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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
February 9, 2015
The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week
10. Holly Madison Sues Club; Alleges Secret Videos of Dancers
Reality star and former nightclub entrepreneur Holly Madison has filed a lawsuit against the 1923 Bourbon & Burlesque club at Mandalay Bay, which she used to be a part of. She is alleging, among other things, that the management of the club and/or her partners were making secret videos of the burlesque dancers backstage as they changed clothes between numbers. The accused are vigorously denying the allegations and say it's all just a stunt on Madison's part to get attention. Expect the whole thing to end up in court soon. Read the review of 1923 Bourbon and Burlesque.
9. Next Vegas Implosion Set
It's been years since Vegas had a good implosion but that dry spell is going to end next Tuesday at 1:30am as they dynamite the old Clarion (Greek Isles, Debbie Reynolds, Paddlewheel, etc.) hotel on Convention Center Drive. The hotel closed late last year and is going to be replaced by a big, non-gaming hotel and shopping complex at some point. There should be some good video to post next week after it happens (local TV loves covering this stuff) but to hold you over until then, you can enjoy the video of past Vegas implosions here.
8. Radio Ciy Pizza Adds Walk-Up Window
If you're walking down Fremont Street (or maybe stumbling as the case may be) and you find yourself craving a quick slice, head on over to Radio City Pizza where they have just put in a new walk-up window. The popular pizza joint on East Fremont is one of the best in town and while you can't get their entire menu through sidewalk service, you can certainly get your hunger pangs satisfied. Oh, and they are serving booze through the window, too, in case you weren't quite stumbly enough. Read the review of Radio City Pizza.
7. Vegas Attraction Passport Offer Discounts for Major Sights
There is a lot to see and do in Vegas and doing it all can get expensive. If you have a big appetite for visiting the city's attractions you may want to consider the new Vegas Attraction Passport. The consolidated package gives you admission to Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas, the Mob Museum, and CSI: The Experience, plus a ride on one of the outdoor gondolas at The Venetian and an on-off bus tour. Pay for each of those separately and you're going to spend over $140 but get the passport and it'll cost you $80. It's valid for seven days from purchase and you can pick it up at the ticket counters for any of the included attractions.
6. Crystal Starbust Debut Set
No, sorry, it isn't a new stripper coming to town but rather the Swarovski crystal ball that will put on a show every night at the Grand Bazaar shops at Bally's. Towering above the Swarovski store, the 14-foot-diameter, custom-designed crystal-and-LED-light Swarovski Starburst emits hundreds of "rays" capped by custom-cut crystal spheres and highlighted by more than 1,800 multi-colored, continuously changing LED lights. Each night at midnight, the ball will do a Time Square-style drop in a three-minute-long light-and-sound show. The whole thing debuts on February 26. Read more about the Grand Bazaar Shops.
5. Omnia Sets Debut with Calvin Harris
The huge new nightclub named Omnia at Caesars Palace has set a March 12 date as its formal debut in the hyper-competitive Las Vegas nightclub scene. Helming the turntables on opening night will be Hakkasan resident superstar DJ Calvin Harris, arguably the most famous producer/DJ around. Run by the same folks who do Hakkasan at MGM Grand, the club replaced the longtime favorite Pure and will be one of the biggest in town with both indoor and outdoor spaces. Read more about Caesars Palace.
4. Strip's First Gay Nightclub Closes
Liaison at Bally's made a big splash when it opened last year. It was the first gay nightclub inside of a major hotel on the Vegas Strip, created out of the space that once occupied Drai's After Hours. Although there is no real competition on The Strip for the gay and lesbian market, they still had a hard time luring people inside partly because of high prices and partly because of the touristy nature of the location. Krave was the first gay club near The Strip, operating on Harmon Avenue on the exterior of Planet Hollywood, and then later at the former Empire Ballroom building just north of MGM Grand. It closed last year also and now the only club experience on The Strip dedicated to the LGBT audience is the Sunday night party at Revolution at The Mirage. See more Vegas nightlife.
3. Caesars New Boss
Amidst the company's multi-billion-dollar bankruptcy, longtime Caesars CEO Gary Loveman is stepping down from his post after more than 10 years in the role at the top of the company. He is being replaced by Mark Frissora, who was the CEO of the parent company of Hertz Car Rentals for the last seven years. Frissora doesn't have a casino background but then neither did Loveman when he joined the company. Of course one could say "look how that turned out" but that might be oversimplifying things. There are no indications that the new boss intends to make any dramatic changes, at least not yet, but it'll be interesting to see how things shake out after the bankruptcy trial is complete. Read more about Caesars Palace.
2. Online Gambling Ban Backed by Casino Exec
Most of the big casino companies in Vegas were thrilled by the Justice Department decision a few years ago that effectively allowed limited forms of online gambling in the US, something that had been mostly illegal before. Several of those companies jumped in with both feet, creating online poker sites and free versions of slots and other casino games on social media in the hopes that they'd be able to someday turn them into cash games. Now a new bill has been floated that would put the ban of online gambling back in place and it has a surprising backer - Sheldon Adelson, the guy in charge of hotels like The Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas. Adelson has been vehemently against Internet wagering for what most believe is a desire to keep it from competing with his real casinos in the US and abroad. The bill is working its way through Congress now but it's future is uncertain. Read more about The Venetian.
1. More Resort Fee Increases
The wave of resort fee increases continues with the announcement that the Tropicana has bumped up it's nightly charge from $20 to $25 and the Hard Rock has gone up a buck, from $24 to $25. Neither hotel added anything to the list of stuff those fees cover but the Tropicana is touting its high speed Internet as being totally worth the money you are paying. In the last couple of months nearly two dozen hotels have raised their fees, some as high as $30 and some more than once. See a list of all resort fees.
Rumor Control: Revamps of Monte Carlo, Riviera, and the Mardi Gras
Three big, unconfirmed rumors about Las Vegas hotels have landed in the last week, each of which puts the future of those properties in question.
The first involves a rumor that has been circulating for weeks that a major Strip property was going to get a major makeover and a total rebrand, much like the Sahara became the SLS and the Imperial Palace became The Quad and then The Linq. This week those rumors settled on a target: the Monte Carlo.
Word on the street is that the hotel, which opened in 1996, would get a top to bottom overhaul and a new name designed to move it up a few notches on the perception meter. Parent company MGM Resorts is already spending billions to revamp the front of the hotel and the street next to it to create The Park, a mini-strip of restaurants, bars, public spaces, and more leading to a new 20,000 seat arena behind it and next door neighbor New York-New York.
Nobody is admitting this is true yet but it makes sense considering how antiquated the hotel looks in comparison to its CityCenter neighbor. A contemporary overhaul of the design aesthetic and a new name would probably help the property compete.
I'm putting the reality meter on this one at about 60%, meaning I think it's more likely than not that the Monte is going to get a makeover but nowhere near a sure thing.
The second rumor involves the possible sale of The Riviera, the faded former Grand Dame of the North Strip. It will be celebrating its 60th birthday this year unless the extreme version of the rumor comes to fruition, which involves the new owners tearing down the hotel and starting over. Other versions say that the hotel will also get a major makeover and possibly a new name also.
I'm going to break up the likelihood of this rumor becoming reality into several pieces. I think it is probably 90% likely that the hotel is going to get new owners. The current ones have been making no secret of their desire to be shed of the place and it is in what is expected to be a booming neighborhood within a couple of years with new mega-casinos planned across the street. I'd say 50% likely that the hotel will get a major makeover and a rebrand and probably 25% likely that it will get torn down. That's just too expensive these days so I doubt that's the way it will go.
The last rumor is all about the Best Western Mardi Gras, the small casino hotel on Paradise Road near the Convention Center. It was sold recently to a local real estate company who has announced plans to "redevelop" the property. That part is confirmed, but what is in the rumor mill is exactly what "redevelop" means. Much like the Riviera, it could be anything from a coat of paint and a new name all the way to bulldozers and cranes. I'm going to put this at about a 75% chance of a wrecking ball in the Mardi's future.
As soon as I hear confirmations on any of these rumors I'll let you know.
What's New (and Old) at The Westgate
When this property first opened in 1969 it was called The International but it became the Las Vegas Hilton in 1970, a name it kept for more than 40 years. For much of that time the hotel was not actually owned by the Hilton Hotel chain but rather licensed the moniker in a deal that ended in 2011, after which the property became simply the LVH - the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Not much changed in the few years it operated under that name, which was both good and bad.
Now the resort is undergoing its most substantial change yet, becoming the Westgate Las Vegas, a hotel/timeshare hybrid that is providing the building with its first major overhaul in a decade. To say that it's about time is an understatement.
Rooms are at the top of the list of makeover targets. A chunk of them, now known as the Signature rooms, have gotten new decor treatments that are using some of the furniture and the overall design aesthetic from the former Westgate tower at Planet Hollywood (now Elara). They are heavy on the use of bold black, red, and purple with contemporary furnishings and other "Hollywood" inspired touches (think: pictures of Marilyn Monroe). Each has 60" LED flat screen 3-D TVs, coffee makers, mini-fridges, and more.
The so-called Premium rooms are leftovers from the LVH and Las Vegas Hilton days, with pretty standard hotel furnishings that aren't going to get anyone too excited. More of the rooms will be converted to the Signature style over time.
Only a few hundred rooms are actively being marketed as timeshares right now so you can still consider this a traditional hotel. Eventually the bulk of the property will be sold but rooms will most likely but put into rental pools so you'll be able to stay here without buying in. Whether or not they will have people chasing you down the hallway trying to get you to listen to sales presentations is unknown but unlikely. They like to consider themselves classier than that.
The entertainment lineup has changed as well. In addition to new acts in the lounge, they have reportedly signed actress/singer/health-food advocate Suzanne Somers to bring a song and dance revue to the main showroom starting in May of 2015. With other hotels going after contemporary acts like Britney and Mariah this feels like a decidedly old-school choice, which has proven to not necessarily be a bad thing for hotels like the Flamingo where throwback acts like Donny & Marie and Olivia Newton-John are drawing in lots of ticket buyers.
As if a Suzanne Somers headlining gig wasn't enough to prove its retro bona fides, the Westgate is also going after Elvis. A deal has reportedly been struck between the hotel and the late singer's estate to put in a new exhibit of memorabilia that they don't have room to display at Graceland. Back when the hotel first opened as The International it was home to several years of concerts by Elvis and there is still a bronze statue of him in the lobby to commemorate that run of shows. There is no timeline for the debut of the new exhibit but expect by summer of 2015.
The casino area is getting some upgrades as well. New machines and tables have been added and the sportsbook, which bills itself as the largest in the world, is getting a high-tech makeover with new video screens, mobile integration, and more.
The former Star Trek casino area will reportedly be turned into a nightclub/dayclub operation with a new pool added. Speaking of new pools, the main recreation deck is getting new surfacing and cabanas by this spring, which is when the new spa and health club will also make their debut.
Restaurants are also getting revamped with a new deli, Sid's Cafe, already open and a new steakhouse coming soon. They also redid one of the casino bars and named it The International, a nod to the hotel's roots.
The hotel will remain a stop on the Las Vegas Monorail system, which makes getting to and from The Strip a bit easier. That's important since it's too far for most people to walk to get to the things you want to see.
Room rates have remained relatively affordable. Unlike most major hotels in Vegas, where weekends are usually more expensive than weeknights, this one fluctuates in often unexpected ways. Since it is next door to the Las Vegas Convention Center, it tends to draw bigger crowds during the week and so you'll often see prices higher on a Tuesday than you will on a Saturday but not always. Expect the lowest in the $40 per night range for the Premium rooms and another $20 on top of that for the newer Signature rooms. Those rates can soar up to closer to $200 on really busy nights but I'd say the average is around $100 plus the $24.64 per night resort fee (includes tax).
No matter what you call it, this hotel has always offered nice (if not terribly exciting) accommodations, often at reasonable prices, which makes it worth considering. Whether or not the changes that are happening as it takes on its new Westgate moniker will be positive ones is yet to be seen.
I'll have a full review of the Westgate after more of the renovations have been completed.
Dining Review: Buffet at Excalibur
When the Roundtable Buffet opened with the Excalibur in 1991, it was the first of what would be many highly themed buffet experiences in Las Vegas. Its Knights of the Round Table trappings (think suits of armor and heraldic crests everywhere) was a hoot and laid the groundwork for places like Pharoah's Pheast at Luxor and the Le Village Buffet at Paris Las Vegas. While fun from an experience perspective, it was always toward the bottom of the barrel in terms of a dining one, serving up big, heaping bins full of boring buffet food luke-warmed by heat lamps. People still visited in droves, though, because it was one of the cheapest buffets in town and sometimes all you need is fuel when you are preparing to go back and attack Sin City.
These days the Las Vegas buffet experiences has gone as decidedly upscale as most of the rest of the city, with food quality and prices hitting the stratosphere. Witness Caesars Bacchanal Buffet, which has more than 500 food items and costs more than $50 at peak times. A buffet like the old one at Excalibur just can't compete in this market.
So of course now the old buffet at Excalibur has given way to the new Buffet at Excalibur, complete with a multi-million dollar renovation, new food offerings, and new pricing of course.
The room is much nicer than it used to be although significantly less amusing. It's done in various shades of orange, red, and earth tones with plenty of table and booth seating. There are food stations lined against the back wall including ones for salads and fruit, made-to-order omelettes at breakfast and various carved meats the rest of the time, and regional cuisines like Latin, Asian, and Italian. There's also a big dessert station in the middle of the room and a drink station along another wall and even a full bar (which costs extra).
Although there was nothing terribly groundbreaking when we visited, the selections were broad ranging and satisfying. We happened to be there just as they were transitioning from breakfast to lunch so we got to see various egg dishes, the aforementioned omelettes, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, and more for the early crowd switching over to everything from pizza to carnitas tacos to a giant hunk of prime rib and beyond. Obviously menu selections will change from time to time but that gives you an idea of what you can expect.
The quality was above average if not exactly spectacular and they need to work on their temperature monitoring (some items were not as hot as I would have liked them to be) but overall this is a much better overall experience than it used to be. I liked the made-to-order crepes and the comprehensive drink station, serving coffee, tea, soft drinks, juices, and more, is a nice change from the buffets where you have to wait for someone to bring you a beverage.
While prices are a bit higher, they didn't jump as much as would be expected for this level improvement and are still on the low side for Vegas. Breakfast is around $18, Lunch $19, Dinner $23-$27, and brunch $22. You can also get an all-day pass for $36-$40, allowing you to each there at every meal in one day if you want, or you can get a "to go" pass so you can take as much as you can carry for $17-$20.
I would have still liked to have seen one suit of armor, but if it came down to a choice between that and better food I'd choose the latter so they made the right decision.
Vegas 2014: The Year in Numbers
There was good news and bad news for Las Vegas in 2014. The good news is that more people came to town. The bad news is that they gambled less. It's a story told in the annual report released by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority about the city's visitors in 2014.
More than 41 million people visited Las Vegas last year (41,126,512 specifically according to the report), up 3.7% over 2013 and an all-time record high. They filled the city's 150,000 or so hotel rooms at an 86.8% occupancy rate, meaning that nearly 9 times out of 10, there was going to be a person in any given room in any given hotel. That's up 2.4% from 2013 but is still down a few points from the high water marks of the mid 2000s when occupancy was above 90%.
In case you're wondering how more people could fill the hotels less often it's because there are more hotel rooms to fill with the additions of places like Aria and The Cosmopolitan at the end of the last decade.
All of those people were paying more for their hotel rooms, provided they were staying on The Strip. The average room rate for hotels there was $125.80 per night, up 5.2% from the year before. Note that figure is an average of all rooms at all hotels on all nights of the year, so it would include something like a Manor room at Circus Circus in December that might be going for $35 a night and a suite at Bellagio during New Year's that might go for $1,000.
If those people stayed Downtown, they actually paid a little less for their rooms - an average of $65.78, down 4% from 2013.
It's worth noting that all of these rates do not include the hotels' nefarious resort fees.
Of those visitors, just over 5 million were in town to attend one of the more than 22,000 conventions and meetings the city hosted in 2014.
The problem for Vegas is that most of those 41 million people who came to town spent less money in the casino. Gambling revenue statewide clocked in at $11.1 billion, down 2.6 % from 2013. Narrow that down to The Strip and you had a total revenue of $6.4 billion, down 2.1% year over year.
Interestingly the Downtown area actually ticked up a bit to $511 million, 2.1% increase from 2013. Could this have anything to do with the fact that hotels got cheaper in the Downtown area and, for the most part, don't charge resort fees? Let's see... on The Strip, prices and resort fees went up and people gambled less; in Downtown the prices went down and resort fees were minimal and people gambled more. Hmmmmm.....
In case you're looking for these numbers to provide you with some guidance on when to visit, consider this. March was the busiest month of the year with the highest room rate and the highest gambling revenue - 3.7 million visitors paying an average of $133.92 for the rooms and gambling $860 million. This makes sense in that demand drives up room rates and the sheer volume of people in the casino means more money spent.
The month of the year with the fewest visitors and lowest prices was December, with 3.1 million and $105.74 respectively.
Interestingly though, the month did not generate the lowest gaming revenue - that prize belongs to June, which "only" got $743 million. December, on the other hand, brought in the third highest revenue of the yar at $834 million, meaning that the per person gambling budget was significantly higher that month.
Apparently Santa was very generous this year.