Luxe Vegas?7 min read . Updated: 16 Mar 2015, 08:13 PM IST
Larry Olmsted on Las Vegas’ emerging culture of boutique hotels within hotels
When American Express recently decided to launch its own private network of high-end airport clubs for its most valued Platinum and Centurion card holders, the company did not start with London, Paris or New York, but rather Las Vegas. In what has become a Vegas norm, the debut Centurion Lounge has its own celebrity chef consultant, James Beard Award winner Scott Conant, overseeing the menu. The network has since expanded to five airports, with more on the way, but it is telling that American Express chose to launch in “Sin City", long associated with kitsch and free drinks, but now firmly ensconced as a luxury destination.
The Centurion Lounge is a microcosm of what has developed as the luxury experience in Las Vegas, a layer of privacy and exclusivity superimposed onto the city, separating those willing to pay for it from a crush of humanity that sometimes chokes the sidewalks of The Strip, Las Vegas Boulevard, to a standstill. A record 40 million tourists visited Las Vegas last year, and most of them spent a lot of time waiting in lines, to check in, to check out, to eat, for taxis, to get into nightclubs, and so on. All of this can be circumvented, but the luxury Vegas experience begins with one critical decision, which is where to stay.
Las Vegas has a whopping five hotels receiving the highest possible Forbes 5-star rating—just behind London’s total. But what makes the city’s lodging scene unique is that with the sole exception of the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental, all of these top-tier hotels are hidden gems, names not widely known to travellers. That is because they are boutique “hotels within hotels" tucked discreetly into larger properties—six of the 10 largest hotels in the world are here. This gives the Vegas visitor seeking a deluxe experience a best-of-all-worlds solution, with access to all the gaming, dining, shopping and entertainment these mega-resort campuses offer, yet with top-shelf, private, escapist luxury accommodations, the kind that typically come with butlers. No example is as dramatic as The Mansion at the MGM Grand, one of the world’s most over-the-top lodging experiences.
There are several other not quite as decadent hotel-within-hotel alternatives, most notably Skylofts (MGM Grand), Sky Suites (Aria), Tower Suites at Wynn, and Tower Suites at Encore, all of which earn five stars. Skylofts is a 51-unit boutique hotel occupying the MGM Grand’s top two floors, and all units are bi-level, designed by Tony Chi in residential style, essentially luxury apartments, with 8m high windows (powered shades) and extras such as billiard tables, Bang & Olufsen home theatres, Jura espresso machines, walk-in steam showers, and whirlpool infinity bathtubs with chromatherapy lighting. Skylofts has five employees for each unit, a butler staff that packs, unpacks and presses, plus a Rolls Royce and limos of its own (rates begin at $750).
Shopping has become a big draw for the city’s luxury crowd, and virtually every top fashion designer, boutique, and watchmaker is represented here, both in stand-alone brand stores and more mainstream retailers. The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace (Dunhill, Blancpain, Cartier, Fendi, Gucci, Vuitton, Rolex, Panerai, etc.) quickly became the nation’s highest dollar-per-square-foot retail centre when it opened (and has since doubled in size), blazing the way for the equally excessive City Center, the Fashion Show Mall, Grand Canal Shoppes at Venetian, and most uniquely the retail offerings at the Wynn, which include one of the few Ferrari and Maserati dealerships in a hotel lobby.
But the most vivid evidence of the city’s arrival on the haute lifestyle scene is its surprisingly excellent fine-dining scene. At first, the restaurant strategy here was to borrow heavily from other culinary capitals, literally cloning established eateries such as Boston’s Olives, New York’s Le Cirque and Beverly Hills Spago. But after proving that visitors would spend, and spend lavishly not just on first-rate cuisine but rare vintages as well, Las Vegas’ newfound reputation as a place to splurge on excess started attracting star chefs in droves, and rather than outposts, many set up their flagships here. Wolfgang Puck, America’s single most successful restaurateur, and the one for whom the very term “celebrity chef" was first coined, packed up and moved his headquarters from Los Angeles, and now has half a dozen restaurants here, including the standout CUT, consistently ranked among the nation’s very best steakhouses. Acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who popularized “fusion" cuisine, opened his largest Nobu restaurant in the world here—along with his first namesake boutique hotel, a Zen oasis that is home to one of the city’s swankest rooftop lodgings, the huge Nobu Villa. Other revered names with one or several Vegas eateries include Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gordon Ramsay, Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina, Jose Andres and Julian Serrano.
But no one has made as much of an impact on the highest end of the Las Vegas dining scene as the Parisians, who brought their 3-Michelin Star resumes. Among the most coveted and famous meals on earth are those served by Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse, all of whom have become Las Vegas fixtures. But the top of heap belongs to Joel Robuchon, whose humble nickname is “Chef of the Century". The youngest in history to attain three stars, Robuchon eventually became the owner of more stars than any chef ever, before largely retiring and shuttering his Paris flagship. But when MGM Resorts, Las Vegas’ biggest casino owner, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, he opened his namesake epicentre here, quickly earning another three stars. Today Robuchon has restaurants in Paris and around the world, but if you want the real thing, his crème de la crème top-tier experience, arguably the finest meal in the US, you have to visit Las Vegas and his jewel box of a restaurant.
More than in most other cites, having a luxury experience in Las Vegas is about access, whether to coveted reservations, show tickets, the nightclub of the moment or simply better service. This is largely based on where you stay, and the three big hospitality players, Caesars’s Entertainment (Caesar’s Palace, Laurel Collection, Anthology Suites, Nobu, Cromwell), Wynn (Wynn and Encore) and MGM Resorts (MGM Grand, Aria, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Mirage, Mansion, Skylofts, SkySuites, Hotel 32, Delano, Four Seasons), each own high-end private golf courses for guests, and has a portfolio of exclusive restaurants, headline entertainers and night clubs. Staying in one of their premium hotels-within-a-hotel typically gets you easy access to all of these, arranged in advance or during your stay by concierges and butlers.
Larry Olmsted is a golf and travel writer, and a columnist for Forbes and USA Today.