February 2015

On the Scene: Diversity in the Vegas Desert

by Jeff Heilman

Each time I’ve visited Las Vegas over the past four decades, I arrive excited to discover what’s new, changed or different in this constantly evolving destination. In that regard, my latest experience, a four-day immersion last October, was the most rewarding by far.

Why? To stand out and succeed in today’s hyper-competitive group and leisure market, destinations must meet ever-rising customer expectations while consistently delivering high-quality, differentiated products and services. With its legendary brand to uphold, that onus rests especially heavy on Las Vegas, where being the best and exceeding expectations are merely table stakes. Differing from my eye-opening inaugural visit in 1986, my last visit, in 2004, was less satisfying. The experiences and energy were there, but the vibe was not, as if the city was still adjusting to its mega-resort personality.

What a difference a decade makes. Vegas today positively flows along, with an invigorated air of anticipation and adventure. From Cirque du Soleil to five-star dining rooms all over town, the choreography is stellar. The city’s past, present and future are finally in harmony. From revitalized downtown to a host of off-Strip options, Vegas is the sum of many different but cohesive moving parts. I’d call it “Vegas your way,” which equals a strong buy for planners and groups.

Exemplifying the new-look Vegas was my first hotel, MGM Resorts International’s 1,117-suite Delano Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. Formerly THEHotel, the boutique was relaunched last September for upscale business and leisure travelers. Features include 31 meeting spaces, including the cozy Delano Living Room, and the Bathhouse Spa, where I enjoyed the massage of a lifetime. The top floor is home to the acclaimed miX Restaurant and Lounge (see “Night Moves” sidebar, page w28).

I also overnighted at another MGM business-centric property, the sleek 1,495-suite Vdara Hotel & Spa at CityCenter. Overlooking the heart of the Strip, Bellagio Fountains included, my 39th-floor perch was luxury defined. The hotel offers more than 16,500 square feet of ground-level conference space, plus personalized city-wide planning services for small groups.

My activities were as entertaining as they were diverse. Dinner-show pairings included Jean Georges Steakhouse followed by Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana at ARIA Resort & Casino; and Andrea’s with Le Reve —The Dream at Encore at Wynn Las Vegas.

Artfully choreographed, both dining experiences were enhanced by lively interactions with the chefs, sommeliers and servers. That personal touch is one reason I am so jazzed on Vegas today—like expert curators and ambassadors, the city’s hospitality frontliners make you feel special and part of the show.

It was the same story during my other F&B; experiences, unique concepts united by that winning ingredient of personal engagement. All Vegas hospitality leaders, it seems, follow the same playbook, from the communal conviviality of downtown’s Carson Kitchen, to GIADA, celebrity chef’s Giada De Laurentiis’ gorgeous debut restaurant at The Cromwell, to Spanish-American star chef Jose Andres’ giddy Bazaar Meat at the new SLS Las Vegas.

Immersive and enchanting, too, was the entertainment. From the clowns flying over my head in Zarkana to the death-defying aquatic acrobats of Le Rêve, my imagination was left stirred for days afterward.

In Vegas, fantasy comes alive. I flew horizontally under the Fremont Street canopy along the SlotZilla “zoomline,” operated a 10-ton excavator with Dig This, and soared high above the Vegas nightscape in the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel. It was good to feel like a kid again.

On my last morning, I walked to photograph the landmark “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, which stands just under a mile south of Mandalay Bay. Looking north up the Strip corridor, four days of fun behind me, I could not wait to return. mf

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