nightmare like the Forum shops from what I could see once inside, I just didn't want to deal with trying to get out, already having that fleeing feeling as I stepped through.

I don't know how they fix the accessibility, it's one thing to make it easier, which I hope they do look at, it would be another thing to bring it any warmth, which I'm not sure they can do based on location and such. I also don't see them changing that or expecting too, from all the speculation and insights, I think while they are concerned, the mantra is still to increase occupancy and sell condos and all will be well. i'm not so sure that will be the case, the place absolutely needs foot traffic, and until a new regime is in place that understands it and puts it as a priority I think we are going to be stuck with the monstrosity of maze at the front of the property.

September 9, 2010 11:45 AM Posted by SandyAstrogl1de

I made the journey through Crystals to Aria one time, and I'll never do it again. There are just too many other casinos that are so much more accessible. I shouldn't have to try this hard to give you my money. The architecture certainly doesn't serve as a compelling reason to re-enact the Bataan Death March to get there. I saw Robocop, I didn't look at the buildings and say "Damn, that would make a damn fine casino!! Now make me walk through an empty shopping mall to get there!!". Gee, maybe if they had gone with a giant bottle of Wite-Out instead of the giant typewriter eraser, they could at least get some kind of corporate sponsorship.

September 9, 2010 2:03 PM Posted by ZB

Fascinating stuff here -- a great read!

Out of curiosity, where did you get projected occupancies for the 4th quarter & December at Aria? Has that been mentioned publically somewhere by one of the execs, or is that also inside info (like several other pieces of this series)? Just wondering how reputable that figure really is...

September 9, 2010 2:06 PM Posted by Hunter

It's not (previously) public but it is the MGM internal projection as of a couple weeks ago.

September 9, 2010 2:07 PM Posted by socalduck

Fascinating stuff, Hunter. I was shocked to hear they actually considered closing MO. I agree that doing so would be a huge black eye to CC, and in the end would probably not save much money. The fact they even thought about it is amazing, though. It really gives you a sense of how difficult things are right now.

With the volume of rooms Aria/CC has to fill, plus all the dining and retail outlets, the focus has to be on generating meeting and convention business. Casino traffic alone is not going to carry the load.

It will be interesting to follow the premium play at Aria. While it is possible that MGM management may be trying to divert play back into their wholly-owned hotels, I highly doubt this. My guess is that some players have tried Aria, but have drifted back to Bellagio, MGM, or wherever they came for personal reasons, e.g., host relationship, amenities, etc. Each of these properties is expected to compete with one another, so I would expect a host at Bellagio or The Mirage to work as hard as he can to protect his players, be it from Wynn, Sheldon, or Aria.

September 9, 2010 2:52 PM Posted by Mike P.

"Aria's physical location is not conducive to success on the Vegas Strip. Aria needs to draw average mid-American tourists into the casino, bars and restaurants. The huge setback from the Strip is a deterrent to that."

@detroit: I did some rough measurements in Google Earth. The shortest straight line distance from Bellagio's porte cochere to the middle of the LV Blvd. sidewalk is about 710 feet. Aria's porte cochere (if I identified it correctly from the aerial view) is about 750 ft away from the sidewalk as the crow flies.

Walking from the PH crosswalk up the surface level sidewalk to Bellagio's main entrance is about 850-900 feet. It looks like the walk up the sidewalk along the Mandarin to the nearest Aria entrance is about the same distance or a little shorter.

So, a lot of the perception that Aria is set way back from the strip is because there are other buildings in front of it instead of, say, a beautiful lake with fountains.

The things that hinder pedestrian access are (a) the pedestrian "realm" along the strip is a disaster. I think I compared it once to the Aladdin before the PH makeover: that was much too generous. And (b), as others have said Crystals has a confusing layout and doesn't dump you directly into the casino the way the via Bellagio shops or Wynn's Esplanade do. The lack of stores and pedestrian traffic are off-putting too. Even when (if) it's fully leased out a lot of people will still no doubt hate the design of the place, but at least you won't feel like you've wandered into zombieland.

Nice job, Hunter.

September 9, 2010 4:01 PM Posted by Jeff Simpson

Good read and some a lot of eye-opening material. To me, the consideration of closing Mandarin Oriental was the biggest shocker. MGM Resorts knows the solution to occupancy problems is to be more aggressive on rates and advertise and market more effectively; surprising they don't have more of an influence on hotel manager MO.
Winners at Aria's casino later losing at Bellagio and other MGM wholly owned casinos is not a surprise; temptation to take big play (and big players with an extra six- or seven-figures burning holes in their pockets) is tough to resist.
I have always been skeptical of joint ventures where the property competes against wholly owned casinos owned by the managing partner of the JV.

September 9, 2010 5:17 PM Posted by detroit1051

Mike P, thanks for the perspective on distances. The lake and fountains at Bellagio do make a world of difference. I'm repeating myself, but the sooner MGM demolishes The Harmon and puts in an attractive park or landscaped entry in its place, the better.

September 9, 2010 11:36 PM Posted by Chris from Santa Cruz

I would be very sad to lose MO from CC. In my mind, there are only three places that are upscale enough for me to take my family: MO, FS, and Wynn Towers. Losing one two of the best non-gaming hotels would just give me a sad.

September 10, 2010 1:32 AM Posted by Professor Yaffle

Interesting read, thanks.

To me, the design of the whole complex is way beyond questionable:
- casino set way back beyond a concrete jungle and freeway with no way of enticing people in
- a tram that doesnt stop at the casino!
- no set piece attraction
- the usual fancy mall on the front end, but it doesnt lead you into the casino

I have ridden the tram once, spent 5 minutes in the Aria casino and been ripped off in the MO bar, and will never be back - the enclave of the Wynnn TS is just too nice to leave. To be honest, would stay at THEHotel or a host of other places before considering Aria.

It really saddens me that they had this fantastic space, a blank canvas and a shit load of cash to spend, and this is what they come up with.

September 10, 2010 2:54 AM Posted by briguyx

One reason occupancy at Aria went up could have been the great summer promotion card they sent out, which had $ 100 rooms and included $ 75 casino cash back for amenities. Hard to turn down a deal like that. We'll see if they keep those kinds of deals going in the (hopefully) busier winter season.

I was in Dubai a year ago and saw how many new buildings were incomplete around the city. While I don't know how many projects Dubai World was involved in, it looked like City Center would be a drop in the bucket compared to the skyscraper inventory there. Of course, nobody likes to lose money...

September 10, 2010 12:04 PM Posted by mike_ch

The real problem people bring up over and over here seems to be The Harmon. The place takes up a valuable place of real estate as the pointman for strip traffic coming from Cosmo and also Bellagio. At this point i think the best option is to demolish it and turn it into a sort of park-like space leading up to the current pocket park, perhaps the Crystals can be re-modeled a bit so that some storefronts face these outdoors as well as the indoors and can go for more.

If they considered shutting down Mandarin, I don't know if ego is really so swollen that it is an obstacle at this rate. The only thing Murren seems tied to is this idea of many different buildings existing on the same plot (and I guess tied together with a tram, though I think it does that poorly) and Harmon is one less building in the "cluster," but it really does seem to be a lost cause.

Time to increase funding for the Bellagio horticulturalists and start working on an outdoor space that is more park than conservatory but ideally has some level of shade and rotating things to look at. Make it a space where you can really impress people around the holidays.

As for the Light Group, would it be too much for them to take THEhotel? The entire ground floor isn't much of what it used to be from the Schaeffer days now that THEcafe and other spaces are rarely open or used. The only sticking point might be getting rid of MIX, since it's owned by a third-party management group.

September 10, 2010 12:22 PM Posted by Mark

Looks to me like walking from the corner of LVB and Flamingo through the shops at Bellagio to the start of the casino is about 500 feet. Whereas walking from LVB on the sidewalk straight into Aria is about 900 feet to the start of the casino, and even further through Crystals.

September 11, 2010 1:29 AM Posted by Kevin Boran

You did an excellant job with this review by covering City Center from a variety of perspectives. I learned a lot from your work. I must say I believe CC is a massive dissapointment in every way. The only thing that was done correctly in the planning was that Lanni listened to consultants and decreased the condo units in lieu of more hotel rooms.What was done wrong was an arrogant plan to not honor Las Vegas with a development in LV- it is exhausting to walk to the aria Casino. The casino itself has no unique personality.Crystals holds no allure for the common man (even a rich one) to stroll ala the forum shops.Navigating from one part of CC (MO) to another(Aria) is mor etrouble than it is worth etc. When Bellagio opened it was fun to visit, same for Palllazo, Wynn,Encore. Not so here- it simply is not fun to visit in a Las Vegas sort of way. I believe it will wither. They are cutting room rates drastically to achieve occupancy-people that stay now for these low rates are unlikely to return for higher rates later. The other hotels are discounting rates but have a history of higher rates they may be able to return to, but Aria has no such history.
Personally I would appreciate periodic updates to this story every six to twelve months. Thanks for your ongoing superb work.

September 11, 2010 1:04 PM Posted by Misnomer

About 3 weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance who happened to be on the same flight to Vegas. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked where she was staying. She told me she would be at Aria for an eight day conference. Knowing this woman to be a workaholic, it did not surprise me that she was going to Vegas on business. She asked where I was staying, and when I told her Encore, she'd never heard of it.

That chance meeting brought to life some suspicions that I was already having; namely, that City Center, with its non-gaming hotels, its dull casino, its airport hotel architecture, its collection of unremarkable corporate art - City Center is best suited for people who really don't want to be in Las Vegas at all.

September 11, 2010 1:36 PM Posted by Eric

Misnomer, great observation. CC does seem to be designed for people who would rather be somewhere else.

And, to that point -- it seems like it was designed BY a man who would rather be somewhere else. Jim Murren seems to disdain the casino business, freely admits (and even brags) that he hasn't set foot inside Wynncore, Venetian/Palazzo, etc.

When I stayed at Aria back in January, I liked the room, the decor, had no service problems. I wrote in a review online that "in any other city in the world, I would have been thrilled to stay in a hotel like Aria."

In Vegas, I was underwhelmed. Because it simply doesn't feel like Vegas.

September 11, 2010 1:48 PM Posted by Eric

I think getting rid of the Harmon and using that space as a better entry point to the CC complex is a great idea. But would MGM really commit the time and money to do that at this point?

Don't know if Harmon could be imploded -- its proximity to Veer, Cosmo, and the Strip itself might preclude that. If it has to be "manually" demolished, you're talking about a year or more, probably. And the construction traffic/detritus involved with that isn't going to make CC look very nice in the short run.

They aren't making any money off Harmon right now; but other than some minor energy/security costs, they really aren't LOSING any money either. I suspect MGM will be extremely cautious right now, and Harmon will remain the Strip's largest billboard for quite a while.

I'd love to be wrong, though. That corner could make an ideal new entryway.

September 11, 2010 8:25 PM Posted by parchedearth

A number of people have proposed demolishing the Harmon stump, but I can't see how this is going to make economic sense. Although some view the truncated building as an eyesore, I don't think most tourists are even going to notice the difference. The building is almost complete and to start over would only double the mistake. Because the eliminated portion was condos and the hotel portion is complete, I don't see why it couldn't eventually operate successfully for years to come. Assuming all the debt is written-off and expectations/rates are lowered, there is no reason a new on-strip non-gaming hotel couldn't operate profitably over the long term. Obviously it loses some of the potential it once had, but honestly i'm not sure how much an extra 25 condo floors were really going to add to the cash flow. The condo floors were a way to pay for the building and if that is already written-off then their purpose has been taken care of.

September 11, 2010 9:14 PM Posted by sbpewsaw

great series Hunter! I've stayed at Aria the last few times I've been to Vegas and couldn't agree more with the rest of the comments. With regards to Crystals, I'm really surprised that place is in the black. I tried taking a group of my friends for a walk through there, but many found the space empty and uninviting. It's definitely not as fun as taking a stroll through the Forum Shoppes, the Grand Canal Shoppes or even Miracle Mile.

Aria has really nice rooms, and i've stayed at the Sky Suites while they were lax on the free booze (only reason id stay their again). the Sky Suites lobby and lounge area look very cheap to me. Definitely not as posh as its Wynn and Encore Tower Suites equivalents.

Walking from Vdara to Aria on a hot summers day is like sticking your body into a microwave. The reflecting glass from the buildings literally cooks you. I think if Murren really wanted to create an urban environment, they should set up some more restaurants/shops on the outside of CityCenter, especially towards the main walkway from the strip. At least this will create a streetscape that is more inviting to people passing by.

September 12, 2010 11:36 AM Posted by Jeff in OKC

Great feature, Hunter. I can only imagine the hours you poured into this project. Thank you.
City Center reminds me of Gwyneth Paltrow in this manner; I acknowledge the beauty and talent, but I have no attraction.
However, I think MGM is getting a bum rap. This is the biggest project in American history. Isn't it something like 5 times larger than anything ever done in Las Vegas? There are going to be more glitches and more flat out failures than ever seen in Las Vegas, yet the overall ratio of success to failure could be what is usually seen on the Strip.
Viva Elvis, although far from perfect, appears to be performing profitably and should do so for years to come. Stability that Wynn or Palazzo haven't achieved, IMO.
Crystals might not do much for us, but I have to think it's doing better than the shopping at Palazzo, which generates zero buzz.
I don't have any first hand knowledge of the night club scene, but I have to figure any place that can get a 19 year old to drop $35 grand there one night is doing something right (and wrong). Although Wynn has been the best at nightlife/daylife lately, the departure of Victor Drai and Cy Waits, among others, should put that dominance in doubt. I would argue that the stability of the MGM-Light Group partnership has made it the best in Las Vegas.
I think dining is such a volatile, subjective business that I have a hard time measuring success. I've been in a lot of places I thought were busy and they closed the next month, and I've been in almost empty places that have stayed open for years. I am pretty sure that Palazzo is having more problems maintaining successful restaurants than CityCenter.
I would much rather have the issue of the Harmon to deal with than that other blue glass monstrosity (Fountainebleau), or the Echelon skeleton, or the billion dollar tree farm that was the Frontier. I think it will be used much sooner than anything else on the Strip, however it is configured.
CityCenter has been open less than a year and I think a complex this big will take a few years to be more fully understood by both the visitors and operators. Time will make us all less traumatized by the size and distances and more focused on nuance and individual areas.
I think the economy is making it much harder for MGM to make changes to the property as quickly as we might have seen in the past. It seems like major changes were being made to Wynn or MGM Grand in as little as six months after they opened. I would think that the times are forcing MGM to ride along with more marginal performers than they might in the past. I think some aspects of travel around the area will change after Cosmopolitan opens and it would be wise for MGM to wait until 2012 to look at layout changes.
I don't miss the Boardwalk and whatever else that was there before. I think CityCenter is built to last over 100 years, by some pretty serious gamblers. How it works after a year is an acceptable measurement, but I think it'll take 5 years to begin to clearly understand its flow and impact.

September 13, 2010 12:58 AM Posted by mike_ch

Wasn't what Misnomer and Eric are hitting on the point of CityCenter marketing though?

The whole message the whole way up was that there was a market of elite travelers who saw Vegas a tacky, kitschy tourist trap. The kind of people who read The Robb Report seriously and wouldn't acknowledge being a fan of a website with something like "Tripping" or "Cheapo" in it's name. CC was for them.

I honestly don't think this is a problem. From what Hunter is saying, the Aria casino and hotel businesses, the most traditional elements that are largely ignored, are doing pretty good business. if Aria is sometimes reaching close to Bellagio take, I think that's pretty good for a casino that does not advertise itself to the street the way that Bellagio does, and isn't the easiest to reach.

The stuff that isn't making money at Aria is the "un-Vegas" stuff, the things that are not for the traditional gamble-seeking tourist. These things are what make it unique and set it apart, and the reason they aren't working is because national consumerism is near dead right now. Granted, even when the economy was hot I thought MGM was asking too much to live in CityCenter, but my point is this ignorance/disdain for casinos in CC's design isn't actually harming the casino.

Considering that from the outside Aria appears to be waged at war with Bellagio for casino clientele, the casino is apparently performing at acceptable levels. The occupancy is good even if the rates aren't what they expected, but it's probably not losing money.

What is shocking them is that there's no economy for $25,000 designer belt buckles at the Crystals, and they aren't used to Mandarin's quality demands and the stress of that on their cutback-heavy budget. Wynn could probably handle a Mandarin-sized budget for a hotel, but he doesn't have 10-15 year old rooms in some of his biggest hotels (MGM Grand, Luxor).

It may be time to let go of the dream of the Strip monopoly soon and sell another property (Mirage?) to subsidize CC's operating costs, because it would simultaneously hold up quality at CC and remove some of MGM's problems of having so many hotel rooms and only so much cash to maintain them all. But the dream of dominating the entire Strip and eliminating a lot of competition was largely Lanni's dream, not Murren's. CC's problem is that Bellagio is still a tough nut to crack and the company has too few resources for too much property.

I think the best thing that should be done short-term is to turn Vdara into a summer/winter seasonal property, since those are the times that non-gaming revenue is at it's highest. Have it open during the summer for the pool season. Have it open for the holidays tourism streak when foreign visitors come at Christmastime through the massive visitor crush at New Years.

The problem is, because of staffing/hiring/union issues, that might not be possible.

September 13, 2010 1:06 AM Posted by mike_ch

Also, I hate to once again throw on my mouse ears, but there's a few funny parallels between CityCenter and Epcot. Both were the most expensive private development in history at the time of their construction, both were marketed at a "different audience" than the people who were going to the area before it's opening, and both needed heavy tweaks that were a combination of optimizing the property and making a few concessions to traditional customers. (There used to be a time you couldn't find Mickey at EPCOT, which changed after many complaints.)

I'm pretty sure CC will find it's niche in much the same way as EPCOT does today, where it's popular with fans because it has the most amount of activities not available in California/Paris/etc. There isn't anything really like CC in any other gambling destination. Not even in Macao.

September 13, 2010 4:59 PM Posted by BeeeJay

great three-part series.

Aria has been incredibly aggressive and going very far down their list with outstanding offers. They have applied this approach very inconsistently and at the last minute in my case. I've gone from no online offers and best of casino rate on call ins, to a 10-day lead time mailer offering comped sky suite with some food, beverage, tix to Viva Elvis and $1,000 in promo chips. After buring thru that trip they sent another I'm using for a 5-nighter with basically nothing out of pocket the weekend of 10/7-10/12 which is very expensive elsewhere. I know now I'm getting the shiny circus circus, but I'm a slots-a-fun kinda guy so i don't mind. thanks for all your work and the other podccasters keeping my train rides sane!

September 13, 2010 5:06 PM Posted by DLO

It's the location, the casino, the restaurants, the clubs, and the size that's bringing ARIA/CITY CENTER down. Our last trip to Vegas in May we didn't even stop by ARIA or City Center...and there are a lot of vegas visitors making the same choice. The North STRIP just seems so much more attractive to us right now. But we have been asking the question of why. Why can't ARIA make it's casino floor more appealing? It's just not a fun place to play. Why are the slots so boring? Where are the WOF and other gimmicky games that make slots fun? Where are the casual restaurants? Customers don't want a cafe that charges you $20 for pancakes...they want a Grand Luxe type place. A mid-range restaurant or two would also be nice (a crappy bar/restaurant connected to the sports book does not count - unless you can make it as good as a zoozacrackers). Speaking of restaurants, why are so many of the decent ARIA restaurants on the 2nd level where nobody goes to find them? Where is the buzz about the ARIA bars and clubs? Who wants to go to a club with a bland entrance that never draws a celebrity host (yes...the celeb hosts are effective at creating buzz...even the crappy Jersey Shore cast). XS, Trsyt, Tao, Lavo, PURE, and even EVE get it...follow the model! Why can't they figure out the accessibility issue? Tourists are lazy. City Center is huge. It takes a long time to get anywhere. Moving walkways and clearly marked entrances can't be that expensive. How about the sterile feel you get walking through the Crystals? It's feels lifeless. Speaking of lifeless...what's up with Vdara? Why couldn't they figure out that connecting it to ARIA and/or BELLAGIO would have been so much better? Would an above ground moving walkway really have been that difficult? Instead, customers get to walk by smelly garbage bins when heading to Bellagio! People can say what they want about Wynn and Adelson, but in my mind they both get it. They understand what makes a hotel/casino successful and figure out how to fix things when they aren't working! Don't get me friends and I are rooting for City Center. We want it to improve! But, untill it does we're happy to give our business to the North STRIP.

September 13, 2010 5:09 PM Posted by Mike P.

Mike, the most recent media report I've seen claimed that CC managed to find around 100 suckers buyers to close on condo-hotel units at Vdara. That would seem to limit their options for creative thinking about what to do with the property.

I still think continuing to develop Vdara as a condo-hotel property when it should have been clear by early-mid 2008 that the concept was dead was one of, if not the, biggest unforced errors they made pre-opening.

Now they're stuck with a hotel with too many rooms, not enough amenities, and at least 101 owners none of whom are likely to be thrilled with their investment at the moment.

September 13, 2010 6:12 PM Posted by Mike P.

Oh yeah, one more thing. I noticed today that Cosmo has a south entrance with a sign over it that says "Bridge to CityCenter", and an entrance at the level of the Harmon pedestrian overpass with a sign saying "Escalators to Bellagio." Looks like they've noticed the CC access issues and are ready to reel in some pedestrian traffic. Smart move.

I guess my attempt to use some html code to insert some gratuitous snark into my last post didn't quite work. Oh well.

September 17, 2010 8:26 AM Posted by jinx

mike_ch love the comparison to Epcot, I completely agree with the analogy, the only thing I'm currently concerned about though, is I don't think MGM gets it yet. The spaces are there, it's just going to require a philosophy change on MGM's part and I'm not sure they are looking at it the same way yet. There's a chance too that even if they change, it still could struggle due to the competition. At least with Epcot at the time, there wasn't any real competition in the area. I wonder if the makeover would have been so successful it Universal's 3 parks were up and competing at the time.