WRITING - The Vegas Guy

LAS VEGAS -- When Sheldon Adelson demolished the beloved Sands Hotel in 1996, he instantly became the New Meanie in Town.

Not only did he wipe out all traces of the ultimate symbol of Old Vegas, home of the Rat Pack itself, with its "swim-up craps table" and hallowed showroom, but he made things worse by announcing he was going non-union, setting off a nasty fight with the culinary workers that dragged on for years.

More to the point, this maverick cab driver's son from Boston claimed that his $1.5 billion Venetian Resort, built on the ruins of the Sands, would be fancier than Bellagio, more authentic than New York-New York, and would change Las Vegas from a gambling and tourist resort into the most desireable convention city in the world.

"We believe New York-New York is a 'faux' New York," he told Casino Journal in 1997. "We are not going to build a 'faux' Venice. We're going to build what is essentially the real Venice."

Only in Las Vegas--the realm of fake Romes, fake Monte Carlos, fake Parises, fake Mandalays, and fake Egypts--could someone argue that his fake is less fake than the other fakes, but it was the kind of comment that rankled Adelson's corporate neighbors. Who does he think he is? The last thing we need is a loose cannon Steve Wynn wannabe adding 6,000 hotel rooms to a market that is dangerously close to being overbuilt. How can this casino novice expect to change the nature of the city? And who cares about geeks wearing name tags and attending trade shows all day? They don't gamble.

Yet two and a half years after the grand opening--an event in itself, with Sophia Loren bashing a bottle of Veuve Cliquot on the faux Bridge of Sighs and thousands of white doves swooping around the faux Campanile tower--the Venetian has become the destination resort in a city that's full of them. It not only lined up all those trade show geeks--thanks to the adjoining Sands Expo Center, largest privately held convention center in the world--but it broke every rule of Vegas and thrived.

Adelson says he wants his autobiography to be called "I Did It Without a Buffet." The first resort to shun the cheap-food buffet line entirely, the Venetian instead went after gastronomical superstars, eventually leasing space to 14 of the most renowned chefs in New York (Eberhard Muller of Lutece), Los Angeles (Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal), Dallas (Stephan Pyles) and New Orleans (Emeril Lagasse). Forget the $1.99 buffet breakfast special. At Piero Selvaggio's Valentino, they have a 130,000-bottle wine cellar. "What can I say?" says President Rob Goldstein. "I'm a foodie. I got down on my hands and knees and begged these guys to come in here."

Next they changed the nature of the Vegas hotel room itself. All 3,036 rooms at the Venetian are suites with sunken living rooms. The smallest room is 700 square feet, which is big enough to gain the Venetian a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest standard hotel rooms in the world. The conventional wisdom is that the room shouldn't be too comfortable or people won't gamble. Adelson put in full-service cable TV, Faxes, mini-bars, marble foyers, and a special room- service pantry on every other floor so that food is never more than 10 minutes away. "We want these suites to be a home away from home," says Kurt Ouchida, the Venetian's public relations director, "but we also want them to be an office away from your office."

But Adelson's third, and most revolutionary, challenge to the town's old saloon keepers was to define the Venetian not as a casino but as a "campus"--a campus made up of a hotel, a convention center, a theme environment so lavish and detailed that he had to employ architectural historians and painters to get it right, and the famous Canal Shoppes, a 72-store boutique mall built around an actual indoor canal and a replica of the Piazza San Marco. He even invented a marketing term for it: "streetmosphere," his word for the strolling minstrels, Renaissance princes, glass blowers, singing gondoliers, jugglers and harlequins who greet you at every turn under a twinkling Venice-at-dusk canopy.

It's safe to say at this point that Adelson proved the old adage: Build it and they will come. Not only did hordes of tourists swarm into the Venetian--including people staying at other hotels who just wanted to sse it--but those geeks turned out to be gamblers after all. They don't spend as much time in the casino as the average Vegas tourist, but they spend much more per wager--an average of $19 to $28 per bet (depending on the convention), against the industry average of $12.23.

He also carried through on his promise to create the most authentically themed casino ever built. Besides the canal--with gondoliers dressed in the traditional tight black pants, striped shirts and crimson sashes--and St. Mark's Square--authentic even down to the precise colors--he built a full-sized reproduction of the Campanile bell tower, including the 15-foot statue of the archangel Gabriel on top. He recreated the Ca D'Oro Palace, the Cantarini Palace, the Rialto bridge, the clock tower, the Hotel Danielli, and the Doges Palace, which constitutes the entrance to the casino itself. The 3000 trained pigeons that swoop across the square every hour actually look like doves to me, but we'll let that one pass. The architectural reproductions get high marks from Venetian tourists--their one negative comment is that it's "too clean"--and the only thing I don't like about it myself is that the Venice-at-dusk mall seems awfully dark and depressing. Twilight should be taken in small doses--say, 15 minutes a day.

At any rate, the Canal Shoppes IS the most interesting of all the grand shopping projects in Vegas, mostly because he managed to lease space to shops that you don't often see (Davidoff cigars, Mikimoto pearls, Sephora cosmetics) as well as shops in Venice that he wheedled into opening a Vegas branch. (Ripaldi Monti sells Italian glass and collectibles, using a 13th century process from Murano. Il Prato sells Venetian masks and paper. Jesurum sells Venetian linen and lace.)

And when Vegas took its biggest hit of the last ten years-- the terrorist attacks of September 11th, with the consequent chaos in air service--the Venetian once again went its own way, immediately cutting its room rates to levels that terrified the bosses at comparable properties like Bellagio, the Mirage, the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. "We're a stand-alone property," says Ouchida. "We had to do it. We don't have the luxury of the corporate chains who can just send their customers to another price level hotel."

The Venetian also had a management team with vast experience selling discounted hotel rooms to day-trippers and low-rollers. All of them worked together at the Sands in Atlantic City in the early nineties, then as now the smallest fish in that pond. "One thing we know how to do," says Goldstein, "is focus directly on the customer."

Adding to the chaos of September 11th was the timing of their latest extravagant opening--permanent satellite museums for the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, both located mere steps from the casino floor. Total investment: $30 million.

"We've taken it to an entirely different level now," says Ouchida. "Who would ever think these paragons of high culture would settle in the capital of kitsch? But it expands the market even further now here in tourism. We still ARE the capital of world tourism. This raises the bar on Las Vegas." The bad news is that the Venetian's high rollers have left the building. The Asians, who make up 80 per cent of the "whale" market, are gone--too scared to fly to America right now. Japan Air Lines cancelled all its flights to the city. The Japanese minister of tourism even counseled his countrymen not to fly to America until after January 1. "The high-roller market," says Ouchida, "is hurting."

And the Venetian does have one Achilles heel: entertainment. Since Adelson wants to be "just a landlord"--renting space but not owning any of the restaurants or boutiques on campus--the showroom rights belong to a local producer named Richard Heftel. His more or less permanent headliner is Melinda, "First Lady of Magic," generally considered the weakest of the various Las Vegas magicians. Heftel also runs a late-night dance club, called C2K, that provided the Venetian with the worst publicity of its brief history. C2K became so popular with the local night-life crowd that from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., the hallways adjoining the casino floor were full of puking ravers and spaced-out club girls. Not only did it annoy the convention-goers, but it was dangerous. When a girl died of an ecstasy overdose, Adelson ordered the place closed, and now it's a Brazilian dance show called "Beats of Passion."

With other hotels on the Strip sponsoring such extravagant productions as Cirque du Soleil, Siegfried and Roy, and Blue Man Group, it seems the Venetian has yet to step up to the plate in the entertainment department. They've compensated with one-of-a- kind attractions like the Canyon Ranch Spa, a $15 million property that occupies two floors of the hotel and offers such amenities as indoor rock-climbing and "therapeutic Watsu pools," whatever those are. The first Madame Tussaud's wax museum in America (another has since opened in New York) is situated near the Rialto Bridge. And, of course, there are those party-hearty conventioneers who troupe over every day from Sands Expo.

Adelson's career has actually come full circle. The self- proclaimed billionaire (although Forbes magazine says he's only worth $500 million) started out in the travel business, running package tours from Boston to the Caribbean. He bought COMDEX, the computer convention, in 1969 and built it into the world's largest trade show, selling it in the late nineties for $900 million. He bought and sold over 50 travel-related companies through the years, including the troubled Sands, which he eventually tore down because "I don't like losing." And when he built the Venetian, he invested $320 million of his own money (the rest comes from public bonds and commercial bank loans). The theme, however, was suggested by his wife Miriam, an Israeli physician who remembered Venice as the most romantic place they visited during their 1991 honeymoon.

Perhaps that's why the Venetian is so "female-friendly"-- always a good thing in Vegas, where marketing research shows that the women influence the hotel reservation more than the men. She spoke, he built--and he's still not finished. Phase Two of the Venetian will feature anothter tower, called the Lido, themed after the Belle Epoque style of the Venetian isle of Lido, complete with a lagoon, a marina, another 3,036 suites, and another huge casino.

"Las Venice," as he calls it, costs $1 million a day just to operate. Even in these troubled times, nobody thinks that's such a high "house nut" anymore. Sheldon Adelson is no longer the New Meanie. He's the Veni Vidi Vici.


Las Vegas Boulevard at Spring Mountain Road
Theme: 15th-century Venice
Opened: 1999
Total Investment: $1.5 billion
Known For: The Grand Canal Shoppes, most popular casino mall/theme environment in Vegas
Marketing niche: Conventions Monday through Thursday, FITs on the weekend (their marketing term for "Free Independent Traveller")
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Rapid (with the most beautiful waitresses in town)
Dealers: Relaxed
Bosses: Friendly
Tables: 131
Slots: 2,175
Rooms: 3,036
Surrounding area: Prime location on the Strip, across the street from Treasure Island and Mirage, next door to Harrah's, with the Sands Expo Center linked by tunnels and walkways.
Overall rating: 93
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $65 after an hour at the pricey blackjack tables: total to date: -$50