The Last and Greatest Mega Resort?
Today, CityCenter’s a reality: 66 acres of concrete, glass and steel in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip.
CityCenter had its roots in MGM Resorts International’s 2004 acquisition of the Mandalay Resort Group (the deal closed in 2005). The deal gave MGM Resorts an incredible swath of land between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo, land on which it could build a signature project that would redefine the company. From the start, MGM Resorts brass were clear that Project CityCenter—the development’s working name—would be something different.
At the November 9, 2004 press conference that unveiled the concept, then-CEO Terry Lanni said the CityCenter master plan represented “a significant new direction for our city and our company,” adding that it came at a time when the city was taking “the initial steps to becoming a major urban center in the western United States.”
At that press conference, MGM Resorts unveiled an idea more than a commodity. Only a few things were certain: Project CityCenter would be built on land between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo which the company had recently consolidated with its acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group. It would feature a 4,000-room casino resort, three smaller boutique hotel, and 1,650 condominium residences that would give the area a 24-hour, “city-like” ambience. The centerpiece was to have been an open-air shopping district—definitely not a mall—whose streets allowed both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, then-president and CFO Jim Murren said that the shopping would be a “SoHo-type” experience, a reference to the area of Manhattan south of Houston Street in which high-end boutiques and chain stores have generally pushed out artists’ lofts. Some within the company called it “SoBella,” for “south of Bellagio.”
“We’re creating our own urban environment,” he said, raising expectations that Project CityCenter would be very different from previous developments.
“It’ll be a city in and of itself here,” he said later. “Our economic responsibility is to make money for our shareholders and for our employees. Our social responsibility is to provide a greater array of cultural, educational and residential opportunities for our community. That’s the genesis of CityCenter.”
This wasn’t to be a typical Strip resort development at all, in fact, but an “urban village” that would stretch from the Strip to Frank Sinatra Drive: a city in three dimensions, and a mixed-use project with gambling.
Project CityCenter was slated to cost somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion and, in its first year of operation, achieve an 18 percent return on investment.
After that initial press conference, MGM Resorts continued to plan the project and hire architects for its many components; this initial design phase, which took 20 months, saw the project begin to take shape. Less than a year later, the company was ready to announce the all-star lineup that would transform 66 acres of Las Vegas into a new, vertical development that many said was the future of Las Vegas.
On September 15, 2005, Lanni revealed key details of Project CityCenter. Its cost was now estimated at $5 billion, which made it the largest and most expensive private development in United States history. It was now to feature the flagship 4,000-room hotel as well as two non-gaming boutique hotels with 400 rooms and 200 condominium units each, two 500-unit condominium high-rises, and 140 residences incorporated into the retail district as brownstones and lofts attached to the shops.
Pelli Clarke Pelli, a firm helmed by American Institute of Architects Gold Medal recipient Cesar Pelli, won the commission to design the central hotel-casino. Pelli’s portfolio included the Petronias Towers, an iconic Kuala Lumpur structure that was, from its opening in 1998 until 2004, the highest building in the world (it remains the tallest twin-towers structure in the world), and Bloomberg Tower, a 55-story office and residential tower in midtown Manhattan. Certainly, this was an architect who knew how to get the most out of a building’s footprint.
MGM Resorts tapped Rafael Vinoly Architects to design the condominium-hotel towers, an element that ultimately became Vdara but which at this point was planned as two separate towers. Vinoly had recently completed Jazz at Lincoln Center, a New York performing arts complex, and the Kimmel Center, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The boutique hotel slated to have an international operator was to be designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox and Adam Tihany, while London-based architect Sir Norman Foster, whose numerous decorations included a barony and the prestigious Pritzker prize, was to design a hotel to be managed by the Light Group, the nightlife operator that at the time ran Light and Fix at Bellagio.
The general contractor, Perini Building, had already started work on the project, with the 5,300-space employee parking garage behind Bellagio getting under way in April.
At the time, Project CityCenter appeared to be the crest of an immense wave of development that would redefine Las Vegas: by October 2005, almost 50,000 luxury condominium units in 175 towers were planned throughout the city.
In January 2006, Boyd Gaming announced its own mixed-use project, Echelon Place, which would replace the Stardust with four hotels, a convention center and retail, but no condominiums. Boyd’s announcement came a week before the closure of the Boardwalk, the 300-room casino hotel that was in the middle of Project CityCenter’s footprint. Demolition began immediately, and before long the massive, grinning clown was torn down. Analysts remained bullish about growth; the concept of a mammoth Strip development was looking better and better.
Things were looking so good that in February 2006 Murren announced that the project would be built bigger, to aim at a higher price point. The central 4,000-room casino resort, originally planned to be in the middle range of Strip hotels, would now be positioned as “the leading hotel project” in town, according to Murren.
The total costs for upgrading the casino resort, adding more residential space and building a monorail to run through the property’s heart pushed the estimated cost from $5 billion to $7 billion, with about $2.5 billion in expected residential sales. At a February 8 meeting, MGM Resorts’ board of directors approved the final design for CityCenter: the now-luxury casino hotel, two 400-room non-gaming hotels, 2.3 million square feet of residential units, and 470,000 square feet of entertainment, dining and retail.
Construction finally started on Project CityCenter shortly after midnight on Sunday, June 25, with the delivery of 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, used to pour the foundation of the Pelli-designed casino resort.
In October, MGM Resorts opened a preview center at the neighboring Bellagio, in which potential owners could learn more about the residential options at CityCenter and sign an interest list. They could choose from units at Vdara, a 1,543-unit condominium hotel adjacent to the Bellagio; 228 residences located above the 400-room Harmon hotel; 227 residences above the 400-room Mandarin Oriental hotel; and the Veer Towers, twin 37-story leaning high-rises, which would be exclusively condominium. Unit sizes ranged from 500 square feet to the 4,100-square-foot Mandarin Oriental penthouse. At $8 million, this was the most expensive residence at CityCenter, though costs for all units were expected to average more than $1,100 per square foot.
Around this time, MGM Resorts announced that the Light Group would operate the Harmon hotel. The Light Group came to Las Vegas in 2001, when its eponymous nightclub opened at the Bellagio. Today it operates more than a dozen nightclubs, lounges and restaurants at MGM Resorts properties, and it was hoped that the nightlife pioneers could bring their commitment to hip design to a signature property.
MGM Resorts was on a roll. In 2006, the company more than doubled its fourth-quarter net income, with visitation increasing and sales at Signature, the condominium development behind MGM Grand, bringing in higher-than-expected revenues. Potential buyers couldn’t line up fast enough to sign contracts for CityCenter condos, with Mandarin nearly sold out and reservations placed on the majority of Veer and Vdara units by February, potential buyers putting down $15,000 each to reserve their units. With Mandarin Oriental sales averaging $1,584 a square foot, the company’s earlier optimism seemed justified.
Tragedy struck the project on February 6, 2007, when two 3,000-pound walls collapsed and killed construction workers Bobby Lee Tohannie and Angel J. Hernandez. Two other workers were injured in the accident and, coming on the heels of an incident at the Orleans casino that led to the deaths of two building engineers, raised concerns over safety at Las Vegas job sites.
But construction continued, and with the economic picture getting brighter by the day, one CityCenter was no longer enough; in April, the company paid $575 million for two parcels of land at the north end of the Strip, adjacent to its Circus Circus casino hotel. Totaling 34 acres, they included the site of the Strip’s first casino resort, the El Rancho Vegas. MGM Resorts floated plans to parlay the new acquisition with the land under Circus Circus’ RV park and low-rise motel, giving the company 78 acres on which to build another massive development.
MGM Resorts’ first-quarter results made earlier projections seem, if anything, too conservative. Buoyed by rising room rates and the strong performance of its restaurants and nightclubs—elements that CityCenter was to heavily rely on—the company had recorded sales of $1.1 billion on $2.7 billion worth of condos, and net income for the quarter jumped by nearly 17 percent.
By the spring of 2007, CityCenter was simply one of several new construction projects on the Strip. Price tags ranged from $7.4 billion for CityCenter to $1.8 billion for the Palazzo, under construction next to the Venetian. Other projects included Boyd’s Echelon (5,000 rooms, $4.4 billion), the Cosmopolitan, wedged between Bellagio and CityCenter (3,000 rooms, $3 billion), the Fontainebleau (3,900 rooms, $2.9 billion), Steve Wynn’s Encore (2,000 rooms, $2.1 billion) and the Plaza, a 3,500-room, $5 billion version of the New York City landmark, which was to rise on the site of the Frontier casino.
El Ad Properties, the company that was developing the Plaza, had paid more than $33 million per acre for Strip land—a record that spoke to the unbounded confidence in the Strip’s future.
With nearly 29,000 new rooms in developments costing $26.6 billion, it wasn’t just MGM Resorts that was betting big on Las Vegas. With visitation and revenues climbing, there were few public concerns voiced about possible over-building; after all, skeptics had insisted the Strip was overbuilt in 1989, when Las Vegas had 67,000 hotel rooms. In mid-2007, Las Vegas was on its way to attracting a record number of visitors—more than 39 million. MGM Resorts’ Strip hotels boasted an occupancy rate of 98 percent that spring. It seemed foolish not to build as many rooms as possible. By the time the company disclosed its second-quarter results, half of the CityCenter condos had sold, for a total of $1.4 billion. With its buildings not even a third completed, the project already looked like a sure winner.
Around this time, CityCenter’s footprint got bigger, though without any acquisitions. A project that had been touted as 66 acres expanded to 76 acres, with MGM Resorts brass now including the 10-acre Bellagio employee garage in their count.
Yet, there were problems. In August, Harvey Englander, a construction worker, was killed in an accident while working on the central casino hotel. This was the third worker killed on the project, and while Clark County officials and MGM Resorts expressed their confidence in the site’s safety, it cast a pall. The death of a fourth worker, Harold Billngsley, in October, after another accident, highlighted concerns about the project’s scale and pace.
There were other clouds appearing on the horizon. An article in the August 18, 2007 Wall Street Journal for the first time used the phrase “credit crunch” in connection with Las Vegas, suggesting that the planned $2 billion expansion of the Tropicana had become a victim of tightening credit markets. Though CityCenter was not thought to be in any danger, this was the first real sign that perhaps not everyone was as confident in the Strip’s future as they had once been.
But MGM Resorts found a partner who was as sanguine about Las Vegas as the company itself; on August 21, it announced that Dubai World, the investment vehicle for the Persian Gulf emirate, would pay $5.1 billion for 50 percent ownership in CityCenter and a 9.5 percent stake in MGM Resorts itself. The deal was trumpeted as giving MGM Resorts cash for future developments and reducing debt, and it indicated the increasingly global profile of Las Vegas.
In one move, the company both reduced its debt and gained access to a lengthy list of wealthy international clients. For Dubai World’s part, this was simply the latest in a real estate and hospitality buying spree that saw the investment company buy such notable brands as Barney’s, a New York department store; and the QE2, perhaps the world’s best-known ocean liner.
In October, MGM Resorts announced that the total cost of CityCenter was increasing to $7.8 billion, thanks to an unexpected increase in the amount of concrete and steel needed for the project. By the end of the fourth quarter, the estimated cost had risen again, to somewhere between $8.1 and $8.4 billion. By the following summer, the reported cost would hit $9.2 billion.
Despite the rising costs, at the start of 2008, the residential portion of CityCenter still looked golden. By early January, 93 percent of the Mandarin Oriental’s 227 residences had sold; 42 percent of the 1,543 at Vdara; 60 percent at the Veer Towers; and more than a third of the Harmon’s residences were snapped up in an exclusive “friendly and family” pre-sale offering. But around this time, the bloom came off the Las Vegas Strip condo market. The Cosmopolitan, a condo/hotel project adjacent to CityCenter, received a notice of default in January, and ultimately ended up in the hands of Deutsche Bank, its primary lender.
Safety continued to be a concern. In April, electrician Mark Wescoat died after a fall, and in June, Dustin Tarter, who had been working on a moving crane, perished in an accident. Tarter’s death, the sixth in 16 months, sparked a strike, after negotiations about project safety broke down. After a single day, the strike ended, with union representatives proclaiming an understanding with general contractor Perini. Yet safety remained an issue, highlighted by the termination of several construction workers in August, after photographs of them drinking at bars across the Strip before clocking in for work were published in a local newspaper.
By the summer, it was clear that Las Vegas was no longer “recession-proof,” as some had suggested. Declining gaming revenues, slumping visitation and plummeting room rates made it clear that the city was not immune to the larger economic slowdown. In August, Boyd Gaming halted work on its Echelon development, citing difficulties in lining up financing as well as the souring economy. While this was one less competitor for CityCenter, it also signaled a declining confidence in the Strip’s growth.
At this stage, MGM Resorts brass made a conscious decision not to make any dramatic changes in the project to accommodate the shifting economic realities.
“We had to be careful not to change too much,” Jim Murren explained in a February interview. “We would have lost ourselves. We decided not to build in phases. How could you do that with a project like this? It just doesn’t work.”
Murren said that compromising on the quality of materials was never a question, but adjusted to the market by changing the nature of venues within the project and lowering the price points at restaurants and bars.
“Design and construction changes were almost non-existent,” he said. “If we could finish on time, and with quality, we knew we’d be OK.”
But that wasn’t a sure thing. Suddenly, the hardest part of finishing the project became getting the money, as lenders and Wall Street analysts began expressing skepticism about the company’s potential to secure the financing needed to complete CityCenter. Yet in this regard MGM Resorts was fortunate. That August, the company secured a total of $2.3 billion for construction. Though that was $700 million short of the total needed, company president Jim Murren was confident that all financing would be in place.
Also in August, MGM Resorts announced that, though Perini would remain CityCenter’s general contractor, Tishman Construction would be taking a $250 million contract to oversee construction at the Harmon. This attracted little notice at the time, but in the following month news of considerable problems at the Harmon site became public.
In September, the public learned that, in July, engineers for Halcrow Yolles, the engineer of record for CityCenter, had discovered serious problems at the Harmon. Pacific Coast Steel, a Perini subcontractor, had incorrectly installed link beams—concrete with reinforced metal bar (rebar) placed horizontally over doors on hotel floors—on 15 of the existing 22 stories of the building. Because of conflicts between the structural drawings and the realities of actual construction, rebar was incorrectly spaced; in some cases, when steel extended out of the finished floor, workers cut the rebar.
This incorrect installation affected the building’s ability to weather sideways stresses, such as high winds and earthquakes. Compounding the initial mistakes, inspectors for Converse Consultants, the third-party inspection firm tasked with discovering precisely this kind of error, submitted a total of 62 falsified reports, which erroneously verified that construction was proceeding according to plan. Ultimately, Pacific Coast Steel was fined for its workmanship issues, and Converse Consulting was temporarily banned from taking on new projects in the area.
The biggest consequence of the errors, however, was that the Harmon was capped at 28 stories, and its condo portion would disappear.
Some counted the cancellation of the Harmon condos as a blessing in disguise, since Palms Place and the Trump International, two recent Strip corridor condo projects, were having difficulty closing buyers. With credit tightening across the country and Las Vegas property values in freefall, it became difficult to obtain financing for units in high-rise towers; as a result of the slowdown in condo sales and the generally gloomy outlook for Las Vegas, Fitch Ratings Service downgraded MGM Resorts’ outstanding debt in October to junk grade.
In the third quarter, the company’s profits fell 67 percent, underlining concerns about Las Vegas. The company announced that it was indefinitely tabling a “CityCenter East” Atlantic City development and the north Strip project, and looked to secure the final $1.2 billion in financing it would need to finish CityCenter.
In November, MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Terry Lanni stepped down, citing the challenges the company was facing, and the need for a “younger person” to confront them. President and COO Jim Murren was promoted to fill Lanni’s roles.
By January of 2009, the company had taken several steps to improve the project’s finances. By delaying the Harmon’s completion and cutting other costs, MGM Resorts lowered the CityCenter price tag by $800 million.
In December, the company sold its Treasure Island casino to billionaire Phil Ruffin for $775 million, easing concerns about over-leveraging. Yet while the project remained on track and Vdara and Aria, the newly named casino hotel, began accepting reservations, finance problems continued to dog the project.
In March, MGM Resorts came close to shutting down CityCenter after a tentative loan agreement with Deutsche Bank fell through. A default, which might have triggered a bankruptcy reorganization for the entire company, threatened to derail CityCenter.
Even as doubts about the company’s viability intensified, senior lenders gave it some much-needed breathing room, in the form of an extension on its loan requirements. Its partner, Dubai World, filed a lawsuit claiming that MGM Resorts’ mismanagement put the project at risk. On March 27, MGM Resorts narrowly avoided a CityCenter shutdown when it made a $200 million funding payment.
A month later, MGM Resorts and Dubai World reached a rapprochement with each other and lenders. At last, CityCenter’s finances were in order. In May, additional corporate restructuring helped to improve MGM Resorts’ long-term financial future, and guaranteed that CityCenter would open as scheduled.
From there, it was a short walk to the first sneak previews, and ultimately the opening of Vdara, Mandarin Oriental and Aria in December 2009. The opening fireworks no doubt masked several sighs of relief. After four years, and plenty of drama, the future of Las Vegas was open at last.
In the end, Murren said, CityCenter was more than a collection of buildings.
“It’s a symbol of courage for people who didn’t give in,” he said. “It’s about the resiliency of this community; it’s a symbol of hope. Las Vegas will rise again, that day is approaching. CityCenter will be the beacon that brings us there.”
If the individual architects that created the magnificent buildings and edifices at CityCenter are like brilliant musicians, then the conductor of the orchestra is MGM Resorts International Vice President of Design Sven Van Assche. From the conception of CityCenter, through to rough patches mid-construction to the glorious opening ceremonies, Van Assche was the one who held it together, who made sure all the pieces fit.
From the start, when a large project was considered for the site that was once the Boardwalk Casino Hotel and other lots, Van Assche says some traditional uses were considered.
“We had roughly the same acreage that the Bellagio sits on today, and we could not justify the use of that acreage financially for a single-use resort hotel,” says Van Assche. “And we thought a compound of casinos didn’t make a lot of sense because of the oversaturation factor.
“We started looking at what we could do to augment that single casino that would build the revenue we’d need. So we looked at what we’d done well up until that time: restaurants, retail and—at that time—the housing boom. The condominium projects around the Strip were more than just homeownership. So we looked at all of those things and decided that this project could be more than just a casino and create more than just gaming revenue.”
The presentation to the board was the next step. Van Assche says MGM executives Terry Lanni, Jim Murren and Bobby Baldwin were able to convince the board and principal shareholder Kirk Kerkorian to do something different, albeit with a higher price tag.
“We also had to convince them that this was feasible, not only financially, but physically,” he says. “No one had ever put this kind of density on this amount of acreage in Las Vegas before. It’s approaching Manhattan-like density.”
Putting Pieces Together
After master-planning the project throughout 2004 and getting the final approval of the board, it came time to pick the architects. Van Assche says they aimed high.
“There was a lot of testing the waters, discussions and selling the idea at the start,” he says. “I was impressed that these so-called ‘black cape’ architects were so easy to approach. You listen to the talk about their egos, but they were very welcoming. We talked to 25 to 30 of them, and they allowed us to come in and present our admittedly sketchy ideas.”
Most of the architects contacted by MGM had never worked in Las Vegas.
“We told them this is not what they think it is, which is the reason they had never been to Vegas,” says Van Assche. “We had to change that preconceived notion and we had to do it without a picture or a sketch. The first question was often, ‘I don’t do volcanoes so what do you want from me?’ But once we got these guys involved, you realized you could do something really special.”
Blending the individual designs with the others was another challenge, says Van Assche.
“Each experience was unique, but then we had to make sure that they were understanding and mindful of the big picture,” he says. “They had their own building, their own scope, something for which they would produce the venacular, but you had to do so with the understanding of what everyone else was doing that would create the complex that is CityCenter.
“We worked very intimately with every one of the architects and designers to make sure they were doing their scope but understood who was next door, who was across the street and how they all related to each other.”
Command & Control
While arranging the design and construction is always complicated, the economic downturn and subsequent financial struggles of MGM Resorts added yet another difficulty in building such a complex structure. Van Assche says these problems were unexpected, but that they needed to be solved.
“We faced a lot of hurdles on this project in the five years we have been working on it,” he says. “So we had to consider all options, including shutting down, as we worked through them. But the fact that we emerged at the other end is testament to how hard we worked to get here.”
The financial element was out of the control of the designers, architects and all those working on CityCenter, so Van Assche says they just put their heads down and worked.
“That was for someone else to deal with,” he says. “Everybody understood that we just had to get our jobs done. It was a huge effort to instill the morale in everyone here to overcome the doubts and still keep your mind focused on the job at hand.”
In the end, however, Van Assche believes that the vision for CityCenter was transformative and that the final product lives up to the expectations.
“This project is, today, what it was envisioned to be,” he says. “We didn’t do everything perfectly and I never thought we would. But we did most of it very well. It is everything I had hoped it would be. Given all the hurdles and the challenges we imposed on ourselves, we delivered on everything we attempted.”
Van Assche says the company has much more invested in CityCenter than people generally understand.
“We’re not developers in the traditional sense,” he says. “We own, develop and operate and we never go away like most developers do. We are always striving to out-do ourselves and raise the bar at every step. Now that we are open, we are re-evaluating each piece of the property and if anything is broken, we’ll fix it. We’re listening to our customers and our operators and figuring out what we can do better.”
The Deep End
Once upon a time, swimming pools at casino resorts were wet, chlorine-scented places to cool off before you toweled dry and headed for the real entertainment.
Today’s casino resort swimming pools are red hot. You don’t just go there to cool off but to dance to the hottest tunes, mingle with hot, young singles and even hotter celebrities, and lose yourself in a torrid, but comfortable, tropical paradise, often with four-star cuisine.
They have names like the Encore Beach Club, Tao Beach, Bare at the Mirage, the Liquid Pool Lounge at City Center and the Rehab Pool Party.
Even in cold climates, it’s important for a casino resort to have a fabulous pool. From the heat of Las Vegas to the long nights of Finland (or Atlantic City), pools are an attraction in their own right. Pools have also become a multi-use attraction, often transforming into after-hours nightclubs.
The newest is Steve Wynn’s Encore Beach Club and Surrender Nightclub, which opened at the end of May. The two-story cabanas and bungalows were added where the porte cochere was when the resort opened in 2008.
According to nightlife impresario and operating partner Sean Christie, it was built to operate 24/7, and to be a nightclub from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Surrender—a small, intimate club—opens onto the 60,000-square-foot Encore Beach Club. The cabanas and bungalows have balconies and terraces, private bathrooms and showers.
“It’s not quite a hotel room, but it’s as close as you can be, sitting on top of the pool,” says Christie. “We have spared no expense to make it the best bungalow and cabana by far.”
Guests enter a lush oasis featuring 40-foot palms bordering three-tiered pools. The deck in the center is like a small post-modernist Greek temple, dotted with chaise lounges, couches and day beds. For more privacy, 26 cabanas are equipped with refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. Eight two-story bungalows offer views of the Las Vegas Strip.
As you enter Surrender, you are greeted with spices for the eyes, including a handmade, sculpted snake—with an apple in its mouth as a light source—on the back bar. Sculpted statues called “divers” jump off the walls. It has a high ceiling and features light shows.
“It’s a high-end club,” says Christie. “More an intimate nightclub than an ultra-lounge. There is more nightclub-style seating, and you can dance on every bank in the space.”
He calls the beach club a “category changer.”
“I’ve been to all of them,” he laughs. “None compare to what we’ve built. It would be like comparing Wynn to other products. And that’s no surprise, because Steve Wynn designed and built this one, as well.”
DJs play music, and occasionally there will be live performances, as happened over the Memorial Day weekend premiere, when platinum star Ne-Yo, electronic music artist Kaskade and LMFAO all performed.
“It’s a very sexy crowd,” says Christie. They can be seen floating on day beds called “lily pads” in six inches of water. Each pad has a private safe. Loungers can order from a pool menu, or visit a beach shop stocked with everything from bikinis to suntan lotion. “We’ve really tried to have an all-encompassing space where you can live and stay, and have a first-rate pool party,” says Christie.
More Attractions, More Revenue
Hot and sexy it is, but like most new casino pools, the Encore has a hard-nosed raison d’etre: to make money by bringing more people to the property’s other attractions.
Christie notes that when you walk into the Encore’s pedestrian entrance, on your right is the classic American restaurant Society Café and on your left, Chef Marc Poidevin’s French-inspired Switch.
“During the summer the beach club will hold 2,400 and the nightclub has a capacity for 2,900, so think of the sheer volume. The location, in the retail area in the promenade between the Encore and the Wynn, is one of the driving forces of Encore,” says Christie, who projects attracting an additional 5,000–8,000 visitors.
“The customer we bring in is a great demographic, the 35-50 crowd. We are confident that will translate into more business for the rest of the casino. We are going to light up Encore!”
Increasing revenue was the idea when the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas reopened its popular Sunday Rehab “daylife” party April 18. The seventh-season premiere was attended by 4,000 partiers from all over the world, with entertainment headed by Wyclef Jean.
Robin Leach’s Vegas Deluxe blog called it “the biggest turnout for Rehab ever, thanks to season three of the Tru TV hit reality show Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel and the size of the hotel doubling since last summer.” The new season also unveiled the Skybar, which complements the pool party.
“We were the first to do a pool party and the first casino to open it to non-hotel guests,” says Phil Shalala, the resort’s chief marketing officer. “We saw our pool as a beautiful environment and an asset, and said we should make some money off it. It’s been an excellent revenue generator for us.”
The Rehab pool party is always held on Sunday. On Saturdays DJ pool parties take over. “We’ve got great music, the cabana element, and swim-up blackjack,” says Shalala. “We book high-level talent. We book celebrities. It becomes more of a daytime entertainment event rather than just a pool party with music. Paris Hilton was here last week. Vince Vaughn and Snoop Dog opened one year. We have a lot of different types of entertainment.”
The entertainment and music are all part of the winning formula, but most important is atmosphere, says Shalala.
“To open a pool with cabanas, chairs and nothing special about the environment won’t do. Here at our pool and cabana, we’ve got a sand-bottom beach pool, and we literally have beaches. A water slide runs through the pool. It’s an environment, an experience in itself. Design and architecture is exactly the key. The look and feel—the vibe.”
By any measure of success, Rehab is a hit. “We’ve seen growth in numbers and growth in revenue,” Shalala says. “Last year was the worst economy in the last 60 years. Rehab was up 30 percent. I don’t know anyone in this town who can say they were up 30 percent in anything. That’s how I measure success. Four weeks into the season and we continue to break records.”
Jason Strauss, group owner and managing partner of the Venetian’s TAO Beach, measures success somewhat differently. “I don’t think of it as a way to create revenue,” he says. “The purpose is to create a brand extension for the nightclub and restaurant and create the ability to touch different people.”
TAO Beach, which opened three seasons ago, sits atop the TAO Asian Bistro and Nightclub. The weekly Sunday Sunset Sessions feature local, national and international house DJs. Saturday nights the beach club offer a dazzling pool light show, floating Chinese lanterns and 14-foot-tall fire columns.
TAO Beach’s lavish cabanas have HD plasma screen TVs, a galaxy of high-tech entertainment such as DVD Player/X Box 360 and full DVD/game library and iPod rentals along with low-tech luxuries like chilled towels and pampering by private masseuses. Asian-inspired day beds have mini-refrigerators.
All of this does increase occupancy for the TAO nightclub, agrees Strauss.
“We’re the only pool that is attached to a nightclub. We have a truly intimate space, and we went out of our way to create a unique environment.”
That includes more than $400,000 spent for Balinese plants. The TAO kitchen offers five-star cuisine, including, says Strauss, “the world’s best sushi and Kobe, which is a whole different level—compared to our competitors who are serving hamburgers.”
On Fridays, TAO does local-driven events. Saturdays, celebrities host events, and on Sunday afternoons TAO Beach has partnered with Beatport, the world’s largest electronic music downloading website, to provide international house music.
TAO Beach is a work in progress. “This year we did a million-dollar renovation by building five new cabanas, a new DJ booth and new furniture,” says Strauss. “I don’t think we will ever be satisfied. Each season we will learn something and do more.
“You have to stay relevant. You can’t just build it. You have to elevate the game. The formula is staying relevant and in tune with the customers, and reacting to their feedback on how to be better,” he says.
The Pool Boy
Don Brinkerhoff, founder of Lifescapes International, Inc., a Newport Beach-based landscape architectural firm, may well have invented the strategy of using swimming pools as money-makers on casino properties. He started his business 50 years ago, and began doing casino projects 25 years ago. He has designed landscapes for about 50 properties, including more than a dozen along the Las Vegas Strip.
“We’ve been doing fantasy landscapes ever since we started,” says Brinkerhoff.
A “fantasy landscape” includes waterfalls and exotic elements not normally seen in daily life. “We got the job to do the Mirage, which was the first new hotel in Las Vegas in 16 years. Wynn, our guiding light for 25 years, wanted a Polynesia-style hotel. That indicated that the pool should be lagoon-shaped with palms.”
Coconut palms don’t grow in Las Vegas, so they imported Canary Island palms.
“I said it would be a good idea to add simple cabana structures, 12 feet by 12 feet. They became so popular so that in our latest job, Encore, there are many cabanas. They are very sophisticated and are virtually buildings.”
Today, says Brinkerhoff, you wouldn’t install a pool without cabanas.
“The whole idea is to set up fantasy places where you can dispense with your belief that you are really in Vegas. You could be in Caesar’s Forum or Paris. Each one takes on a character unique to that hotel,” he says.
Pool cabanas often rent for more than the hotel rooms. “All the hotels now see the pool areas as profit centers. They sell drinks and food. They rent chaises,” says Brinkerhoff.
Brinkerhoff’s daughter, Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, president and CFO of Lifescapes, notes that pool areas have evolved into significant parts of the property. “The casino operator looks how to maximize return. They figure out ways to energize the pool at night. They convert spaces for evening entertainment. At Encore the pool is used for nightclub extension. At Red Rock Casino and Spa in Summerlin (which Lifescapes also worked on) the recreation area, the Backyard, features nine pools and incorporates the Cherry Nightclub cocktail lounge, the TBones Chophouse and over 25 private cabanas. They are looking to maximize the area around the pool’s edge.”
Desert and Ocean Scenes
Red Rock was envisioned by Friedmutter Group Architecture & Design Studios as a place for low water use—without looking like a desert. “We wanted to show that drought-tolerant doesn’t have to be weeds and cactus, and can be an appealing resort environment,” says Brinkerhoff-Jacobs. “The pool area is like an amphitheater. The pool is lower and circular, and the decks are also circular and built up. We used artificial turf along the edge. You don’t have to mow it or water it.”
The intention in all such pool areas is to escape the everyday world and enjoy a beautiful resort setting. “Each of our projects has had a different personality,” she says.
At Harrah’s Atlantic City they created a tropical environment by enclosing the pool area with a controlled climate.
“We enclosed the pool area in the Borgata Atlantic City for the same reason. The Borgata’s pool is essentially a hothouse. The intention is to create a tropical garden destination,” she says. Daytime use for non-hotel guests is the trend among many casinos.
“The idea is to attract people who may not be staying in the hotel but want to be in the hotel’s environment. What operators do by adding these special additions is to extend the opportunity to have more guests,” says Brinkerhoff. And more income.
The pool’s shape doesn’t matter, they say, but there should be shallow areas for floating chaise lounges, allowing freedom of movement and the opportunity for a different experience. Sometimes active casinos operate in the pool areas.
This is true of the Eclipse pool area in Harrah’s Rincon Casino in San Diego County. Here, during the summer, the young and the tan dance to the hottest DJ music, or play blackjack dealt by bikini-clad dealers. Harrah’s ropes off this area for special events, such as the 50th anniversary of Playboy magazine celebrated in June.
Red Rock uses its pool areas as flex space, using movable venues to, for example, bring in live music for an evening, or host a convention or private party, reverting back to normal use in the daytime.
“People will think up creative uses that haven’t occurred to us if you provide a creative venue for them,” says Brinkerhoff.
Two years ago, many people hoped the recession, as it impacted casino design and construction, would be short and shallow. It has proven to be the opposite, long and deep—and painful. But the end is in sight, at least in the view of more than a dozen architects, designers and major participants intimately involved in the field.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, so for this year’s Q&A in Casino Design magazine, we’ve focused on how each company will take advantage of the recovery. Whether it’s construction in Asia, expansion in Indian Country or simple renovations in existing casino resorts, this group is taking advantage of every opportunity to put their best foot forward.
Like the slot manufacturers, which are waiting patiently for the “replacement cycle” to kick in, architects and designers know that casino resorts cannot remain static for much longer. Fresh design and innovative products are the only things that existing casinos will have to combat the increasingly competitive landscape in almost all jurisdictions. New construction is rare, but not entirely out of the question. They’re ready for that eventuality as well.
But the one thing they all have in common is a burgeoning creative sense, tempered with sensitivity for the budgeting and operational processes.
So sit back and absorb the wisdom and opinions offered.
The participants, listed in alphabetical order:
- George Bergman, President, Bergman, Walls & Associates, Ltd. (GB)
- Don Brinkerhoff, Chairman, Lifescapes International (DB)
- Brian Fagerstrom, President, WorthGroup Architects (BFA)
- Ann Fleming, Owner and Principal, Cleo Design (AF)
- Brad Friedmutter, Founder and Chairman, Friedmutter Group (BRF)
- Rick Gardner, Principal, Hnedak Bobo Group (RG)
- D. Kirk Harman, President, The Harmon Group (KH)
- Paul Heretakis, Vice President, WESTAR Architects (PH)
- Tom Hoskens, Principal, Cuningham Group Architecture (TH)
- John Platon, Senior Vice President, KHS&S (JP)
- Barry Thalden, Principal, Thalden Boyd Emery (BT)
- Edward Vance, President, Vance & Associates (EV)
Have you seen any signs that the difficult economic environment we’ve been experiencing in the past few years has been easing? If so, what are the signals you’ve noticed?
GB: There are signs of some easing in Las Vegas and certain other domestic markets. Clearly, Macau and Singapore have had significant increases in gaming revenues. This trends positive with the general recovery of the financial markets across the United States and with the exception of recent developments in Europe and across the world.
DB: Yes, we have seen signs of a resurgence of interest in landscaping for new casinos in the U.S.—East, Southeast and California. There has been a substantial increase in requests for proposals; gaming companies are hiring design directors or authorizing their existing in-house design personnel to start preparing proposals for new work. We typically get involved early, as do building architects and planners, when our clients want to have projects ready and open within one to three years. I guess you can say that the designers are the bellwether for upcoming work.
BFA: Really, since the end of 2009, we have most definitely experienced an increase in new projects and activity in the solicitation of design services for gaming projects in Native American gaming. We are also seeing an increase in the “buzz” and activity in commercial gaming in various regional pockets where ownership of properties is changing.
AF: There have been definite indications that there is more “movement” in the design and development community. Whereas in the past year only a couple requests for proposals per month were received, we have seen in the past months a greater volume of interest with RFPs arriving weekly.
BFR: Owners and operators are issuing significantly more requests for proposals for everything from small renovations to major expansions and ground-up projects. Many indicate design and construction start dates during the third and fourth quarters of this year.
RG: Walk into many casinos in the secondary gaming and entertainment markets and you’ll find plenty of customers. Overall spend is down, but traffic in many of these locations has remained reasonably strong. The general challenge is classic: to keep the customer coming back and grow his/her spend with fresh new products, amenities, experiences and promotions. New cap-ex investments in this economy have to be very strategic and responsive to current conditions, and yet still be properly integrated into a long-term facility growth plan—which is a tall order.
KH: In the U.S. there has been a slight improvement in RFP activity in Indian gaming and in states that have recently approved casinos. Both types of projects are moving slowly. The states that have approved casinos are facing opposition from elements of the public. In some cases the casinos have become a political football, resulting in delays.
PH: We are certainly seeing the signs of greater activity. Expectations of ROIs based upon the new economy are finally being accepted, and that is creating more opportunities. All of the cost-saving methods have been implemented; the only way to increase profits is by upgrading facilities or creating new projects. The circle of life in the business world will always continue even as government tries to derail it.
TH: The positive signals are coming from all sides—operators, management groups, even the financial sectors. We are seeing more opportunities for renovation and expansion of projects nationally and internationally. Clients are interested in staying ahead of the competition, and they are eager to see the latest design trends that will engage their guests. We are continuously working with our clients in these tight economic times by showing them the importance of pre-design services for effective planning and programming decisions. For example, our client Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi is taking advantage of the low construction costs and expanding their gaming, entertainment, restaurant and dining amenities in order to provide their guests a more intimate, service-based experience.
JP: We are beginning to see small signs of recovery in some market sectors, but very little recovery in the gaming markets so far with the exception of Oklahoma. Most of the current design and construction activity has been the result of government stimulus. Future gaming expansion, we believe, will be in states such as Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts, which are looking to gaming to help bolster state budgets and deliver new jobs. Given the current room supplies of traditional gaming markets such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, we don’t expect to see significant activity in these markets for the next five years or more.
BT: The recession is definitely over. We experienced a slowdown in the summer of 2009 as most of our projects completed construction. Beginning last fall, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel as the first new projects of the economic recovery began to surface. The first of these was Wildhorse Casino Resort expansion in Pendleton, Oregon, for which we were fortunate to be selected. This year has started out explosively, as we have been swamped with a record number of requests for proposals and, fortunately for us, we are frequently the architect of choice.
Both tribes and commercial casino companies have seen their revenues begin to increase after leveling off in the second half of 2009. The key to the future will be in well-conceived expansions with realistic expectations and potential for substantial returns on investment. But, project financing is still difficult and will continue to be the bottleneck for project development.
EV: Yes. The signals have been in the financing arena, and they have been surprisingly noticeable over the past 60 days. For example, one of our projects in Mississippi had but one lending source interested all of last year. Then in March three new sources (one equity and two debt) came out of nowhere and they are now fighting over the opportunity to make our client most happy.
How important is Asia for gaming development? With the opening of the two Singapore integrated resorts, do you believe their success or failure will determine whether other countries in the region legalize gambling in the same way?
GB: Asia is very important for gaming development as we go forward in the second decade of the new millennium. The opening of the two mega-resorts in Singapore has changed the face of Asian gaming. Clearly, a new benchmark has been raised for Asian gaming. We believe that the Asian market is only beginning to be tapped.
Many other countries in the region are currently legalizing casino gaming. As this article is being written, grand resorts and neighborhood casinos are being designed throughout the region. BWA is fortunate to have several such projects on its boards.
DB: We have several completed projects in Macau, with client interest for us to get started on a new project in Asia. With the Asian passion for gambling, and the financial climate being right, I am sure there will be additional gaming opportunities throughout Asia. Look toward Japan, too.
BFA: More than ever before, casino operators have come to realize that the competitive marketplace coupled with the recession over the past few years has created an urgency to stay relevant to customers. Competitive differentiation is critical to maintain appeal while at the same time, new trends and offerings must be considered to draw new customers and keep loyal players.
AF: The design of the Asian gaming facilities by U.S.-based Las Vegas firms has proved that a well-oiled machine can bring the experience of an industry far from its Las Vegas roots, transplant and thrive. Neighboring countries immediately see the benefits for employment and a generation of wealth.
BFR: There is very high confidence among many Asian governments and businesses for continued economic growth and development. Gaming is now accepted in many countries around the world as a viable and beneficial business enterprise, and Asia is a vast area with a very high level of the consumer base that enjoys frequent gaming. It is no surprise that the Asian gaming market continues to expand, with many locations throughout the region developing new destination-type facilities. The Philippines, Vietnam and other constituencies will likely continue development, regardless of success or failure in Singapore. Planning in many of the Macau properties, previously put on hold, is starting again with renewed commitment from owners.
With that said, the answer is surely that Asia is critically important for gaming development. Because 100 percent of Friedmutter Group projects are gaming/entertainment/resort facilities, we can share our expertise worldwide, just as American gaming companies such as Harrah’s Entertainment, Wynn Resorts and Sands are doing.
RG: International gaming expansion is likely the next frontier, and could be the primary source of significant growth opportunity for our industry for many years to come. But there are challenges ahead—the limitations and constraints of politics and culture may hamper many international markets from coming anywhere close to reaching their true potential.
PH: We have had an office in Macau for the past two years, so we are doing very well in China as well as Southeast Asia. Asia and especially China will be the center of all financial growth for the next decades. Just look at all of the American companies that are rapidly expanding there. If you don’t have work and a presence in Asia then you have sadly mistaken the future. This is not to say that it is easy and money is everywhere. There are no magic beans, but there is certainly more opportunity there.
TH: Other countries are actively pursuing gaming because they see the vast potential extending to other sectors of their economy. Smart decision-makers know the value of creating an integrated resort that caters to their clientele and they are embracing the coming wave of resorts that combine leisure travel experience with gaming and other entertainment amenities.
JP: We believe Asia is very important for gaming development. We’re currently completing work at Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands and have made substantial investment in opening offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Bangkok to take advantage of what we believe is significant growth opportunities throughout the Pacific Rim. If Resorts World and Marina Bay Sands continue to draw the crowds they have to date, I believe other countries will follow suit. Macau has already surpassed Las Vegas in gaming revenue and the region just hit record revenues in May.
EV: There are more than 10 countries in Asia with legalized gaming already, and we believe that trend will continue as long as China’s ever-growing number of millionaires and billionaires keep streaming into places like Macau; it will keep the region flush with cash. Casino gambling revenue in Macau alone almost doubled in May and is certainly setting the trend for all of Asia, but there are still a lot of problems to be solved. And to solve them, you are going to have to be creative. In the end, no one knows what cards Asia will be dealt over the next 10 years in terms of gaming, but I’m quite sure that as that market matures it will ultimately affect how we do business here.
Do casino operators understand the importance of keeping their properties fresh, by conducting periodic renovations (for example, re-theming restaurants, redesigning areas of the facility and more)?
GB: Most casino and resort operators understand the importance of keeping their properties fresh and presentable. Unfortunately, some just simply do not have the financial wherewithal to do so. That of course is a double-edged sword. As the properties visually diminish, their desirability diminishes and attendance decreases even more. Ultimately, they become second- and third-tier properties and become even more difficult to bring back to competitive advantage.
DB: Always, casino operators are historically upgrading their properties. Recently, we completed the landscape design for Surrender, the new beach club at Encore. This project was completed about 16 months after the initial opening of Encore. Good operators recognize great opportunities for their customers’ enjoyment and make decisions promptly for improvements or additions. In this case, the major design effort was led by Roger Thomas at Wynn Design and Development and we assisted him and his team on the softscape portion primarily.
AF: Most of the casino operators have been venturing from beyond their own walls and have tried to keep their finger on the pulse of what works and what does not in this very competitive industry. They have been quick to accommodate the guests’ expectations with remodels and at the very least temporary venues to keep the draw of a crowd.
BFR: Casino operators and owners are acutely aware of the importance of keeping their properties fresh and current. Because so many renovation projects were put on hold during the last couple of years, perhaps now more than ever, owners are interested in a variety of solutions within their properties including renovations, re-theming and redesign. By providing cost-effective, innovative designs, we are seeing renovation projects on the upswing. In fact, we have recently completed several restaurant renovation projects within existing properties, and smaller-scale casino expansion developments.
RG: Fortunately for the design profession, existing facilities will lose their luster both physically and psychologically. Aggressive, competitive operators love to leverage new product—and need to continually do so to compete in their respective markets. By giving their player development and marketing departments new fuel to energize existing customers and reach out to gain new market share, operators can do more than just survive an economic downturn like we’ve been experiencing—they can thrive in one, and get well-positioned for the economic upswing.
KH: I recently asked a building official in Las Vegas if he has seen much renovation activity. He said, “Only if we cite them for a violation.” Atlantic City is pretty much standing still. Casinos in the Eastern states have reconfigured gaming floors but have not done major renovations or expansions. Even in Pennsylvania, where table games were recently approved, rearrangement of the existing casino is the approach for adding these games.
PH: Most of the operators are talking about new projects again. The projects will be smaller and phased more over time, but progress must be made. The cost of the projects will be related to the new returns on those investments.
TH: We find there is a solid advantage for a property to carefully plan and execute a phased renovation project. Casino renovations and expansions require a balancing act between renovating as large an area as possible and many smaller areas. If you renovate a large area all at once, which is the fastest way to complete a project, it can reduce revenue significantly. Alternatively, renovating a series of smaller areas keeps them operational and continuing to produce revenue, and avoids a longer construction phase. Ultimately, it is important to establish an acceptable balance between the size of the renovation area and the anticipated revenue earned, or in some cases the anticipated revenue lost during construction.
BT: While there may not be any new mega-resorts built, we anticipate that there will be many smaller projects as operators recognize that their properties need new venues to talk about and they continue to need fresh new looks in various areas. There will also be changes made on the casino floors in an effort to increase revenues by creatively encouraging customers to stay and play longer, and be exposed to newer slot machines offerings. There should also be a recognition that it’s better to start planning and design in the slow times to open in the good times than vice versa.
JP: I believe they know exactly what needs to be done to keep their properties competitive. But it continues to come down to economics. Operators won’t approve large budgets for renovation unless they expect to see a return on their investment. And operators are still trying to protect their bottom line.
EV: Nearly all casino operators understand the importance of keeping their properties fresh. However, very few have the good fortune of being in a financial position to do what they know they must to keep or capture what market share exists today. Unfortunately, many of our existing clients have adopted the mantra “fix only what’s broken.” We believe that this is creating a huge pent-up demand for massive renovations when the economy finally turns.
As in commercial casino development, there seems to be a lull in Indian casino design and construction as well, with the possible exception of Oklahoma. Do you see this continuing because of the uncertainty of obtaining financing? Or, will new off-reservation casinos and other tribal developments pick up the pace?
GB: Financing is still critical for all gaming, both Native American and non-Indian. There is some tribal funding available from several affluent tribes. There is limited development taking place in the U.S. overall. Part of the problem as we view it is that there is a saturation of casino gaming coupled with a severe lack of financing for gaming projects in the currently tight financing market.
DB: We should be starting on a new Indian gaming casino in June, but we also have seen an uptick in requests domestically for Indian gaming opportunities. We have noticed that the operators are having more paid and unpaid design competitions for their properties, compared to when the gaming industry was more active. Architects were hired without necessarily providing “free” or “subsidized” designs in order to get projects.
BFA: Even Oklahoma is now experiencing some decline in growth. So, very few markets and properties remain immune to the “lull.” Together with the recent financial crisis, regulatory and legislative issues at the federal and state levels and increasing competitive pressures of neighboring Native American gaming properties that are in close proximity to each other, Indian gaming certainly has had its own share of challenges and obstacles. What seems to be happening now is a resurgence of design and construction projects that had to go into a type of “revamp” in order to find and obtain smaller amounts of financing. Project scopes have been, in some cases, “right-sized” and most certainly downsized.
Also, those projects that have been vying wholly on financing, without strong collateral or self-funding sources, have basically continued to be dormant. Only a few cases here and there where private equity sources have stepped in, and are located in the strongest of locations demographically, are new greenfield opportunities arising.
AF: On the contrary to thoughts of a quiet Indian gaming world, we have witnessed most of the activity in casino development has been with the Native American tribal community. Notably, the process is more laborious in gathering criteria and developing scenarios for their place within the competition of regional casinos. Much more time is spent on the development of guests’ needs and anticipating future trends.
BFR: Casino design and development in Native American casinos is definitely on the rise. Those tribal enterprises with established facilities and positive cash flow are able to obtain financing and are moving forward with planning and development. This is clearly evident in the increased number of RFPs that are being issued.
RG: The Indian gaming market sector has remained very strong for HBG. Green-field facilities are not being built at the frenetic pace of five to eight years ago; however, amenity additions and facility expansions (including large hotels) remain quite active. The credit markets have eased to some degree and we’re seeing the compelling participation of private equity fueling new growth in select markets.
KH: Our tribal clients are seeing the same financing problems as our non-tribal clients. Financing remains hard to come by. When tribes look to off–reservation development, they seem to be in the same situation as any other developer.
TH: We are not experiencing a lull, and it has been quite the opposite. The pace is very active for both new construction and renovation. We are working with Native American clients across the country on projects including gaming floors, hotel towers, event centers, and a variety of restaurants, retail and entertainment amenities, all of which are a combination of new construction and renovation. Our clients are fully cognizant of their increasingly powerful position in the marketplace. Their goal is to effectively compete in a crowded marketplace by offering quality entertainment value to their guests. Based on the diversity of our experience in the entertainment marketplace, we are able to help our clients distinguish their properties with a range of amenities that complement their brand.
JP: There will always be select properties that continue to expand simply because their unique location makes them less vulnerable to the economy than other casinos. On a broad scale, however, I see short-term opportunities limited to states that are hoping to partner with Indian tribes to bolster tax revenues. I don’t expect to see widespread Indian gaming expansion until the job market improves and consumers feel comfortable about spending money on entertainment and gambling.
BT: It is clear that Indian and other “locals” casinos will lead the way in the recovery of the gaming industry. The lull in Indian casino design and construction is over, and we see that many of the tribes are pursuing expansion projects with the anticipation of financing being available. With revenues beginning to increase, properties are looking at expanding; however, we don’t see many opportunities for new casinos, and with a possible rare exception, we do not expect to see the BIA approve only off-reservation casinos, even with the change in administration in Washington.
Oklahoma has certainly been unique in avoiding the recession. Gaming numbers have continued to increase and construction has continued, and Thalden-Boyd-Emery Architects has been in the center of it from our office in Tulsa. The new hotel at the Cherokee Casino in West Siloam, Oklahoma opened this growth with a new 2,700-seat performance theater at the Hard Rock Casino Resort in Tulsa, which will open in August.
EV: We are seeing activity in Kansas, Washington, Oklahoma, Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi, and not all of it is tribal. The interesting thing is that many of these new projects have Las Vegas-based financing partners in the gaming industry who are eager and willing to fund these projects, especially if they are oligopolies in nature.
Give us at least one of the innovative ideas that you’ve seen architecture and design companies using to do things differently that benefit the companies and their gaming clients.
GB: We have done two things to improve our viability in the architectural world. One, we have opened two offices in Asia: an office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and an office in Manila, the Philippines. In addition, Brad Schulz has joined BWA as vice president of business development.
DB: We have implemented several initiatives at Lifescapes International. First, due to our volume of work in Las Vegas (more than 23 projects on the Las Vegas Strip alone), many of our Asian clients who come to visit Las Vegas have inquired about the “firm who designed the landscapes at Bellagio, Wynn, Paris or Caesars Palace, MGM Grand Mansions or Red Rock,” and have hired us to do non-gaming projects (residential, mixed-use and commercial) because they liked the casino garden settings.
We have been a diversified landscape design firm for 50 years, and as a result, while we had made adjustments to staff, we are hiring again to accommodate our growth offshore. Also, because of this same volume of casino design work, gaming operators are contacting us again as they have confidence in our ability to design what is needed for their properties.
BFA: Over the past few years since the recession really kicked in, WorthGroup Architects has focused with absolute commitment and passion to providing foremost service to our existing clients. I’m talking service that is downright exceptional and unexpected. We offer new methodologies and technologies to plan, design and serve our clients in ways that make their own processes efficient and more effective. We are similarly focused on providing strategic thinking for short- and long-term phasing of properties as amenities come on line and the markets and financing become available.
AF: More emphasis on a clarification of the client’s needs and expectations early in the process is crucial. An outline as to the design approach, timeline to develop the design, anticipated budgets, the development of construction and vendor alliances, along with many other programming criteria, are presented to an owner to create strong assuredness of a project’s success well in advance of groundbreaking.
BFR: Our firm is structured to service the gaming and hospitality industry, and we continue to provide our clients with value-added, innovative and responsive design and communication. Our focus continues to be 100 percent gaming/hospitality/resort design and development.
RG: We are creatively building upon our success as hotel developer/owners. As a 30-year hospitality design firm, we’re leveraging our brand development and ownership experience to devise affordable alternative investment paths for our clients. In effect, we’re implementing innovative and value-oriented applications, while also using new proprietary technology to help us deliver enhanced levels of service and built product quality. That’s what it’s all about these days.
KH: As in past downturns, we have used this time to regroup, improve and update our standards and train our people on the latest technology. We are in a position to leverage this preparation for the benefit of our architect and owner clients as the economy turns around.
PH: We have expanded our company to branding, marketing and many other services that the casinos traditionally had in-house departments to handle. As they have reduced staffs and looked for out-sourced services, we have managed to fill those voids. This has made our firm relevant going into the future. Just being an architect is not enough.
TH: We work with our clients to show them how to maximize their investments in design and construction through an integrated approach to sustainable design. Our design approach utilizes a Project GREENcard, which we created in-house to track sustainable design decisions and LEED principles on all of our projects. This checklist is used to communicate and help deliver ecologically, economically and socially sustainable targets, options and benefits.
JP: KHS&S has been very aggressive in positioning ourselves for the recovery both in the U.S. and internationally. First, in the last 18 months we have opened more than eight offices in the U.S., Canada, the Middle East and throughout Asia to be near future growth markets. We are also using technology to define what the construction job site of the future will look like. For instance, we recently partnered with the country’s largest manufacturer of factory-built bathrooms, becoming their exclusive distributor/installer. Using this lean manufacturing approach has the potential to reduce the schedule by as much as two months and add revenue by helping to deliver earlier occupancy.
BT: 3D Building Information Modeling is the wave of the future in architecture. Fortunately, our firm pursued this technical innovation seven years ago, and now we have the advantage of developing computer-generated building models on all of our projects. Our firm has actually positioned itself for growth, and among other things, last year we added a new partner, Brett Ewing, who for 22 years has been a part of creating the architecture of the Las Vegas Strip.
EV: During the recession, we took time to cultivate big-picture thinking. It positioned us for a positive response when the economy finally turns around. One of the best things we’ve done is to strategically align ourselves with partners in the industries where we work. Specifically, gaming companies, program managers, contractors and even other architects. These allegiances or loose partnerships have gotten us into markets all over the world, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi and as far away as Aruba, West Africa and Palau. Best of all, we bid against no one. As long as the team gets the work, we get the job. What you’ll find is the shared marketing efforts and contacts of a larger group create a gestalt that you will never produce alone.
George Bergman is president of Bergman, Walls & Associates, Ltd. He is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and UNLV School of Architecture. In addition, he holds a master’s degree in economics from Soka University in Tokyo, Japan. He has established offices in Vietnam and the Philippines, and is scouting an office location in China. Bergman has been project architect for such creations as the mega-suites at Caesars Augustus Tower, the Pure and LAX nightclubs and the Resorts Atlantic City high-rise addition, as well as numerous food and beverage venues such as Rhumbar, T&T Mexican Cantina, Payard, Casa Fuente, Christian Audigier and 808 Noodle Bar.
Don Brinkerhoff, as chairman and CEO, guides Lifescapes International’s award-winning landscape architectural design team on virtually all projects worldwide. He received his profession’s highest honor when he became a fellow in 1998 of the American Society of Landscape Architects. His industry contributions include landscape terminology (“softscape,” “hardscape”) and cobblestone-patterned concrete paving (now an industry standard). Brinkerhoff received the American Gaming Association’s Sarno Award in 2006.
Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, moderator, is president and CFO of Lifescapes International. She has been with the firm since January 1982 and is responsible for sales, marketing, financial management and strategic planning. She is also a seasoned author and speaker on design and marketing related topics for the real estate industry (resort, residential, commercial/ mixed use and entertainment sectors). She was also responsible for creating the concept direction for a residential project, the Monet Collection, which won local, regional and national awards from MIRM, MAME (NAHB) in 1990. Brinkerhoff-Jacobs is also involved on the advisory board for G2E Institute and G2E Expo and the Urban Land Institute.
Brian Fagerstrom, AIA, is the president of WorthGroup Architects, a leading and award-winning design firm focused on commercial and Native American gaming, hospitality and entertainment work. Fagerstrom offers more than 20 years experience with an extensive background leading teams in substantial projects. Most recently, he led the firm’s work on the recently opened and highly acclaimed Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, Oklahoma; and the award-winning and unique historic casino property of French Lick Resort and Casino in Indiana, which has received numerous awards since opening, including the “Best Architectural Re-design for a Casino and Resort” from Casino Design Awards. Fagerstrom received his bachelor of architecture and bachelor of science in environmental design from North Dakota State University.
Brad Friedmutter, AIA, is founder and CEO of Friedmutter Group and a graduate of Cooper Union School of Architecture. In the hospitality industry for more than 35 years, Friedmutter worked as vice president of design and construction for Steve Wynn and Mirage Resorts, Inc., and as vice president of design and construction for Bally’s Inc. Friedmutter Group was incorporated in 1992 and provides architecture, themed design, master planning, interior design and branding services for hospitality and gaming projects throughout the United States.
Ann Fleming is the owner and principal of Las Vegas-based Cleo Design. Fleming is a Nevada registered interior designer with 10 years of design experience in the hospitality and gaming industry. She received her bachelor of science in architecture with emphasis in interior design from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1993. Fleming is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and has been certified by the National Council of Interior Design Qualifications. Prior to forming Cleo Design, Fleming and partner Ken Kulas were senior design professionals for Mirage Resorts. For more than eight years, they played a major role in virtually every design project of Mirage Resorts.
Rick Gardner is a principal with the Hnedak Bobo Group. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Gardner is a project architect with the firm, with more than 25 years professional experience in the architecture industry. During his career, he has been involved in the design and development of numerous award-winning projects, and is selected regularly by HBG to oversee projects for the gaming/entertainment market.
D. Kirk Harman is president and managing principal of the Harman Group. Harman leads the operation of the company which he co-founded in 1984 as Cagley Harman & Associates. The Harman Group provides full structural engineering services for a variety of building types including gaming, hospitality and entertainment. The firm also has an in-house parking design team, providing full-service planning and design for parking structures. Recent projects of note include the 5.5 million-square-foot Revel Casino Resort and the 42-story Chairman Tower at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
Paul Heretakis, RA, vice president of WESTAR Architects, has more than 15 years of experience overseeing hospitality design and mixed-use master planning projects throughout the world. WESTAR Architects is a key player in the hospitality design field and has worked with some of the largest gaming companies in the industry—Las Vegas Sands, MGM Mirage, Harrah’s Entertainment, Penn National Gaming, Trump Entertainment and others. His portfolio includes more than 1,000 casino, restaurant, retail and hotel projects.
Tom Hoskens, a principal with the Cuningham Group, has more than 30 years of experience in architecture with an emphasis on casinos, hotels and entertainment. He was principal-in-charge for $3 billion worth of destination resort design in the last four years alone. Hoskens’ commitment to client satisfaction includes highly responsive architectural and engineering teams. “Each team responds directly to the client to help drive clarity of communication and accuracy of information,” he says, ensuring large-scale, complex projects are completed on time and within budget.
John Platon, senior vice president of KHS&S, is responsible for securing profitable new projects and for identifying and developing opportunities for joint ventures and other business relationships that further KHS&S’ strategic goals for growth and expansion. Since joining KHS&S in 2001, Platon has played an integral role in KHS&S’ international expansion, has been instrumental in domestic expansion to numerous states and has helped secure some of the company’s largest and most prestigious projects, including the $800 million Red Rock Casino Resort. Educated in architecture at Long Beach State University in California and having more than 30 years of professional construction experience, Platon has worked in all facets of the construction process.
Barry Thalden, AIA, THALSA, is a partner with Thalden Boyd Ewing. He has more than 37 years of experience as an architect and an artist, and specializes in the design of hotels and casinos. Based in the Las Vegas office, Thalden works with many of the major casino and hotel owners. He has worked with outstanding companies both in gaming and in hotels and resorts, including Hyatt, Marriot, MGM Mirage, Holiday Inns Worldwide, Radisson, Caesars, Harrah’s, Entertainment Players International, Hilton and Donald Trump. He has been moderator and keynote speaker at national conventions held throughout North America, as well as the author of articles published in the gaming and resort industry’s leading magazines.
Edward A. Vance, AIA, is president and design principal of EV&A Architects, a specialty design firm serving hospitality, commercial and health care projects. In November 2006, Vance opened his firm EV&A Architects to better serve his client base and the profession. Located in Las Vegas, Nevada, his firm is currently staffed with more than 30 professionals uniquely qualified to serve the gaming, health care and hospitality markets. For more than 25 years, Vance has served his clients, his community and the profession of architecture. His work has led to numerous design awards and significant commissions with major hospitality, commercial and health care clients. Vance is a registered architect in 14 states, and is NCARB-certified. He earned his bachelor of arts and bachelor of architecture degrees from North Dakota State University.
Putting Food First
As any restaurant owner or operator will tell you, food and beverage is an extremely challenging and competitive industry, even during the best of times. A complex range of considerations must be mastered to create an exceptional dining and entertainment experience.
Food quality is, of course, one of the most important factors, but level of service, employee training programs, design aesthetic, revenue generation and the perceived value proposition for the patron are of equal significance. Particularly in today’s challenging economic environment—with the notable “trading down” effect in full force and discretionary consumers spending less and demanding more—the need for F&B properties to keep their product offerings fresh, current and distinguishing has never been greater.
For F&B operations specific to casino environments, there are other unique considerations. Amenities are a tool to drive customer traffic and provide both ancillary (non-gaming) and incremental (additional gaming) income. And research continues to indicate that food and beverage amenities rank among the most important criteria for potential patrons when finalizing their destination choice.
Your F&B offerings matter, and in this environment, they had better be cost-effective, exceptional and distinctive.
As we all know, it takes a lot more than a standout restaurant design to yield a successful operation. An award-winning design concept might drive traffic and interest, but if the quality of the overall experience doesn’t match up, the return on investment will never come. The most successful design solutions are those that are financially appropriate, complement the menu offerings and enhance the overall dining experience.
Today’s F&B market—particularly within casino environments—are still as much about the overall entertainment experience as they are about food. Although consumers are demanding more and spending less, the “eatertainment” age is still alive and well, with food, atmosphere, visual presence and design all supporting the overall impression. The key is to keep an eye on industry trends, and to stay current without over-spending on such elements as physical improvements.
Current renovation and improvement trends in the industry can provide ideas as to the “best bang for the buck” physical upgrades that your operation might want to consider.
Start With Research
Your first step in the design improvement process is market research. It is critical that you obtain and understand the data that will directly and indirectly impact your operations, including local and regional demographics and national industry trends. People are as passionate about food and wine as ever, and the overall target pool is broad.
The specific market parameters will play a huge role in what your offerings need to be, what the project looks like, and what it produces. Similarly, an increasing number of operators have outsourced to F&B advisory entities to help them conduct surveys and apply other research tools to better identify and understand the likes/dislikes and needs of their existing and potential client base.
This level of analysis can also help narrow decisions regarding level of service, branding or chain affiliation opportunities, specific decisions such as menu changes, and other key factors surrounding the goals of the property. Should the restaurant be themed or branded? What should menu specializations include? What level of design is appropriate? All of these questions can be answered with the right research.
So much of what restaurant managers and owners need to know about their restaurant is where they are and who they are. You can’t be all things to all people, but you are definitely one step ahead of your competition if you know who you are and what your client base demands. Investing in the right level of research can help you find the tipping point between your offerings and goals and the market potential and demand. If your new concept vision is organized and your goals match your customers, they will enjoy an unforgettable meal experience and you, as the owner, can deliver it to them for a profit.
Analysis To Decisions
Once you have collectively verified who you are and what you are providing, the focus shifts to delivering the product on budget. Your research should have clarified the number of seats that your facility should provide, how the property should be positioned, the focus of the menu offerings, brand or theme, and other differentiating strategies. All of these elements should be documented in your business plan and budget, and shared with your design and construction partners.
Your design and construction team is critical to the long-term success of your facility. The underlying theme of the property should be menu-centric, and the right design team will be able to demonstrate examples of how to translate these considerations into the built environment. Fees for designers and contractors are more competitive than they were just a few years ago, and operators are in a strong position to negotiate favorable contracts with excellent firms. Do your homework and seek out firms that had a hand in properties you like, and that can demonstrate both aesthetic and financial success.
A venue narrative is an excellent way for the operator and design team to begin to describe and visualize the desired end product. In fact, requiring a venue narrative from potential design teams is one option for helping identify the right partner to guide you through the process. It allows the operator to understand how the design team will develop and execute the concept, without requiring more extensive design services that many entities are hesitant to provide before the contract is executed.
Is Themed Design Dead?
Well, not exactly, but heavily themed properties are certainly less common than they were just a few years ago. Instead, the trend seems to have been pared down to those who execute theming best, and such inspirations as regional influences and (surprise! surprise!) the menu now drive design schemes. Not to mention that heavily themed spaces tend to be more expensive, which has led to a trend toward more streamlined, cost-effective solutions.
Regardless of whether a restaurant, bar or nightclub is themed or not, the “basics” always need to be the focus. And by basics, we mean those always-important physical attributes that help define a successful F&B operation—factors such as the entrance and first impression, lighting and acoustics, level of intimacy and a seating layout that is comfortable to both guests and employees.
The physical design of the space will set the tone for the experience, determining if the vibe is casual, calm and serene, or hip, contemporary and boisterous. And small physical components can make a huge difference. In many situations, design improvements can be made without more expensive, physical changes. Décor and tableware, menu upgrades and seating (re)arrangements can have a huge impact without extensive costs. The overall concept must promote operational efficiency, and in this regard, the seating layout is one of the most important physical considerations.
The floor plan must be fluid with proximity of key functions for employees, while still offering some level of privacy and intimacy for guests. The same of course holds true for the core of any food-based operation—the kitchen. Hire an external expert if you have to, but always prioritize the functionality and effectiveness of the kitchen area. The storage, food prep and equipment reorganizing projects you have been considering can have a big payoff in terms of productivity of your staff, so don’t rule them out. New solutions such as plug-and-play appliances and equipment on wheels mean that such upgrades are very possible at a reasonable price.
For F&B properties in or adjacent to a casino, some standard guidelines require that a typical 200-seat restaurant has in the range of 48 to 56 square feet per seat (average size between 9,600 to 11,200 square feet). Circulation and seating in a typical restaurant includes 28 square feet or 5,600 square feet for front-of-house operations and another 4,000 square feet for back-of-house operations.
When more dramatic physical changes are warranted, operators are often surprised to learn how comparatively cheap a lighting redesign can be, and how dramatic an impact a well-executed lighting scheme can have on a dining space. The same is true for flooring and other fixed upgrades, as well as the all-important acoustic quality and incorporation of such related elements as music. Total reconfiguration is another story, and when such extensive changes are made, it is important to get the right design and construction team on board.
If there is one “theme” that is catching on as of late, it is the shift toward sustainable design in both F&B and casino design. As restaurants look to differentiate from the competition and provide added dining experiences for guests, they should consider utilizing “green” building materials comprised of renewable resources.
Green materials are more environmentally responsible because they are evaluated over the lifetime of the product rather than just from the perspective of initial procurement and use. Examples of green building materials include bamboo, cork and cellulose insulation. Other sustainable applications can include more efficient appliances, energy-efficient lighting, on-site water filtration systems to reduce bottled water needs (and waste), and even expanded or dedicated storage areas to accommodate frequent deliveries from local food sources.
Often, the initial construction costs associated with these materials is higher than conventional building supplies. However, the higher costs tend to be effectively mitigated by the lower operational costs associated with long-term utilization. For example, a recent study commissioned by California’s Sustainable Building Task Force concluded that a 2 percent increase in building costs associated to green materials can lead to 20 percent increase in the life cycle of the design element.
What this means for casinos and F&B amenities with redesign or redevelopment plans is that the up-front costs of utilizing green materials is likely to pay off 10 times over. Additionally, as an increasing number of the customers understand, respect and expect sustainable practices, green construction can even be implemented into the marketing plan to drive more business and generate higher revenues.
Volume and Durability
As previously mentioned, casino food and beverage customers are “trading down” for more casual dining experiences. It follows that as this trend continues, the casual and mid-scale restaurants will need to emphasize higher customer traffic volumes to maintain overall revenue goals. Such strategies, while likely necessary, will inherently increase the wear and tear on the design materials and test the durability of the products currently used in the restaurant, specifically on such elements as seat cushions and coverings, banister edges, wall corners and carpeting.
As casinos look to build, redesign and refurbish the restaurants, it will be important to seek out materials with higher durability levels so that redesign investment yields some longevity. Casinos in general—and the F&B operations within them—are simply not seeing the same return on investment for major changes, so the focus continues to be on smaller improvements that yield a notable difference. The small incremental costs associated with utilizing more durable products will produce returns by not having to constantly repair and replace fledgling materials. Additionally, more durable products, in most cases, are of higher quality and will present a more polished design experience for the customer.
Technologies and Systems
In addition to basic front-of-house considerations such as the first impression at the entrance and the seating layout, there are other technologies and systems to factor into renovation and upgrade projects. Point-of-sale systems, procurement and warehousing needs, beverage delivery systems, audio/visual enhancements, security and observation systems, and specialty F&B equipment are just a few of the technical components that can bring significant ROI to the operation when upgraded.
In addition, for casino-specific environments, management should evaluate opportunities to tie into the overall property marketing strategies. Some of the trends that are finding success throughout the country include food/wine-pairing tastings, and themed food and entertainment events that provide the perfect opportunity for the property’s F&B facilities to showcase their offerings and drive traffic to the overall resort.
Joint participation is beneficial because it allows the F&B property to take advantage of the database mining and player club strategies of the main casino. Incorporating designated areas within your facility to allow for such high-profile function integration is a smart and cost-effective strategy if the space allows.
Consumers are “trading down” but keeping expectations high. And F&B operators need to follow suit. Massive expansions and high-dollar renovations are not as common as they were just a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean that targeted improvements with dramatic impacts can’t be achieved for very reasonable budgets.
Make your next improvement project a wise investment by focusing on notable upgrades to the basics of your facility, and making decisions that are financially appropriate for the economic conditions.
Decades ago, few people in the gaming industry pondered the environmental consequences of drawing millions of people to gamble 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As gaming grew beyond Nevada’s borders, technology evolved, and it became possible to design sophisticated, sustainable casinos that conserve energy and resources while entertaining the masses.
Architecture and interior design are an integral part of crafting green resorts; designers contribute their knowledge of renewable resources and energy efficiency to casino operators, who must then decide if their bottom line allows for sustainable practices. Many gaming operators have found that the return on investment for environmental consciousness is high enough to justify the initial expenditures. As the world’s consumers become more conscientious of protecting the earth and technology moves into the future, casino designers continue to present their visions of sustainable resorts.
As environmental sustainability has pervaded the public consciousness, consumers are expecting businesses to reduce their carbon footprints. The hospitality industry is no exception.
Founded in 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification process as a professional standard for energy efficiency and environmental design. Potential LEED candidates are awarded points in seven categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation in design and regional priority. The regional category was created for projects to earn points by addressing important environmental issues in their areas. LEED-certified projects can earn the base certification, or silver, gold or platinum standings.
Persuading casino operators to upgrade their existing buildings according to LEED standards, or to build new resorts with green materials, is the job of architects, who must present a range of options from which developers can choose. Design firm Cuningham Group, which counts the Cherokee Indians’ Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in North Carolina and the Red Hawk Casino in California as two of its green projects, offers no-cost, low-cost, moderate-cost and expensive-cost sustainable design choices to its clients.
“From an interior standpoint, a lot of times it’s explaining what the return on investment might be on switching from a non-green product to a green product,” says Michele Espeland, head of interiors at Cuningham Group. “A lot of times, square-foot costs get misconstrued when you look at a certain material versus another material, and one is and one isn’t renewable or with recycled content, but there’s always an ROI involved in that. We have to be educated on how to explain that and get them to understand that it’s not just the initial cost.”
Sustainable materials are often associated with high costs, but Jon Sparer, principal of YWS Architects, says the 30 percent premiums that were once quoted to casino clients are no longer applicable. Costs have declined in recent years, and as LEED standards become more common, Sparer thinks building codes are going to evolve to reflect sustainable methods.
Casino design projects are eligible for LEED certification, though buildings that allow smoking indoors—as casinos in many jurisdictions, including Nevada, do—cannot obtain LEED certification. Casinos that are designed according to LEED standards, such as Las Vegas Sands’ Palazzo and MGM Mirage’s Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter, have obtained certification for their hotels, but not their gaming floors.
“It’s a prerequisite for LEED certification that you can’t have smoking in the building,” Sparer says. “Anywhere where you can have smoking in casinos, that’s the biggest hurdle with the clients, with the owners of casinos. They know if they can’t have smoking in their casino, it’s a huge hit on the bottom line. If they’re allowed to have smoking in a casino, they’re absolutely going to demand that we design a building with smoking, which of course knocks you off for LEED certification.”
Aria garnered LEED gold certification despite its smoker-friendly gaming floor due to a separate ventilation system that filters smoky air and a displacement floor system that pushes air up instead of cooling from the ceiling down. These technological innovations are the tip of the iceberg for CityCenter, the gaming world’s leading green resort.
It began with the Palazzo’s opening on the Las Vegas Strip in April 2008. Certified LEED silver by the U.S. Green Building Council, the resort was the largest green building in the world. The Palazzo incorporated solar-powered swimming pools, energy-efficient irrigation and a structure made of largely recycled steel. The resort was on the forefront of sustainable architecture.
Then CityCenter opened in December 2009 and changed the game of sustainable design. Never before had such an expansive project been designed to have a minimal effect on the environment.
Executive architect Gensler, a firm that has a reputation for its commitment to environmental sustainability, oversaw the design of CityCenter, and when the meta-resort opened, it garnered gold LEED certifications for Aria Resort & Casino, Vdara Hotel & Spa, Mandarin Oriental, the Crystals retail complex and the two Veer Towers. The Harmon Hotel is also expected to pursue LEED certification when it opens.
CityCenter’s architects combined a variety of design techniques to lessen the resort’s carbon footprint. From installing low-flow showerheads and sourcing wood from Forest Stewardship Council-approved forests to constructing a natural gas plant on-site and designing slot machine bases as air conditioning units, techniques both standard and groundbreaking were deployed in an effort to make the project less detrimental to the environment.
In a rare move for the city that destroys historical relics to make way for the future, CityCenter also incorporated 80 percent of the materials from the imploded Boardwalk Hotel into its structure, or arranged to have them reused in other places.
“This is a collection of buildings that will change the way we look at buildings,” S. Richard Fedrizzi, CEO and founder of the U.S. Green Building Council, said in a statement when the LEED certifications were announced. “We honestly believe these buildings will change the world. CityCenter was developed with a sense of purpose and quality and will inspire those around the world.”
It remains to be seen if CityCenter has changed the world, but its commitment to sustainable architecture presents a large-scale model for future resorts to follow.
Cut Costs, Save Environment
Two main areas where architectural input is crucial in designing sustainable casino resorts are lighting and heating/cooling. Casinos run up incredible energy costs in these two areas, and designers can provide innovative and energy-efficient alternatives to standard lighting and heating/cooling practices.
While CityCenter has set the bar with its displacement floor system, which cools from the ground up rather than from the ceiling down, where cool air is wasted, designers have presented ways for casino operators to heat and cool their resorts more efficiently.
“Mechanical systems are oftentimes replaced to improve the indoor air quality,” says Cuningham Group principal architect John Culligan. “Most casinos basically bring in 100 percent outside air. It only cycles through once and then it’s exhausted out. That’s tremendously inefficient, so what happens is you use an energy recovery wheel, so that as the hot or cool air comes back through the system, the energy is absorbed in the wheel, and that helps preheat or pre-cool the air coming into the facility, so that it proves a much better indoor air quality in an energy-efficient manner.”
YWS Architects’ Sparer prefers contemporary architecture, with exposed finishes and expansive glass windows, but says it is challenging to design for both aesthetic and sustainable functions.
“You get really limited on the area of vision glass you can have in the hotel room,” Sparer says. “Where we’d like to have just walls of glass, especially when a room would have a good view, you just can’t do that with an LEED-certified building because of the energy that you lose through the glass. That’s a big challenge.”
CityCenter spared no cost for combining energy efficiency and aesthetic appeal; according to the Wall Street Journal, MGM Mirage allowed designer Helmut Jahn to use a ceramic coating to block heat from the sun on the glass windows of the condominiums at Veer Towers. The coating was an expensive option, but Jahn preferred that to other heat-blocking alternatives, and MGM obliged.
Natural light’s infusion of heat during summer months can increase energy costs, as can the wrong type of artificial lighting. Casinos once used incandescent bulbs, which evolved to fluorescent bulbs, and the latest trend is LED lighting.
“Lighting is a very big piece,” Sparer says. “We’ve really seen the advent of LED lights take over, especially in the casinos, which is terrific. They’re low-energy; they produce very little heat or no heat. The electrical systems get smaller because of the amount of electricity the LED lights take to run. The problem is they’re much more expensive going in. The engineering departments in the casinos absolutely love the LED lights because their life is 100 times more than the typical incandescent light. They’ve accepted it more because it’s a maintenance rather than an LEED component, but secondarily they’re saving a lot of money on their electric bills.”
Aside from LED bulbs, architects are designing lighting schemes that are more efficient while also satisfying the casino customer.
“In the Harrah’s Cherokee hotel, we implemented a one-off button, so when you’re leaving the room, you can just push this button and it’ll turn every light in the room off,” Espeland says. “That’s really beneficial to this room, because it’s a very highly designed room. The lighting is complicated; there’s accent lighting, art lighting, ambient lighting. They like that because they can set the mood depending on the time of day that the guest is arriving, so when the guest is leaving, they don’t have to run around the room and try to find all the switches, just one button when they leave and they can just turn everything off.”
When designing a resort, architects must consider the surrounding environment. Cuningham Group has experience designing regional casinos, and Culligan says the firm starts with three basic principles: site, shelter and comfort.
“There are differences in regions, but when you start with a project and you start with a site, we want to minimize the building footprint, maximize open space,” he says. “On that particular project—Harrah’s Cherokee—we did an awful lot, because it was a very tight site with mountains surrounding it and a creek running through it. It was a long, linear site.
“Storm water management was a huge element of sustainability because we needed to reduce water runoff and downstream erosion of the existing creek and beyond. As part of that, we specified pervious concrete and brick for the road system. The benefits of that, obviously, are that the water percolates through it rather than running off on asphalt. Basically that will recharge the ground water through infiltration.”
The exterior of the Harrah’s Cherokee property also reflects Cuningham Group’s commitment to innovative sustainable design.
“We also created a half-acre green porte-cochere roof, which basically helps reduce the heat island effect—added heat on the site,” Culligan says. “It had kind of a low-growth, pre-planted sedum roof to help reduce runoff. From a design perspective, the structure—as with the rest of the roofs—they’re curved to reflect the Smoky Mountains that surround the property. As you’re coming in, you can see the grass roof on the porte-cochere that is supposed to reflect the rolling hills of the surrounding areas. That was an opportunity where the design and sustainable strategy worked very hand in hand, as they always do.”
Cuningham Group also designed the Isleta Pueblo’s Isleta Casino & Resort in Albuquerque, New Mexico—now known as Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Albuquerque—which presented its own set of unique challenges.
“We provided site walls around the property at Isleta to control the wind-swept sand to protect the buildings, doors, windows, mechanical equipment—which clogged very easily—the pool, the spa,” Culligan says.
Resorts around the world, from the mountain ranges of America to the shores of China, are recognizing the need for environmental consciousness in all aspects of business, including design. As more and more casino operators are choosing to upgrade their projects according to green standards, Sparer says the time may soon come when building codes will mandate sustainability and efficiency.
“I think the understanding, the sophistication and the awareness that everybody has now, just as an owner and as a consumer, as architects, as builders, I think it’s only going to get more and more responsible in the design and construction of all buildings, especially now that we see what’s happening in the Gulf Coast,” Sparer says. “We’re really hammered pretty strong as a people on what the environment is all about and that we all need to step up and do everything we can to protect it.
“For the owners, when they see their electric bills go down and they see the life of lights getting longer, they see the maintenance costs go down for changing out LED lights, that’s their bottom line. That’s a big motivator for owners. The future of green design is going to be right in the building department, in the building codes. It’s going to be the way you have to design and you have to build because it’s going to be required. It’s a good thing.”
Design Meets Tech
Casino design has always been all about aesthetics. In the old days, the aesthetics were simple: Dark reds, no natural light, nothing to distract customers from the games. Eventually, design evolved into creating various spaces where people can escape everyday life, whether gambling or not.
Of course, parallel to the evolution of casino design has been the evolution of technology—technology in the games themselves, and in the displays surrounding the games within the casino.
Technology has certainly given designers and architects unprecedented abilities to show clients their concepts, as computer modeling has replaced sketches and allowed designers to present virtual tours of the space they intend to create. “Everything is explored through 3D computer models now,” comments Rick Gardner, senior partner of architecture firm Hnedak Bobo Group. “It allows you to quickly organize plans, and provides a great communication tool between designers and operators.”
“The advent of computer-based design has transformed our industry,” adds Michael Prifti, managing principal of BLT Architects. “We can offer photo-realistic renderings, and real-time movement through a space. Through a web interface, we have the ability to let you, using your mouse pad, turn around, walk up stairs, go in an elevator—choose where you want to go.”
These virtual trips through spaces that do not yet physically exist provide perhaps the best advancement in designer/client communication during conceptual stages, but what about the concepts themselves? How has technology changed the way a casino floor is designed?
Not much in its most basic form. Gardner says that other than the casino cage placement—it is much less important since the advent of ticketing slots and self-payment kiosks—technology has not changed the overall layout. “In overall design and macro space planning, I don’t think design has fundamentally changed,” he says. “The relationship between slots and tables is the same—we want clear way-finding, we emphasize the perimeter, we have good relationships between food and gaming areas, and parking. On a broad level, it hasn’t change a lot.”
What has changed, though, is the environment that can be created within that broad space. Some of these changes can be attributed simply to advancements in the materials used to create the fine details of a casino property. For example, new, lighter materials can combine with energy-efficient lighting in some areas of a casino resort to enable use of top-quality elements in other areas, even without a top-luxury budget. “We’re constantly looking at and testing new materials that achieve the visual effect or technical requirements we need, that can also be built faster and/or for less money,” says Prifti. “The savings let you use materials elsewhere in the property that are richer.
“We can save money if the overall building is lighter. Exterior panels of carbon-reinforced cement can be used instead of steel. The panels can be extremely thin; they can be delivered by truck and installed quickly. That saving can be put into higher-end elements in the quality of the floor, the millwork, or the character of the lighting—things that customers will notice.”
Advanced technology outside the realm of architecture also can give designers more freedom in planning the casino room. Tom Hoskens, a principal in the architectural firm Cuningham Group, says video surveillance technology is a prime example. “I love the new surveillance cameras,” he says. “Because of advances in camera technology, we can now create higher ceilings, and we can create lighting effects that never were possible before. We can now put a ceiling up 40 feet, and the cameras are still able to read the cards. It gives us a freedom; it puts more tools in our toolbox.”
While the basic design of a casino floor has remained constant over the years, designers have had to adapt to the changing technology of what the operators will ultimately place in that space. Elements like video and computerized lighting must now be considered during the design phase.
“We still have basic axioms on how you lay out a gaming floor, but what technology has enabled us to do is to activate niche areas that before were somewhat dead,” says Hoskens. “It goes to the types of lighting we’re using—LED, inside and outside, with computer controls, and video monitors. Now, if someone wins a jackpot, I can let it be known throughout the casino. The excitement and feeding frenzy you formerly created around 20 machines can now be created throughout your casino.”
Formerly dead space can now be occupied by ever-changing displays of video, lights and other display features, Hoskens says, adding that video can be used to cross-sell various attractions in the casino.
Gardner agrees. “The biggest thing we’ve seen along the lines of the aesthetic elements of a casino floor is that video is very prevalent, not just in the sports bar but everywhere,” he says. “That video becomes a good tool for the operator in advertising events and promotions.”
Gardner notes that in the past, it would have been unthinkable to include such distractions as video of sporting events or promotions on a casino floor. “But we’ve become accustomed to a steady flow of stimulus—multi-tasking. Even those of us over 50 are accustomed to such technology, so it’s not a distraction anymore.”
The multitude of stimuli extends to the games themselves, which typically have their own video and light shows going. “The graphics on the slot products have become phenomenal,” says Hoskens. “We’ve got electronic ladies dealing blackjack in a bikini, and they look pretty darned good! Operators are able to place these around the casino to activate areas. I was in Australia, and noticed how horse-racing and keno games are used to take a dead corner and activate it with a huge screen. It’s gone a long way to revolutionizing how a floor can be designed.”
“With all the new video and lighting technology, the gaming floor has become very dynamic and kinetic,” says Gardner. “The operator can change the mood of the environment, and with video and lighting, all this activity has become an important part of the aesthetic. Because of that, the style of casinos is becoming more contemporary.”
The other effect of the changing technology in lighting, video and the displays surrounding the games themselves is that designers must plan for the dynamic nature of the visuals that will end up on the floor. In other words, slot floor designs must be flexible.
“For the casino operator, technology has become far more sophisticated,” notes Joel Bergman, chairman of architectural firm Bergman, Walls & Associates, Ltd. “The operator is able to track the play of customers more precisely. Feedback is instantaneous, so the operators are able to adjust the gaming floor. My job is to make sure they have the flexibility to do that.”
“We’re building more flexibility into the design of the floor,” says Prifti of BLT Architects. “Raised floor decks, cabling from copper to fiber. Table games remain in a fixed place, but slots will move continually up until the day you open. The floor layout must handle that ability to change the floor.”
The design challenges only stand to increase as the nature of games on the slot floor changes. Server-based gaming, community-style games and the arrival of the Xbox generation on the casino floor will inevitably lead to more changes in floor layout.
“The games will evolve,” says Hoskens. “Just look at what’s out there today. Who would ever have guessed that Star Trek would be a game? There is a lot more coming out. You’ll end up playing war games with your buddy at the next machine.”
“The games themselves are going to change to suit human tastes, to a degree not yet known,” says Prifti. “What will be the allure? If someone’s playing this game, what will the significant other be doing? What completely different thing is there that someone’s going to want to do? Xbox and PC games? What about online fantasy sports leagues? Some states allow sports betting—will fantasy sports betting come? The gaming floor will have to adapt to these changes.”
Energy and Comfort
In the end, what technology has not changed about casino design is that the end product must provide a good mix of collective energy and individual player comfort.
The collective energy certainly has been helped along by the new games, but Gardner says spacing of the games in the layout also has become a fine art. “There’s an interesting balance on the casino floor,” he says. “You want it to feel full—a crowded place creates its own energy. At the same time, personal space has increased. It’s a fine balance between energy and comfort.
“Twenty years ago, casino layouts were disorganized on purpose. Fundamentally, most designers now make sure there’s clear organization and path finding. You create landmarks with center bars and other architectural features so people don’t get lost.”
For Bergman, advanced technology is fine, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of that player comfort. “Some of our facilities take advantage of LED lighting and rapid-changing colors, but we’re very careful not to do it to distraction,” he says. “Design is still about people, and the relationship of people to the equipment. It’s not only about how we arrange and organize the gaming floor itself but all of the peripherals and margins around the gaming floor.”
Bergman also stresses the fact that technology has given designers additional tools doesn’t mean those tools always need to be used. The ability to make ceilings higher, for instance, is a matter of what the designer’s goal is for a particular space.
“Height is more about the mood we want to create,” says Bergman. “In some, a higher ceiling is desirable for aesthetic reasons, and in others, we keep it lower to create a comfy-cozy atmosphere for the players. The fact we can spot the number of hairs on an eyebrow with the cameras is not as important as making the player more comfortable.”
In the end, all the designers agree that advanced technology has simply afforded the tools to create designs more efficiently—the designs themselves still boil down to creating a space where customers want to be. In this respect, Bergman cautions casinos to use technology to augment the human touch, rather than to replace it.
“If we want the customer to feel comfortable in a space, it has less to do with technology than color and texture—combined with how the operator makes the player feel,” Bergman says. “Technology is wonderful, but if it eliminates the personal contact an operator has with his customers, it won’t matter—because you’ll have an empty casino.”
The Three R’s: Refresh/Renovate/RetrofitThe Three R’s: Refresh/Renovate/Retrofit
Last October, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Indian Nation pulled the plug on a planned $300 million renovation of the Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks, California.
The project would have added a 10-story hotel and two dozen cottages, and more than tripled the number of guest rooms at the property. Suspension of the plan was “a pretty straight-ahead business decision,” said tribal spokesman Brent Andrew, based on the still-struggling economy. The tribe settled for an upgrade of the existing hotel.
The Jamestown S’Klallam tribe of Washington State, which plans a $50 million hotel complex for its 7 Cedars Casino, will not break ground for several years at least, due to the soft economy. “We have some beautiful renderings,” said CEO Jerry Allen—but that’s all they will have until about 2022.
In Buffalo, New York, the Seneca Nation recently completed a $9 million expansion of its temporary casino, which opened in 2007. But the temporary facility—with 223 more slot machines and 5,000 square feet of added gaming space—sits in the shadow of the stalled permanent casino, a steel hulk that has actually begun to rust. Construction on the $333 million permanent casino was halted in 2008, due to the economy.
And the stories go on and on. Tribal casinos that once made ambitious plans to overhaul and expand their casino properties have been forced by a historic recession and jittery lenders to base their renovation cycles on necessity alone.
According to Smith Travel Research, which compiles data for the hospitality industry, construction projects were down by more than one-third between December 2007 and September 2009. Projects on the drawing board at that time were cut by 26 percent. And beautiful renderings continue to gather dust at gaming companies around the U.S.
It’s a matter of simple math. Capital expenditures for improvements typically derive from a percentage of revenues (hotels, for example, usually reserve 4 percent to 5 percent of annual gross revenues to offset upgrades; some brand-related “refresh” programs mandate capital improvements every five to seven years).
But with revenues down 10 percent, 20 percent, even 30 percent in some sectors, discretionary expenditures are the first thing to drop off the to-do list. In an increasingly competitive industry, however, delaying essential upgrades is not an option.
When major overhauls are out of the question, tribes are staying competitive by practicing the Three R’s: refresh, renovate, retrofit.
Next to Godliness
The most cost-efficient upgrade is a soft-goods renovation—replacing pillows, bed linens, curtains, etc.
“Once you’ve taken care of fire and life safety and made sure your physical plant is running smoothly—the AC is working, there’s no leaky roof—you have to make sure everything the guests touch on a regular basis is clean: the bedspread, the duvet cover, throw pillows, linens, draperies and sheets,” says Bill Langmade, president of Purchasing Management International, LP of Dallas, the leading purchasing agent for the gaming industry. “Most gaming properties have very high occupancies—80 percent and 90 percent, where 65 percent and 75 percent is the norm. So the rooms in these hotels get beat up more quickly.” As a property ages, capital expenses and the cost of repairs and maintenance increase.
A soft-goods renovation—which also involves touching up nicked or scratched furniture and replacing upholstery and carpet—can save about 60 percent to 70 percent of the price of a hard-goods renovation.
“Leave the lighting alone,” says Langmade. “Leave the art alone, the wall coverings, the TV, but replace or repair anything that your guest feels or touches. If that’s the only thing you do to keep the decision-maker from choosing to go elsewhere, do it. Because once you lose a customer, they never come back.”
Minimal improvements can also justify rate increases, so the investment will be recouped over time.
“Refresh a room and you can expect to get an extra couple of bucks in rentals,” says Langmade. “Or you can discount the room and drive that occupancy into the casino. At least you won’t be losing money.”
Newly upgraded rooms are also cause for an ad blitz: “Come see our new look.” But there are downsides to phased renovations, Langmade says.
“You’ll get a better buy if you do all 300 rooms at once instead of 100 rooms at a time, and you certainly don’t want to be in an interminable renovation that lasts for years at a time. If you have the money, yes, it’s best to get in, get out and get it over with.
“But if you’re limited in capital, find those things that guests touch, and fix or replace them as you can. The best thing you can do for a casino is maintain it meticulously, have the greatest crew, give them tools to keep it as clean as possible, and repair as you go along.”
Price vs. Value
Lee Cagley, principal of the interior design firm Cagley and Tanner of Las Vegas, rejects the notion that effective upgrades have to come with a big price tag.
“There’s a difference between quality and expense,” says Cagley. “It’s a fallacy to say it’s easier to do a design when lots of money is involved. The work we’ve done most recently was well-priced to begin with.”
He recommends judicious spending on furniture, fixtures and equipment, economizing on some items, and splurging on those that have maximum impact.
“For years, the classic East Coast uniform for a woman was a Lilly Pulitzer dress and an Hermes scarf,” Cagley says. “In times like these, I may have to use full lead crystal in a chandelier, but I don’t have to spend $10,000 a yard on the fabric that hangs around it. You put your money in a specific place where it changes the perception of the entirety.”
Cagley believes effective lighting is always a good investment. The goal in a casino, he says, is to keep the lighting primarily at eye level, which creates a sense of comfort and familiarity, mimicking residential lighting.
“Sometimes in casinos, the only thing at eye level that’s lighted is the slot machine face. So you have a black ceiling with down-lights that show every scrap of paper on the floor.” Far better to “layer” light at and near eye level through sconces, cove lighting, hanging lamps and illuminated columns, he says. “It’s a hard job to do, but when it’s done right, the finished space has an indefinable glow” that enhances every offering on the floor.
Though the casino is a world unto itself, a self-contained universe of entertainment, Cagley advocates a blend of the familiar and the aspirational that both soothes and excites.
“People love to try on alternate lifestyles, imagine what it would be like to be some Saudi prince or a rock-and-roller. But they also want to feel comfortable, and the point of reference for that is their home.” It’s vital, he says, to create many spaces within one space, and design pathways that lead guests to different kinds of entertainment, be it a bank of table games, a nightclub or a restaurant.
By their nature, he says, “casinos want to be great, big, huge, column-free spaces. But people don’t live in warehouses and they don’t live in barns. You want to break massive spaces into smaller units so your guests don’t feel like they’re one of 10,000 people sitting on a slot machine stool.”
Telling the Story
“Casinos are very similar to retail or theme parks from the standpoint of creating paths or walkways that draw customers along, creating excitement and interest throughout the journey,” says Tom Hoskens, principal of the Cuningham Group. “Reconfiguring gaming areas is an ongoing thing with casinos,” which constantly monitor the hot spots and dead spots on and around the casino floor.
At the recently renovated Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota, designer John Culligan of the Cuningham Group created a dynamic, lava-like “Golden River” ceiling feature that both articulates the gaming floor and leads guests on a journey through the resort’s many entertainment venues.
Mystic Lake, owned and operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, is the Midwest’s largest gaming hall. Its “multi-phased, Las Vegas-style renovation” was designed to reignite the excitement for existing patrons, and entice a new demographic as well.
It’s a delicate balance, introducing new features yet retaining enough of the familiar that longtime guests—who already enjoy and patronize the venue—don’t feel excluded.
“Part of the challenge of renovation is to keep it as comfortable and as homey as you can for loyal patrons, making it better and easier to navigate,” says Hoskens, so that the change is more an improvement than a radical departure that could alienate base customers.
Though Las Vegas remains the standard, most tribal designs continue to reflect the community’s heritage and association with nature. The design at Mystic Lake included multiple natural finishes—granite, onyx, a variety of woods—to evoke the flowing water, craggy banks and verdant landscape of the Minnesota River Valley.
The same principle applied at Harrah’s Cherokee, now in the midst of a $633 million overhaul that will make its hotel the largest in North Carolina (it is one of few massive renovations that went forward despite the recession). There, Cuningham designers created “a revision of a modern Smoky Mountains lodge concept inside the casino itself,” says Hoskens, with an unfolding interior path that includes artistic representations of rivers, valleys, woodlands and mountains. They guide patrons through the space, make iteasy to explore without confusion, and recall the tribe's history at the
“We have a slogan here, ‘Every building tells a story,’” says Hoskens. “If you tell that story correctly, you capture the soul of the place and the people.”
Timing Is Everything
In the years leading up to the recession (when all those renderings were being rendered), the building industry enjoyed a spike in both renovation and new construction. Costs of labor and raw materials soared. According to RS Means, a building costs data firm, the price of construction rose a median 8.6 percent between 2004 and 2006.
That pendulum has clearly swung in the opposite direction. According to some figures, construction costs were down 15 percent to 20 percent in fourth-quarter 2009, and construction saw the highest unemployment rate of any sector. Despite signs that the economy is inching toward recovery, many projects are currently being bid at cost or even below, and competition is keen among vendors, contractors and subcontractors.
But the trend will not continue indefinitely, and some experts predict a rush to build in 2019 that mirrors the post-9/11 recovery. This could be the time to make a deal, and ensure that your property is primed to take advantage of the rebound.
Since 1994, the mission of Bergman Walls & Associates Ltd. has been to provide each client the highest level of individualized service, regardless of project type or size. The firm specializes in entertainment architecture, including resorts, casinos, condo-hotels, conference facilities, restaurants, nightclubs and performance venues. BWA also has extensive experience in mixed-use and high-rise residential projects.
With offices in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Ho Chi Minh City and Manila, Bergman Walls & Associates brings together a group of highly experienced, talented, energetic and diverse professionals in an atmosphere of innovation and creativity. Services include architecture, planning, interior design, conceptual design and three-dimensional visualization. Every project is headed by a partner-in-charge who commits their personal attention to the project from conception through documentation, construction and client move-in. The firm utilizes the latest technologies for communication with the client, consultants and construction team members.
Bergman Walls & Associates believes that sustainability is fundamental to all design. The company is a member of the United States Green Building Council, has extensive experience with LEED certification and is actively increasing the number of LEED accredited professionals within the firm.
Early work as in-house architects for Steve Wynn on the Mirage and Treasure Island has led the founders of Bergman Walls & Associates to create projects that are icons defining their genre. Projects include Paris Casino Resort; Augustus, Octavius and Palace Towers at Caesars Palace; Trump International Hotel & Tower; and the Signature at MGM Grand. Recent projects also include the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, the L’Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino in Lake Charles and the Cirque du Soleil Theater at the Luxor Hotel.
Entertainment venues include the LAX and PURE nightclubs, Casa Fuente and Rhumbar. Restaurants include Payard Patisserie & Bistro, Guy Savoy, Rao’s, Tacos & Tequila, the Capital Grille and the new Social House at CityCenter.
The firm is proud to have a history of success with its Native American clients. Projects include Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and Little Six Casino for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community; Casino Snoqualmie for the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe; Salishan-Mohegan Casino for the Mohegan and Cowlitz Indian Tribes; and Barona Valley Ranch Resort for the Barona Band of Mission Indians. In addition, BWA has been involved in conceptual design and master planning for various tribes across the country.
International projects span the globe and include work in Vietnam, Greece, Australia and Ghana, West Africa, with conceptual studies in Japan, Romania and Peru.
The firm’s goal is simple: that its projects be remembered for their distinctive architecture, excellent guest experience, operational efficiency and financial success.
For more information, visit www.bwaltd.com.
Cleo Design’s mission is simple: to underscore a high level of creativity with exceptional attention to function, client needs and individual tastes. Creating a space that reflects a sense of place is the firm’s ultimate goal.
“It is as if the world is suddenly viewed with 3D glasses and the amount of detail is revealed in all of its spaces,” says Cleo Design principal Ken Kulas.
Although securely grounded and seasoned in the technical and organizational skills required for the hospitality industry, Cleo’s approach to design differs from its competitors.
“It’s in our nature to not only follow the rules but create new ones,” Kulas says. “Never repeat, never be complacent and never get bored. Design is not just a profession, but it is part of the passion that moves us forward.”
The team at Cleo Design is an imaginative group with a history of collaborating with one another in innumerable projects for most of their professional careers. Yet, each member works as an individual, bringing varied concepts and perspectives to the same project. The team’s striking capabilities reflect in Cleo’s highly diverse projects from coast to coast, in venues ranging from casino and resort interiors, related public areas, bars and lounges, restaurants and retail locations.
The award-winning firm was founded in 2000, with principals Ann Fleming and Kulas overseeing some of the biggest gaming and entertainment design projects conceptualized this decade. From MGM Grand Detroit and Seminole Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida to CityCenter’s Viva Elvis Cirque du Soleil theater in Las Vegas, Cleo Design has consistently tackled the most cutting edge spaces and given them success, elegance and life.
For more information, visit www.cleo-design.com.
Cuningham Group transcends tradition with architecture, interior design, urban design and planning services for a diverse mix of client and project types, including a significant focus on gaming, casino and entertainment destinations.
Cuningham Group’s client-centered, collaborative approach incorporates trend-setting architecture and environmental responsiveness to create projects that weave seamlessly into the urban fabric. While design excellence through collaboration is always their goal, the development of green solutions for their clients and the planet is also a priority. They believe each project should be designed for the betterment of the community and society as a whole, and sustainability and green design are a natural extension of their core ideologies.
Throughout their 19-year history of designing gaming and resort destinations, Cuningham Group’s stature in the industry continues to grow. Their success in designing creative and profitable gaming resort environments has led to multiple gaming industry awards and repeat work from clients.
Cuningham Group’s portfolio of completed projects represents a full array of casinos, hotels, theaters, convention centers, restaurants, retail venues, parking structures and support facilities that comprise gaming and resort destinations. Included are the Harrah’s Cherokee Great Smoky Mountain Casino Resort, the new hotel and convention center at the Isleta Casino & Resort in New Mexico, the River Spirit Casino in Oklahoma, the Red Hawk Casino in California, Palace Casino Resort in Mississippi and seven casino resorts for Grand Casinos/Lakes Entertainment, just to name a few.
Their extensive experience allows them to offer clients the professional design expertise essential for creating environments that attract guests, increase profitability and encourage repeat visits.
Founded in 1968, the firm is consistently recognized as a leader in the field of architecture and has grown to more than 160 employees with offices in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Biloxi, Bakersfield and Seoul.
Cuningham Group’s gaming, hospitality and entertainment projects can be found in Europe and Asia and throughout the United States, including projects in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota and Michigan.
For more information, visit www.cuninghamgroup.com.
Friedmutter Group Architecture & Interior Design Studios, founded in 1992 by Brad Friedmutter, is an award-winning design, architecture and master planning firm specializing in multi-use hospitality/casino/ entertainment projects of all sizes.
Friedmutter Group offers high-quality, innovative design solutions to clients all over the world. From core and shell architectural design to interior fit-out, the firm’s offices in Las Vegas, New York, Newport Beach, California and Hong Kong are well positioned to meet the needs of its clients. Friedmutter Group’s critical understanding of the many required elements, from site selection and development to operating essentials, has proved invaluable to clients in new and existing gaming markets and keep Friedmutter Group at the forefront of innovation, design and leadership in the casino/hospitality industry.
Brad Friedmutter has assembled a dynamic and experienced team of senior design professionals that have won numerous industry awards. Recent honors include the 2006 Architectural Design Company of the Year (American Gaming Institute & Reed Exhibitions); the 2009 National Design-Build Award of Excellence for Quechan Resort Casino (Design-Build Institute of America); nine 2007 HOSPY Design Awards for Red Rock Resort; and dozens of additional design awards for Green Valley Ranch, IP Casino Resort, Cache Creek Resort, Harrah’s AC Resort and many more. In addition, Friedmutter himself is frequently honored for his myriad contributions to the industry. Recent honors and awards include Brad’s induction to the 2009 Hospitality Design Platinum Circle, honoring career achievement in the hospitality industry; the 2008 Hospitality Industry Network Lifetime Achievement Award; and the prestigious 2007 Sarno Lifetime Achievement Award for Casino Design.
Friedmutter Group’s core expertise is the master planning, theming, architectural design and interior design of mixed-use projects comprised of hotels, casinos, entertainment complexes, convention facilities, spas, retail and high-end hotel/condominium towers. The firm understands and plans for the ease of use and circulation of large numbers of people into, through and out of venues, and the architects know the importance of speed and efficiency in the design and construction process.
Friedmutter Group has designed and assisted in the successful opening of hospitality, casino and entertainment projects well in excess of $14 billion. Notable projects include Station Casinos’ AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Green Valley Ranch Resort; the exciting and highly praised Red Rock Resort, Casino and Spa; the groundbreaking Cosmopolitan Resort on the Las Vegas Strip; and the skyline-transforming Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.
Friedmutter Group has worked with a wide range of owners and operators, including Harrah’s Entertainment, Cosmopolitan Resort, Station Casinos, Gun Lake Tribe, Navajo Nation, Seminole Gaming, Quechan Tribe, Foxwood’s Development Inc., Trump Enter-tainment Resorts and many more.
For more information, visit www.friedmuttergroup.com.
Hnedak Bobo Group’s approach to casino design reflects a market-driven philosophy focused on driving competitive advantage and successful performance results for their clients. One of the top-tier entertainment and hospitality design firms in the United States, as ranked by Engineering News Record, Hotel Business, Hotel Design and Hospitality Construction, Hnedak Bobo Group offers a proven history of innovative design solutions. Adding to its long-standing reputation in the commercial hospitality market, HBG is uniquely positioned as one of the largest providers of professional services in the Indian gaming industry, with client relationships representing more than 25 tribal business enterprises across the country.
The firm’s project results have been recognized by the press and most significantly by their clients’ bottom line. The HBG-designed Potawatomi Bingo-Casino in Milwaukee has been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “the region’s top spot for gaming entertainment,” and the G2E Casino Design Awards recognized HBG’s Riverwind Casino as the Best Casino Design in 2007. Following HBG’s renovation of Greektown Casino in Detroit, the property enjoyed record profits in 2009 with an increase of more than 9 percent. The firm’s recently opened Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Spokane, Washington for the Kalispel Tribe is now seeing success in its Northwest Pacific market despite opening in the midst of a major recession, and has been hailed by their client as a “game changer.”
Hnedak Bobo Group’s background as both gaming and hospitality designers and owners of hospitality assets has yielded a well-developed, market-focused mindset that has helped the firm translate their advanced operations acumen into informed design solutions that support their clients’ specific business goals. Continually forward-looking, HBG’s leadership has also leveraged more than 30 years of intellectual capital into innovative, technology-based design applications that allow the firm to expedite the delivery of their clients’ casino and hotel solutions—allowing owners to open and generate gaming revenues sooner, which is another distinct competitive advantage in capturing market share.
HBG is highly focused on delivering smart, market-supported investments for their clients while creating inspired, competitive products positioned for long-term viability and financial success. HBG is positive about the health and vitality of the marketplace, and looks forward to continuing to offer the best in design and operational sensibility to its roster of esteemed, visionary clients.
For more information, visit www.hbginc.com.
Collective Casino Design
The Innovation Group of Companies’ broad range of expertise and experience covers almost every aspect of the casino/resort economic development process: the Innovation Group to consult; Innovation Capital to finance and advise; Innovation Project Development to coordinate build-out; Innovation Marketing to position; and Innovation Management Services to help operate. Working together or independently, the affiliates of the Innovation Group of Companies offer a wide array of advisory, operational, management, financial, development and marketing services to help clients maximize both strategic and implementation alternatives.
The Innovation Group of Companies affiliates have been behind the scenes of many of the world’s largest gaming, entertainment and hospitality developments, including projects throughout the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Canada. The companies’ collective client list features the most successful operators in the industry, including public and private corporations, more than 100 Native American tribes, government entities, professional associations, developers, legal organizations, financial institutions and private equity investors. The companies have collectively worked in more than 100 major gaming jurisdictions and been associated with nearly $60 billion in investment decisions specific to their target industries.
The Innovation Group is the premier provider of consulting and management services for the gaming, hospitality, leisure and entertainment industries. Services include market and financial analysis, legislative and litigation support, economic diversification strategies and other related advisory services.
Innovation Capital is a leading middle market investment banking firm. Services include mergers and acquisitions, financial restructurings and recapitalizations, corporate finance and capital raising, and valuations and fairness opinions. It is a member of FINRA/SIPC.
Innovation Project Development is a multi-disciplined project management services company capable of providing a full range of development guidance. As an owner representative, IPD helps clients maximize their investment and revenues and meet aggressive schedules and budgets.
Innovation Marketing is an experienced advisory team that leverages the unparalleled consultancy, analysis and insight of the Innovation Group of Companies into effective marketing tactics. Services include advertising campaigns, online strategies, database mining, public relations plans, direct marketing campaigns and more.
Innovation Management Services was formalized to provide the gaming, entertainment and hospitality industries with a solution for interim and short-term crisis management support. Services include operations evaluations, pre-opening/post-opening, turnaround implementation, systems and reporting and transition services.
All of the Innovation affiliates feature a number of gaming and tourism-oriented specialists, including a dedicated team of food and beverage industry professionals that was formalized as Innovation Food & Beverage in 2009.
For more information, visit www.innovationgroupofcompanies.com.
Art and Technology
The mention of art typically brings to mind images of sophisticated galleries and museums. But with KHS&S, art is created in the most unlikely places—construction job sites around the world.
As one of the world’s largest design-assist specialty building companies, KHS&S turns to its in-house artists and craftsmen to fulfill developers’ visions for large-scale projects, from casinos to resorts to high-end retail and lifestyle centers.
Using paints to replicate everything from wood to marble to upholstery, and plasters to reproduce wood, bricks, rock and aged surfaces, KHS&S craftsmen have amassed a portfolio of projects that are a virtual showcase of building creativity and originality.
Through its rockwork and water feature technologies group, KHS&S even continues the artistry outside—or brings the outdoors in—using 3D modeling and lean construction processes to create design-precise rockwork formations that integrate seamlessly with synchronized fountains, water walls or perimeter landscaping.
What’s more, since 1984, KHS&S has combined this creativity with the experience and knowledge of traditional interior/exterior construction, offering a one-stop shop that can provide nearly every aspect of a project, from structural to ornamental elements.
For most projects, KHS&S in-house design-assist teams collaborate with architects and designers who want to make a statement with their projects by using challenging designs and unique features and finishes. KHS&S staff takes these architectural concepts to final completion, providing assistance in “constructability,” design development, value engineering, material selection and global procurement along the way.
The company has evolved from a contracting firm to a family of companies that serve the construction and architectural industries. KHS&S is able to serve owners, architects and general contractors in various capacities. The company is using technology to diversify its offerings, and is leading the industry in using various technological advances such as BIM, virtual project delivery, lean construction and prefabricated construction processes to streamline how large projects of the future are designed and constructed.
KHS&S operates in 15 North American cities in Arizona, California, Canada, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. They have also expanded into Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Vietnam. New projects include CityCenter in Las Vegas and Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.
For more information, visit www.khss.com.
Bigger and Better
Klai Juba Architects, which specializes in the design of gaming resort and hospitality projects—including high-rise mixed use developments—is a Las Vegas-based firm that maintains a presence in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Since 1978, each of the founding principals of Klai Juba has contributed to the evolution of today’s resort properties on the Las Vegas Strip and has played key leadership roles in property development, construction, ownership and operations. With their fellow Klai Juba shareholder principals and associates and a talented team of project architects and designers, their collective experience and the team’s ability yields an unequivocal balance of design acumen and aesthetics, functionality and efficiency, budget versus pro forma, and an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of owner/operator programmatic requirements. Klai Juba has been recognized as a forerunner in the industry for more than 15 years.
The firm’s most noteworthy start-to-finish projects include Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino—complete with its Four Seasons Las Vegas and THEhotel—and the highly successful Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino projects in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida. Klai Juba is also responsible for the design of Indiana LIVE!, Eastside Cannery Casino Hotel, the Panorama Towers and SKY Las Vegas, and also lead the complex remodel and expansion of MGM Grand Las Vegas, Luxor, Hard Rock Las Vegas, the Orleans, Silverton and the newer Planet Hollywood properties.
Over the years, Klai Juba has enjoyed their relationships with and continues to serve significant players in the gaming industry, including Cannery Casino Resorts, CIRI Gaming, Coast Casinos, the Cordish Company, Edge Development, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Harrah’s Entertainment, Little River Casino, Mandalay Resort Group, Marriott International, MGM Mirage, Morgans Hotel Group, Seminole Gaming, Silverton Casino Lodge and the Viejas Casino.
Recently completed Klai Juba projects include the highly acclaimed new Joint, Vanity nightclub, guestrooms and suites at Hard Rock Las Vegas, in addition to well-known Las Vegas entertainment hot spots like Lavo at the Palazzo, Tao at the Venetian and Diablo’s Cantina at the Monte Carlo.
Recipient of the AIA Nevada’s 2002 Patron and 2004 Service Firm Awards, the firm continues to give back and sponsors the Klai Juba Lecture Series established for the UNLV School of Architecture in 1997, along with providing resources to the Klai Juba Architecture|Landscape Architecture Library at North Dakota State University.
For more information, visit www.klaijuba.com.
Established in 1958 and based in Newport Beach, California, Lifescapes International, Inc. is an internationally renowned landscape architectural design firm. With more than 15 casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip as well as an additional 50 casinos and casino resorts across the United States, Asia and Europe, Lifescapes International continues to create successful, dynamic destinations, wherever they may be.
For more than five decades, the firm has been a significant design influence in gaming-related properties (Indian country and commercial gaming properties alike), destination resorts, mixed-use developments, retail centers and entertainment-driven projects.
The firm completed one of the Las Vegas Strip’s newest casino resort additions with the opening of Encore Beach Club over Memorial Day weekend. Lifescapes International also designed the landscape environment for Encore for Wynn Resorts. Another project that recently opened is Pinnacle Casino Entertainment’s River City.
Lifescapes International’s senior principal leadership team consists of CEO/FASLA Don Brinkerhoff, President/CFO Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, Executive Vice President/General Manager Daniel Trust, Director of Field Services Roger Voettiner and Director of Design Andrew Kreft. They work in unison to create and manage the firm’s projects. A team of highly qualified landscape architects, project designers and a strong administrative staff ably assists them.
In addition to working successfully on many national gaming developments, the firm has worked on a variety of Native American properties, including the original Agua Caliente Casino, Harrah’s Rincon Casino and Hotel, Barona Casino, Pala Casino and Resort and the Spa Casino and Resort.
“The entertainment and resort operators, including astute executives within the gaming industry, have realized for many years that stand-alone gaming activities are simply not enough to keep customers fully engaged on their properties,” Brinkerhoff-Jacobs says. “We are now working on nightclubs, beach clubs, retail and restaurant environments so our gaming clients have other captivating activities for their customers to enjoy during their stay.”
For more information, visit www.lifescapesintl.com.
Luxury & Longevity
Thalden-Boyd-Emery Architects designs casinos, resorts and hotels. The firm was founded in 1971 and has grown from its small beginnings to one of the top 10 design firms in the hospitality industry, according to Hotel & Motel Management magazine. Partners Barry Thalden, Chief Boyd and Richard Emery have built a team of experienced architects and design professionals.
Chief Boyd’s Native American heritage (Cherokee) has guided the firm’s mission to support native tribes. Thalden-Boyd-Emery is now a go-to firm for diverse architectural experience.
The firm offers services such as architecture, engineering, interior design, theming and master planning to both native tribes and also to some of the world’s largest gaming operators. High-profile past projects include the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Resort in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada; Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Morongo Casino Resort and Spa in Palm Springs, California; and many more.
The firm also has a long history of excellent client service, which is key to the three principals’ vision: to provide experience, creativity and integrity to each project. Thirty-eight years of success prove Thalden-Boyd-Emery Architects is serving their clients well.
For more information, visit www.thaldenboydemery.com.
In this issue of Casino Design, our eighth annual review of the best in gaming architecture, construction and design, we feature the history and development of one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in the gaming industry—heck, in all of the United States—MGM Resorts International’s CityCenter in Las Vegas. While all our previous issues highlighted spectacular projects, none ever reached the expense or the complexity of CityCenter.
When it was announced in 2004, it was going to be next generation of Las Vegas development. The “Manhattanization” of the Strip would begin with CityCenter and continue at many other sites, replacing the existing older resorts. Most of the major gaming companies had their own “citycenters” on the drawing boards.
But we all know what happened. The economy collapsed. Visitors to Las Vegas decreased dramatically. Room rates plummeted. The ambitious copycat developments disappeared. And companies teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
One of those companies was MGM Resorts. Right in the middle of building the largest private development in U.S. history, MGM Resorts went through a financial crisis that would test even a company that didn’t take chances. But for one involved in not only the construction of CityCenter, but also in an ongoing mission to incorporate a large acquisition (Mandalay Resort Group) and international expansion (MGM Grand Macau and other non-gaming developments), this challenge must have seemed insurmountable. But MGM Resorts’s talented chairman and CEO, Jim Murren—who also, by the way, replaced longtime chairman Terry Lanni midway through the construction process—managed to put together financial packages that satisfied lenders and actually raised more money at a time when the fiscal pipeline was essentially frozen shut.
Upon this background we layer regrettable construction accidents, design mistakes and operational problems at other resorts, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Murren and CityCenter head Bobby Baldwin could marshal the will and the resources to bring the project home on time. But they did. And it is spectacular.
But some question the overall concept of “urbanization” in Las Vegas. Some say, for all its ambition and spectacular design, you could pick up CityCenter and plop it down in Los Angeles, Seattle or any city and it would not be out of place. And some say this is what makes it out of place in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the spectacular is the norm.
We often talk about the “wow factor” when we discuss casino design. From the volcano at the Mirage to the canopy of Fremont Street, Las Vegas visitors have been accustomed to seeing things they will never see in their hometowns. And while CityCenter is a spectacular example of modern architecture, urban planning and innovative business concepts, does it really fit what visitors expect of Las Vegas?
Perhaps CityCenter will do what MGM always said it was going to do: Create a new sophistication in Las Vegas. Draw a new clientele that would previously not consider visiting a gambling town. Bring together the entire community in a new “downtown” where people live, work, visit and play. And launch a new paradigm in the gaming industry against which every new project would be measured.
Obviously we can’t answer those questions today, less than a year after CityCenter opened. It might take five to 10 years to really grasp where CityCenter will stand amid the great resorts of Las Vegas.
But one thing is certain. For a company known for forward thinking, innovative designs and industry-leading ideas, CityCenter was a huge leap forward. Everyone involved in its conception, design and construction, from Jim Murren and Terry Lanni down to the day laborer and the maid, should be congratulated for taking a rather bold idea and transforming it into a living, breathing adventure.
For good design is nothing if it doesn’t take risks. Good design thrives on pushing the envelope. And good design sometimes takes time to mature and be recognized for what it is. MGM Resorts is to be admired for taking the steps to advance the casino design industry to new levels.
Art for Art’s Sake
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugge ”Typewriter Eraser, Scale X”
Although the very structure, designs and architecture of CityCenter are works of art, the creators of the project felt it was necessary to include some works of art that would enrich and “engage” visitors. With a $40 million budget for art, MGM Resorts came up with some high-profile and significant artists and their work.
Maya Lin “Silver River”
Maybe the most famous is Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Lin offers a vision in reclaimed silver that reflects the nearby Colorado River, hanging above Aria’s front desk.
Nancy Rubins ”The Greatest”
Nancy Rubins may have brought the most dramatic art to CityCenter, an explosion of water craft—rowboats, kayaks, canoes, small sailboats, surfboards, wind-surf boards, jet skis, paddle boats, catamarans and other small river and ocean vessels—set near the porte-cochere at Vdara.
The Mandarin Oriental hosts a playful piece by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugge—Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1998-1999 (at top)—that allows visitors to pose, examine or simply be amazed at the iconic structure.
Henry Moore “Reclining Connected Forms”
Henry Moore’s “Reclining Connected Forms, 1969-1974” at Aria is an abstract work that displays a baby wrapped in its mother’s embrace. Walk around the piece of art, view it from different angles and discover unique shapes that define the art and the artist.
Frank Stella “Damascus Gate Variation I”
Jenny Holzer “Vegas”
Other works of art by Frank Stella, Jenny Holzer, Richard Long and more are all display for free viewing. CityCenter provides brochures for its Fine Art Program that allows visitors to travel to each significant work of art and read about the artist who created it, as well as the inspiration and reasoning behind it.
Themes vs. Starchitects
CityCenter has opened, and the architects have spoken: “Look at me! I am a monument to all things great!”
They have taken the best the world has to offer and delivered it right to the center of Las Vegas: great architecture, brilliant art, first-class accommodations, and an unrivaled group of retail, dining and entertainment, sure to wow the most experienced travelers. Even Elvis is back in the building.
CityCenter is the anti-themed property, for themes are for the less fortunate. But you don’t need an architecture degree to fall in love with it like the rest of us.
There’s a certain horse that sits in a fountain at the Forum Shops that’s been in more pictures than Pamela Anderson. Each day tourists from around the world stop to have their picture taken in that silly themed mall. I don’t know why, but it’s one of the more visited sites in Las Vegas, and one of the most successful malls in the world. Even if you can’t afford to shop there, it is on most Las Vegas visitors’ lists. Even the well-heeled locals have accepted it, and love to shop there, eat there and soak up its soul.
I often find myself in the grand lobby of the Venetian, a very themed resort. I’ve seen the tourists that stand, mouths agape, photographing their very own piece of Italy.
Now, even I’m smart enough to know this is not really Venice, but somehow it still manages to capture the heart and soul of all those who visit. This is not a poor crowd, or one that is not well traveled. It includes more than its fair share of Asians and Europeans who can see the real thing if they want to.
For the rest of us poor souls, it might be the closet we ever get to the real Italy. And it is hard to ignore the emotional connection that entices a fool to pay money to sit in a gondola in a bathtub of water in 120-degree weather.
The Venetian in Macau welcomes more than 20 million visitors a year. That’s more than most countries in this world. Think about that—it’s insane! In one building, designers have created a must-see experience greater than entire cities built over thousands of years, or the most breathtaking monuments of nature carved by sand, rain and the hand of God.
How is it that walking through Paris in Las Vegas makes you want to buy a crepe? Where else in the United States are people buying crepes? Who eats a crepe? For the love of God, it’s filled with Nutella.
Nothing takes my thoughts away as much as walking the faux concrete wall that graces most of the Excalibur. I imagine myself on a horse, skewering tourists with my favorite jousting weapon. Once again, a theme has tricked me into becoming a renaissance man of little intelligence but great muscle, doing things I don’t normally do. Like a comic book hero, I’m out to rid the world of fanny packs, penny slot players and Snooki groupies.
Caesars Palace convinces me I’m a Roman god, deserving of world-class service and endless fun. The Colosseum that houses Celine is a great reproduction of the Roman monument. With the voice of an angel, a dazzling production and a themed environment, she brings 4,000 people to the casino on a nightly basis. I smell money—big money!
Please don’t be embarrassed; stand up and be proud. Even though you know she’s not real, who hasn’t had their picture taken with the always busty (and chilly) Cleopatra?
These are just a few examples of themed resorts that have tremendous soul and a strong emotional connection to their customers. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong, smart or dumb, but I have to figure large crowds of people spending money is always a good thing!
This leads us back to CityCenter, a testament to culture and design. It has no theme other than architecture itself. It is visually stunning, a monument to the true genius and artistic spirit of man. Being an architect, I can only bow to the greatness of those minds that came together to create such a collection of works.
Some have wondered if people feel that emotional connection to an intelligent resort or simply stand back and admire it like art, something to be enjoyed from a distance, with little interaction. Many a tourist has said, “Turn up the lights, shout, dance, show us your soul and I’ll give you my treasured beads!”
Up From the Ashes
As the spread of gaming increases across the United States, there are opportunities for those jurisdictions considering gaming to take advantage of investment dollars to energize struggling urban centers by stimulating growth through re-purposing abandoned structures that would otherwise sit as reminders of a glorious past.
These urban industrial sites often contain contaminated soil, buildings and waterways that discourage redevelopment unless a unique opportunity arises. Many communities unable to find the right combination of investment and vision to encourage economic growth have begun to see opportunities within the gaming landscape.
Las Vegas-based YWS America, working with New York firm Kostow Greenwood Architects, had one important caveat from its client, KG Urban Enterprises, when hired to design a casino resort on an abandoned brown-field site formally known as Cannon Street Station—a behemoth power station on the waterfront in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The new destination casino must revitalize the historic waterfront and seamlessly blend into the surrounding city by strengthening its urban fabric.
The opportunity to design a casino with this mandate was especially daunting, because Massachusetts had previously resisted legalizing gaming in the state and is currently debating the merits of re-introducing the idea. Additionally, New Bedford is noted for its unique history as the largest whaling capital in the world in the 1800s. Today, it is home to the only urban national park in America—the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. Designing a casino resort within this context created a unique opportunity for the team.
Our 29-acre property sits along the commercial waterfront of New Bedford harbor and the Acushnet River. The site has two historic buildings, including a two-story, 160,000-square-foot power plant dating back to 1916. The 100-foot-tall brick building has one remaining iconic smokestack soaring another another 100 feet above New Bedford. The second smaller building known as the 1856 Taber & Grinnell Iron Foundry was originally built from local granite stone. Though a mile from Interstate 195, a major artery between New York City and Boston, the Cannon Street Station power plant is clearly visible from the highway.
While the power plant building has been abandoned for many years and is in serious disrepair, the “bones” are still sound, making it a good candidate for renovation. The foundry building is currently occupied, and thus in reasonably good shape. Given the industrial use of the site, the property has extensive contaminants including fuel, oil, tar, coal tar, cyanide, lead paint, asbestos and mold. A thorough remediation plan is proposed once construction begins.
A significant difference between building a casino resort on virgin land and an urban site is the need for infrastructure. While a green-field development would require new utilities and roadways, the New Bedford site can draw from the under-utilized infrastructure, a result of population shrinkage due to economic decline. The development team has worked closely with city administrators on a design to remove a major thoroughfare that bifurcated the city from its beautiful harbor—a remnant from the days of urban renewal projects. Once this happens, the original street grid will return and the harbor will be accessible to all.
The Cannon Street Station power plant will become the nucleus of the development, as the casino will be housed in this structure. The large, open volume of the existing turbine room is a great beginning; however, the ground floor is not large enough to accommodate the casino and all its amenities. YWS America proposes to expand the brick power plant footprint with single-story glass atriums flanking three sides, creating a controlled, naturally lit casino space that also maintains the integrity of the historic building by wrapping the additional space in a transparent skin. View corridors from the city to the harbor will be maintained through the glass atriums.
As casino patrons become more sophisticated and expect a richer experience, designers are introducing controlled natural lighting to enhance their experience. Exterior windows will require shading devices such as frit patterns to protect light-sensitive video screens on modern slot machines. Interior decorative canopies also are effective. The glass arcades also provide fantastic locations for the hotel lobby, restaurants and lounges.
The Cannon Street Station master plan includes a phased build-out of 1,000 hotel rooms in two hotel towers, 3,000 slot machines, meeting rooms, event space, restaurants, two parking structures and a sheltered outdoor retail plaza. As the tallest structures, the hotel towers are situated farthest from the town, directly along the river bulkheads and placed perpendicular to the river. This ensures water views from all rooms while maintaining views from the city to the river. The interior pool, health club and spa, as well as the meeting rooms, are all located along the river to capture the scenic views. The parking structures are located behind one- and two-story structures, including an event center and an outdoor retail plaza, achieving a pedestrian scale facing downtown.
Straying from the concept of the “island” casino, Cannon Street Station is actively engaging the city of New Bedford as a true partner in its success. The casino will not have a theater, and the restaurants are intentionally undersized to encouraging patronage of the town’s existing performance venues and quaint restaurants and shops that are just blocks away.
With the collaboration of the city of New Bedford, Cannon Street Station can become the catalyst for the adaptive reuse of a brown-field site, reopen the waterfront to the city and drive economic development for New Bedford and the state of Massachusetts.
OWNER: Casinos Austria International
DESIGN ARCHITECT: BOA
INTERIOR DESIGN: BOA
TOTAL INVESTMENT: €40 million
“Viage” is the name of the new, permanent casino which has replaced the former, temporary Grand Casino of Brussels. Operator Casinos Austria International decided to use the changeover to create a multifaceted nightlife center in which the gaming offering, though still a main element, is accompanied by equally impressive restaurants, bars and live theater entertainment.
The casino project is its own separate element within the recently renovated Anspach Gallery. The gallery features a covered shopping lane eight meters wide with a ceiling 30 meters high, home to 19 retail shops on the first two levels of the seven-story building. Another separate element of the Anspach Gallery is the Aparthotel Adagio, with 139 apartments.
“The idea when we renovated the building was to recapture the spirit of the first galleries created throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th century,” said Muriel Lambotte, project marketing manager at Fortis, which owns the building.
Fortis may have been interested in revival, but Casinos Austria International was more concerned with creating something new, and which could serve as a template for future casino projects. Even the name “Viage” had to be created, playing off the Italian word for “voyage” but becoming something unique in its own right.
Viage “happens” over several floors of the building, plus the rooftop. The trendy Cinna-Bar is the welcome center, serving drinks, coffees and a special cocktail that changes weekly. The casino’s 35 gaming tables, 370 slot machines, live bingo room and poker room can be found on three floors totaling 3,200 square meters. The décor is glass, light and color.
Special clients are wecome in the Oak Room, with its three roulette tables and four blackjack tables, specialty champagnes and connoisseur whiskies.
Up on the roof, guests seeking a gourmet meal with a view of Brussels will find the Kameleon Sky restaurant. On weekend nights the restaurant transforms into a lounge at 11 p.m. with DJs spinning through the night.
Brown’s Sports Bar & Grill has the requisite dozen TV screens and features soccer matches from various national leagues around Europe. The bistro Saffron, located in the heart of Viage and serving until 4 a.m., provides everything from pizza and burgers to quiche and Asian wok dishes. The Viage Theater, with a wide variety of musical and other offerings planned, seats 350 or holds 700 standing.
Andrew Webb, managing director of Viage, sums it up nicely: “The colored balls in our logo stand for a sparkling experience, almost like the bubbles in a glass of champagne, with all the different colors representing all of the different experiences you can find within Viage.”
Northern Quest Resort & Casino
OWNER: Kalispel Tribe
DESIGN ARCHITECT: Hnedak Bobo Group
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Valli Design Studio
CONTRACTOR: JE Dunn
CASINO FLOOR: 50,000 sq ft
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $200 million
When design firm Hnedak Bobo Group was tasked with the Northern Quest Resort & Casino expansion for the Kalispel Tribe, the firm set out to add features that would boost the resort’s marketing opportunities.
With that in mind, HBG expanded the casino with separate smoking and non-smoking floors, and added a cigar bar and a mixed-use television studio/sports bar for live sporting coverage.
The Q sports bar is evidence of the direction Northern Quest is headed. The bar features HD television screens for dedicated sports fans, as well as a TV broadcast booth inside the bar. Other amenities added in the expansion include the Legends of Fire cigar bar—the first of its kind in the region—as well as the Liquid lounge, the 14,000-sq.-ft. Current Spa & Salon, a fitness center, meeting space, food court, sundry market and a 250-room hotel tower.
“HBG designers worked closely with Northern Quest Casino officials and the Kalispel Tribe to realize several important project goals for the resort, based on driving tourism and business traffic from an expanded region,” says HGB project principal Rick Gardner, AIA. “Together with the tribe, we developed strategic amenities and design quality that would attract their target market, while subtly integrating the unique traditions of the Kalispels into their resort investment.”
HBG used materials native to the area, warm colors and tribal symbols to enhance the design of the resort’s expansion. The Liquid lounge evokes the tribe’s connection to the nearby Pend Oreille River with a water wall and vertical tubes that adorn the lounge like river reeds.
The Kalispel Tribe’s culture is evident in design elements throughout the resort, from the wood furniture in the hotel’s 250 rooms to the fitness center’s swimming pool with stone and river-inspired lighting to enhance the ceiling.
HBG completed the Northern Quest expansion just one year after beginning the design process. The expansion opened last fall, with a grand opening in spring.
El Cortez Cabana Suites
Las Vegas, Nevada
OWNER: El Cortez Hotel & Casino
DESIGN FIRM: YWS Architects
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Heather Hassan
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Burke & Associates
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $6.4 million
In 2008, big changes were in the air at the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, a staple in the Downtown Las Vegas gaming market since 1941. Legendary owner Jackie Gaughan decided to sell his stake in the company, making business partner Kenny Epstein the casino’s majority shareholder. The property also began renovating the adjacent Ogden House Hotel, which was used by the El Cortez for its overflow rooms.
The renovated Ogden House reopened as the El Cortez Cabana Suites last May, and its redesign has been touted as part of the Downtown renaissance currently taking place (which includes the construction of Symphony Park and the creation of the Fremont East entertainment district).
Design firm YWS Architects restructured the hotel from 95 rooms to 64 South Beach-inspired suites, complete with mod furnishings. From the electric blue and sparkling white exteriors and sumptuous, Mad Men-style lobby to the retro-inspired suites themselves, complete with high-tech touches like 42-inch, flat-screen plasma TVs and iPod docks, the El Cortez Cabana Suites have revolutionized Downtown design.
Guests have three suite options, the deluxe room, junior suite and super suite, which range in size. The hotel’s suites are tied together by their design elements, which are straight from the 1960s Vegas stylebook: imported white marble tiling in the bathroom walls, black and white checkered marble tiling on the bathroom floors, beds with white tufted headboards, white crocodile wall coverings, crown moldings and avocado green walls give the El Cortez Cabana Suites a distinctively stylish edge.
The Cabana Suites also feature amenities like a state-of-the art fitness center, business center and access to the main casino’s dining and lounge options.
Octavius Villas, Caesars Palace
Las Vegas, Nevada
OWNER: Harrah’s Entertainment
DESIGN FIRM: Wilson Associates
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Marnell-Keating Joint Venture
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $45 million
Caesars Palace is known for its over-the-top accommodations and customer service, and a recent addition just solidifies that reputation.
The legendary Las Vegas hotel recently debuted three new poolside villas that set a new standard in luxury for Las Vegas. Located in the new Octavius tower, these magnificent suites overlook the recently renovated Garden of Gods pool area.
The villas average 8,500 square feet of floor space and are appointed in a thematic design scheme from France, Greece and Spain.
“The Octavius Villas were constructed to accommodate the discerning guests of Caesars Palace,” said Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace. “The accommodations offer an immaculately designed residential experience that is enhanced by our highly-trained team of professionals.”
Michael Medeiros, lead project designer of interior architectural design firm Wilson Associates, says this project was just another in a long line of collaboration with Caesars Palace.
“We understand what the guests of Caesars Palace want when it comes to amenities,” he says. “We collaborate with hotel executives to create what we believe are the premier suites in Las Vegas.”
Each villa includes imported marble floors; a private elevator; hand-distressed wood parquet and inlaid wood floors; hand-painted wall murals and ceiling designs; wood and stone archways and casings; a billiard room; a plush home entertainment theater; whirlpool bathtubs in the master and guest baths; steam mist showers in all bathrooms; fully integrated audio visual systems with televisions in nearly every room; and custom contemporary artwork. Outside is a spacious private terrace with a spa tub, fire pit, seating and dining area with a gas lantern and wall sconces. Villa guests are also offered a private butler and concierge services.
Although every villa is unique, Medeiros says they must have universal appeal.
“Everyone has individual tastes, but we have to make sure that we are neutral and don’t put anything in there that might be culturally insensitive,” he says. “Remember, most of these people have travelled around the world and most likely have spectacular homes themselves, so we have to offer them a different and uplifting experience.”
Calm After the Storm
Palace Casino Resort
OWNERS: Robert and Lawana Low
ARCHITECTURE/DESIGN: Cuningham Group
INVESTMENT: $45 million
OTHER AMENITIES: Palace SportsZone and a 100-foot bar
The economy may have stalled construction in parts of the gaming industry, but renovation was imperative at the Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi, devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
The $45 million renovation, which will be ongoing through 2011, is the largest casino expansion on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Katrina. The 110,000-square-foot project will include a 64,000-square-foot expansion, as well as the upgrade of existing areas.
An additional 38,000 square feet of gaming space will include more than 1,000 slot machines, 26 new table games, an eight-table poker room and a high-limit salon. There will also be a new 300-seat buffet, a new sports bar and a 50-seat, 24-hour café and grill.
The resort’s hotel will also undergo significant improvements, with a new front desk and concierge area, a new gift shop, a deluxe spa and fitness center, and all-purpose meeting spaces designed to attract more convention business to the city, situated on Biloxi’s Back Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
“Prior to the storm, we were a four-diamond resort,” said Palace General Manager Keith Crosby. “We’re bringing back many of the amenities we lost to again provide our guests the complete package.” A first-class marina and award-winning restaurant, Mignon’s, are back in service, as is the Palace’s signature golf course, the Preserve, designed by championship golfer Jerry Pate.
Cuningham Group, an internationally renowned design firm with offices in Las Vegas as well as Biloxi, is in charge of architecture and interior design work for the expansion.
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said the project reflects “the confidence and vitality of the Biloxi market.”
Casino owner Robert Low said, “We are very excited to have this opportunity to further invest in the city of Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The key to our success over the past 12 years has never been based on the bricks and mortar, but rather the hard work of our dedicated associates and the high quality of personal service they provide to our guests.”
Fire & Ice
Battle Creek, Michigan
OWNER: Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi
DESIGN ARCHITECT: Perez, APC
INTERIOR DESIGN: Perez, APC
CONSTRUCTION: Clark Construction Company, Lansing, Michigan
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $300 million
“Architecture could be said to be in motion at FireKeepers Casino,” says Joe Crowley, project manager at architecture firm Perez APC. “Specialty lighting adds to this apparent effect of movement throughout the space. Choreographed with sound, architectural elements, a front entry video wall of glass, steel and metal mesh, color changing lighting throughout and more, the lighting is truly a spectacle to be appreciated and viewed.”
The 250,000-square-foot FireKeepers Casino, owned by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in southern Michigan, utilizes representations of the elements of fire, water, earth and air in its design. The name of the casino comes from the identity of the tribe itself, the “keepers of the fire.”
Situated just off the main interstate about halfway between Detroit and Chicago, the casino’s 107,000-square-foot gaming floor features 2,682 slot machines, 78 tables, a 12-table poker room and a VIP gaming lounge. A 4,000-square-foot multipurpose room features high-stakes bingo, and an assortment of restaurants and bars offer guests plenty of choices to relax and refresh in stylish surroundings.
Setting the standard is the Kabaret Lounge. Serving as a centerpiece in its prominent location within the casino, the play of light on the club’s red, translucent plastic panels presents the visitor with a sense of fire. The effect is carried through by the ceiling, the rolling form of which is meant to represent smoke. The fire is also found in the high energy of the Kabaret Lounge, where live bands, comedy acts and DJs set the stage for all-night partying.
Each of the elements finds its embodiment within its own section of the casino and inside specific non-gaming locations. “Water” is experienced in rippled glass walls, raindrop lighting fixtures and in the waterfall inside the signature restaurant, Nibi, where even the bar’s surface appears to be flowing. “Earth” is the message of the Aurora Lounge for VIPs, with its white stone entry, white cork walls and green onyx, hearth-to-ceiling fireplace. “Air” is seen in the casino, in the form of huge panel lights containing a translucent, honeycomb pattern. All the special lighting effects are the work of Creative Lighting Design and Engineering.
In all, the casino features five very different dining options: the 70-seat Nibi signature restaurant; a 150-seat, 24-hour coffee shop; a 300-seat buffet; a 110-seat quick service restaurant; and a “grab-and-go” outlet. Three bar areas include a sports bar, the 113-seat Kabaret Lounge and a bar within Nibi.
The casino was completed within 15 months of construction beginning on site.
A Better Bubble
Oceanus Casino Resort
OWNER: Sociedad de Jogos de Macau (SJM)
DESIGN FIRM: Steelman Partners
CASINO FLOOR: 32,105 square meters
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $140 million
Although the resemblance to Beijing’s Water Cube, the site for the swimming and diving competition at the 2008 Olympics, can’t be denied, SJM’s newest entry into the Macau market stands on its own. The Oceanus Casino Resort has many things going for it: location (close to the Macau main ferry terminal), a reasonable budget (scaled down from $800 million to $140 million) and a legendary architect, Paul Steelman.
The striking appearance of Oceanus draws the customers in after leaving the ferry frequented by an average of 50,000 people a day, and the knowledgeable SJM staff is able to keep them playing. Surveys have shown that at least 50 percent of visitors have not decided on a destination before embarking for Macau.
But in addition to the wide array of games—269 tables and 569 slot machines—Oceanus offers amenities equal to any other casino in Macau. The two-level facility features areas for high rollers and the average players. While the VIP market is de-emphasized at Oceanus in favor of the day-tripper, the amenities are worthy of any level of player. The innovative SJM player club system is combined with a wide array of food-and-beverage outlets featuring the requisite noodle bar, a gourmet Cantonese restaurant and a beer hall. Stanley Ho’s SJM does the rest.
Steelman’s design transformed a former department store with an exterior of irregular shapes contained by an innovative membrane, giving the visual impression of the building being enveloped in blue bubbles. The building can change shades from blue to red, yellow, blue, green and purple, making a huge impression on passers-by.
Inside, the warmth of the surroundings is emphasized by similar colors and a huge LED screen that spans the center stage. Multimedia screens are scattered across the casino to update players on promotions and events at the facility.
With booming revenue in Macau, such a modest investment is bound to pay back the owners in a short time.
Rock and a Hard Place
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, Nevada
OWNER: Morgans Hotel Group Co., DLJ Merchant Banking Partners
DESIGN FIRM: Klai Juba Architects
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: M.J. Dean
CASINO FLOOR: 72,000 sq ft
MEETING SPACE: 80,000 sq ft
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $750 million
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino completed its $750 million expansion this spring. The project was a massive undertaking that included the addition of two hotel towers—the 17-story, 490-room Paradise Tower and the 359-suite HRH Tower—75,000 square feet of meeting space, 35,000 square feet of gaming space, 30,000 square feet of retail space, an expanded pool area, the 25,000-square-foot Reliquary Water Sanctuary & Spa, Vanity nightclub and an expanded music venue, the Joint.
The expansion began opening in phases last year. The remodeled Joint opened in April 2009 with 4,000 seats and new resident performer Carlos Santana. The Paradise Tower opened in July with 490 rooms, designed by Mark Zeff, 10 pool suites, designed by Mark Tracy of Chemical Spaces, and the 3,500-square-foot Platinum Penthouse. The tower’s rooms are edgier than Hard Rock’s original accommodations, with a dark purple, grey and black color palette and tattoo-inspired wall stencils. The Tracy-designed pool suites for Hard Rock’s VIPs each have a unique theme, from the icy, futuristic Mr. Blue suite and nature-infused Mr. Gold villa to the punk rock-inspired Mr. Red pool villa and the animalistic Mr. Kong suite.
The Hard Rock then rolled out the all-suite HRH Tower in December, complete with seven penthouse suites and eight spa villa suites. The standard suites feature a wet bar, sitting area, the Sound Matters Sound Bar and two LCD TVs. The penthouses are a bit more deluxe; with themes like Infinity, Nirvana, Platinum, Provocateur, Stones, Sex & Pistols and Ultra Lounge, each penthouse features elements that make it distinctive—for the Provocateur suite, an interactive projection system is built into the bed for romantic purposes, while the Moroccan-inspired Nirvana suite features a private beach and pool for relaxation.
The 14,000-square-foot Vanity nightclub and the hotel’s new spa, Reliquary, both opened with the HRH Tower. Vanity replaced Body English as the Hard Rock’s hot spot, with an LED-lit chandelier, 50 VIP booths and five cabanas. Reliquary takes its design cues from a Roman bathhouse, with a bath as the spa’s centerpiece. Reliquary features 21 treatment rooms, a pole-dancing studio, fitness center and the BrannonHair salon.
One of the Hard Rock’s most alluring amenities is its expanded pool area. The property added more than two acres to its pool space, which hosts the famous Rehab pool party on Sundays.
Resorts World Sentosa
OWNER: Resorts World Sentosa, a division of Genting Group
PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT: Michael Graves & Associates, Inc.: Patrick Burke, Principal-in-Charge & Lead Designer; with Michael Graves, Collaborating Designer
OTHER DESIGNERS: DP Architects, Associate Architect
CONSTRUCTION CONTRACTOR: Several
PROJECT COST: US$4.32 billion
Opened in February as the first gaming property in Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa is more of a resort city unto itself than a casino-hotel.
Sitting across the harbor from downtown Singapore on Sentosa Island, the 3.5 million-square-foot integrated resort includes six hotels, a casino, a spa, a 1,600-seat theater, outdoor performance venues, retail, food and beverage outlets, a convention center, a marina, a marina life park and the Maritime Xperiential Museum. On the adjacent property on the island are a Universal Studio Theme Park and the Equarius Hotel and Water Park. There is also a nature preserve atop a hill covered in lush tropical foliage, with walkways throughout, its top crest guarded by the “Merlion,” a sculptured mythical mermaid/lion creature—guests can climb through its interior.
In all, the 121-acre property is mind-boggling, and the master plan was the complete show of Michael Graves & Associates architects, and its Michael Graves Design Group division. MGA completed a master plan for the gargantuan complex, and designed all the interiors for the casino and four of the six hotels (all but the Equarius and a Hard Rock hotel on the property).
The Resorts World Sentosa property is essentially the Michael Graves firm’s masterpiece, calling on every strength of a diversely talented staff. “Sentosa brings together so many parts of our practice,” says MGA founder and principal Michael Graves. “It draws on the deep skill-set of my partners, and our talented staff, and it’s allowed us to demonstrate our architectural values on a larger canvas than ever before.”
At the core of Resorts World Sentosa are the casino and adjacent Crockfords Tower hotel, a luxury all-suite, 120-room facility that offers a contemporary take on early 20th century design. Deep, rich colors blend with inlaid wood details that recall luxury ocean liners of the period. The casino itself follows this same design, alternating between luxurious dark gaming areas and common bar areas with high ceilings and atriums.
Paired with Crockfords Tower is Hotel Michael, named for Graves and stamped with the firm founder’s vision throughout, from artwork painted personally by Graves in the hotel rooms to details as intricate as the signage in the property, done in a typeface created by the architect.
Perhaps the greatest achievement in this property is how the diverse elements are woven together with walkways, paths and even a sky tram to whisk guests from one experience to the other. There is an overall welcoming, fun aspect to the property that invites guests to roam between areas that are vastly different, yet have a common thread of the signature Graves design.
“I see Resorts World Sentosa as the fullest expression yet of the MGA design ethic,” says Principal-in-Charge Patrick Burke. “The emphasis is on people, and on creating environments that connect with them on a cultural as well as an emotional level.”
Walk in the Park
Parx Casino at Philadelphia Park
OWNER: Greenwood Gaming
PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT: Friedmutter Group
OTHER DESIGNERS: Lifescapes Int’l., John Levy Lighting Production
CONSTRUCTION CONTRACTOR: TN Ward
PROJECT: $250 million
Unveiled last December, the Parx Casino at Philadelphia Park is unique among Pennsylvania racetrack casinos. It is the only one, for instance, that is a building apart from the actual racetrack. Where other racinos incorporate the tracks and the racing vibe as part of the design, Parx stands alone as a contemporary casino that could be located anywhere.
The Friedmutter Group conceived the design to feature “contemporary European style and grace within a Western casino atmosphere,” according to Brad Friedmutter, founder and CEO of the company, which handled the master plan, architecture, design architecture and interior design for the project.
“The vision for Parx was to create a very contemporary exterior utilizing Mondrian panels connecting to a warm and traditional interior environment,” Friedmutter says. “This blending of style and tradition with contemporary application was achieved by using glass and metal materials on the exterior combined with beautiful stones and finishes from around the world.”
Those panels greet the customer with a shout, thanks to three massive LED screens—two 49 feet wide and almost 29 feet tall, flanking a center display measuring 61 feet by 34.6 feet. Inside, the atmosphere is warm and comfortable on a 120,000-square-foot gaming floor, ringed by five food and beverage outlets in an overall facility that measures 260,000 square feet.
The design is replete with high-end accents like imported marble from Pakistan, exquisite wood finishes, sparkling chandeliers and huge glass artworks—clusters of glass “flames” forming unique lighting effects. The center of the casino is a huge, oval area ringed by elegant chandeliers (each reportedly cost $1 million by itself) to draw the eye into the casino’s table game pit.
Details such as this give the visitor the impression of a top-quality mega-resort design, accomplished on a comparatively modest budget. Friedmutter’s favorite part of the design? “The exterior contemporary entry/porte-cochere is particularly beautiful and compelling,” he says, “with the two opposite art-glass enclosed, feature Sonic walls that include custom art displays and color-changing lighting.”
Making A Splash
FIN at Tropicana Casino & Resort
Atlantic City, New Jersey
OWNER: Tropicana Casino & Resort
INDOOR SEATING: 200 plus a 70-capacity bar
PATIO: Eight tables, seasonal
DESIGN ARTISTS: Fusion Z Art Glass, Muralist Paula Montgomery, Ceramic Artist Alison Evans
It has the best seats in the house, with expansive ocean views visible from every corner. It has a brand-new menu that emphasizes local seafood, “Jersey fresh” produce and home-grown, Garden State wines. It has a whole new look that casino officials have dubbed “sea chic.”
The new restaurant FIN, at the Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City, is the latest and perhaps greatest incarnation of a dining space that has morphed over the years from buffet to prime rib joint to Asian fusion to chop house.
Al Maoirani, Tropicana’s vice president of resort operations, says the dining spot’s new identity (strictly seafood, thank you) is the perfect fit in a resort that has never fully exploited its Jersey shore locale.
“The four columns in the center of the space are covered in sea glass, most of it genuine, some manufactured,” he says. “Depending on the time of day and the direction of the light, the color of the columns shifts and changes, so the place looks completely different.” Fusion Z, an art glass company based in Northern California, fused Czech craftsmanship and American design for the striking columns.
Maine-based ceramicist Alison Evans, whose work has been showcased in House Beautiful and the New York Times, adorned the walls with rough-edged, hand-thrown oyster plates. And muralist Paula Montgomery painted eight mermaids on the walls of FIN, finding inspiration in the work of John Singer Sargent.
“Our mascot and theme is the mermaid,” says Maiorani. “Everything in the design of the restaurant suggests the sea,” including the color scheme, which graduates from cool silver and blue tones in the dining area to warm golds in the bar, with contours that suggest a boat shape.
FIN is the only seafood restaurant in town that offers oceanfront seating both inside and out. A 200-capacity dining room with upholstered banquettes and the 70-seat bar are adjoined by a patio area with eight tables overlooking the Boardwalk, beach and Atlantic Ocean. A special glass-enclosed “captain’s table” offers private dining for up to 10 people.
“This is the money shot,” Maiorani says of the expansive view.