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If They Build It,
Will They Come?

If They Build It,
Will They Come?


A slate of new luxe resorts and boutique hotels aims to turn Vegas into the next gay travel indulgence. But can the slot machine mecca really become a high roller's paradise?

For years gay hotels in Las Vegas were all like the Blue Moon Resort -- a Motel 6-like joint located a half mile from the Strip with a clothing-optional pool in the back. It was the kind of slightly tacky place you could find in Key West or Palm Springs and a far cry from where you'd stay in more refined destinations like South Beach or New York City. Indeed, for people who regularly trot off to Paris or London to stay at chic boutique hotels like St. Martins Lane, Vegas has always left something to be desired.

Take my friend Billy. He and his boyfriend are currently planning a trip to Paris, where they're looking to book a room at the Hotel du Petit Moulin, a boutique property housed in a former bakery from the 18th century. The last time he went to Vegas in 2004, he "stayed at a terrible hotel that looked like it was stuck in the early to mid '80s," he says. "It was on the Strip--but definitely B-list, a second-tier hotel."

Soon enough, Billy will be able to stay at a hotel more to his taste. As the city of Las Vegas continues to reach out to the LGBT market through its tourism and convention bureau, gaming behemoths like Harrah's and the MGM Mirage--the two biggest resort casinos in town--are upping their efforts as well. The Luxor, owned by MGM Mirage, advertises its chapel as an ideal site for commitment ceremonies. Harrah's went so far as to designate its Paris Las Vegas property as the place for gays to stay. But the real buzz, at least for elite gay travelers like Billy, surrounds new properties with high gay brand identity like the Mondrian and Delano hotels, which are owned by Morgans Hotel Group; and the new Wynn Encore under construction, across the street from the original. And just last year Sam Nazarian, entertainment entrepreneur and co-owner of West Hollywood's mega gay bar the Abbey, bought the Sahara Hotel and Casino, a spot once popular with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and their groovy friends.

All this has the bicoastal set wondering, Will the onetime Rat Pack haunt become headquarters for the Gay Pack?

As well-meaning as MGM Mirage and Harrah's are -- the companies deserve kudos for including LGBT people in their marketing plans and donating to local gay causes--they're not exactly up to the standards wealthy gays expect. The Paris, for example, with its chintzy rendition of the City of Light and unfussy rooms, doesn't appeal to Ryan Smith, a 26-year-old Vegas nightlife promoter [see page 41]. "I'm more of a W [Hotels] guy. When I go to Santa Monica I stay at the Viceroy. In New York it's the Hudson. I want something that's a little more hip, a little more chic."

Smith adds that Vegas is more than ready for upscale digs like the Delano, a Philippe Starck-designed hot spot for the beautiful people in South Beach. While Smith was promoting Krave, then Vegas's hottest high-end gay club, he noticed that most of the bottle service customers and visitors from Los Angeles were staying at the Wynn Las Vegas. No surprise. The Wynn's sheer opulence, including the ritzy shopping esplanade complete with Dior and Cartier boutiques, delivers the aspirational quality many travelers -- gay and straight -- desire.

Which raises an important point: None of the high-end Vegas properties, current or now under construction, are overtly gay; their designs and amenities cater to any traveler with dollars to burn. It's all part of a Vegas building boom targeting the luxury market. In June 2007, Boyd Gaming broke ground on the 87-acre, $4.8 billion Echelon project on the former Stardust Hotel site south of Circus Circus on the Strip. The Mondrian and Delano will be part of the sumptuous complex, which will also include a deluxe outpost of Asia's Shangri-La hotel chain as well as the Hotel Echelon, the Suites at Echelon, and two concert venues promoted by AEG, the company behind New York's Nokia Theatre and L.A.'s Staples Center. The entire thing is scheduled to open in 2010.

Not to be outdone, MGM Mirage is developing an even more spectacular site called CityCenter located between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio in the middle of the Strip. At $7.4 billion, it's billed as the most expensive privately funded construction project in American history. The 76-acre property will contain a Mandarin Oriental and three other hotels, two condo towers, a casino, and retail and entertainment space, all designed by renowned architects like Cesar Pelli and Rafael Vinoly. Completion of the first phase is expected in 2009.

Given the cachet of these new developments, it's unlikely they'll need explicit marketing campaigns to attract affluent gay travelers. Essentially self-contained cities, Echelon and CityCenter ensure that snooty types, who might turn up their noses at the Strip's anything-goes vibe, will never have to leave the boundaries of luxury. And with its more affordable room rate and Nazarian's reputation, the Sahara will surely nab many of the younger gays who might otherwise stay at the Hard Rock or the Paris.

This is not to say that new development won't be thinking about the gay dollar. "We've really just begun to outline our brand platform and will be working on that the better part of this year," says Boyd gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell about Echelon. "We're still three years out, [but these are] very important considerations relative to the market." And if the Paris decided to build an outpost of the Abbey on its sprawling patio, the hotel might truly live up to its title as the place for gays to stay. Michael Weaver, vice president of marketing at the Paris, agrees--at least in theory. "We've obviously been very pleased with the response we've received to our ads and events for gay and lesbian travelers," he says. "So a more consistent offering to LGBT tourists is a logical next step for us. We're actively exploring several possibilities."

That notion was seconded by Jessie Pound, an account executive at Kirvin Doak Communications in Las Vegas who's working on the Mondrian and Delano. Morgans, she says, "[has] that high-end sophisticated client who's looking for a fun, hot place to stay but at the same time wants luxury amenities, and I think the LGBT community naturally fits into that."

But not everyone thinks it'll be so easy for the Strip to lure the boys from Lincoln Road. "Vegas is Middle America," says John Meglen, the president of AEG Live/Concerts West and producer of Celine Dion's and Bette Midler's residencies at Caesars Palace. He and his partner, Milo Miloscia (the senior vice president of the Andrew Hewitt Company, which books the Hollywood Bowl), live in a contemporary home with adjacent art gallery in one of Vegas's many gated communities. "People pretend that it's not, and places like the Wynn and Bellagio create an impression that it's European and sophisticated. But it's still Middle America." At least for now.

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