We've all been asked, "What's your favorite place in the world?" "Kathmandu in 1984," is my standard reply.
The 1984 part is as important as Kathmandu. For a decade or so after I was there, I would simply reply, "Kathmandu," but somewhere in the mid-'90s, people who had been there more recently than I would arch an eyebrow and respond, "Really?" It turned out that the previously laid-back ambience of Nepal's capital had been altered by the emergence of an army of pesky touts. The city's calm had been replaced with hassle and hustle.
Of course, that news didn't lessen the profundity of my experiences in Kathmandu. But it did underscore how travel can be as much a function of calendars as maps.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Las Vegas. It is a relatively new city (as a popular casino and resort destination, it is scarcely 65 years old), but it has undergone near-constant evolution. Despite the preservative powers of dry desert air, it would take a trained forensic archaeologist to find remnants of Early Era Las Vegas properties.
Over the past 25 years, the progression of change in Las Vegas has only accelerated. Steve Wynn changed the dynamic significantly with the opening of the Mirage in 1989, ushering in the Resort Era and significantly broadening the city's appeal beyond its gaming base. Theme resorts in particular proliferated through the '90s, with destinations (Venice, New York, Paris, Monte Carlo) and storied civilizations, real and imagined (Luxor, Excalibur), providing a structure to inform the property's architecture, interior design and cocktail waitress apparel.
Toward the end of the theme craze, Wynn struck again with the Bellagio, ostensibly destination-themed (Bellagio is a real town on the shores of Lake Como,
Italy) but decidedly upscale, with a focus on outstanding restaurants and with splashes of both culture (an in-house art collection) and water (traffic-stopping fountains). Importantly, it brought cachet to a Vegas property. To say you were staying at the Bellagio was to say you could afford to stay at the Bellagio.
As I was told repeatedly during a three-day visit to Las Vegas last month, the recently opened CityCenter project defines the dawning of the destination's next era. It replaces cacophony with intimacy, garishness with understatement, crass with class.
Is it a game-changer? An argument could be made that CityCenter merely isolated, replicated and refined emerging Las Vegas trends, then repackaged them on a massive scale. The pleasant, muted palettes and design sensibility found in the rooms of Vdara and Aria are reminiscent of those seen in TheHotel within Mandalay Bay. Some of the celebrity chefs featured in CityCenter properties were opening their second, third and even fifth Las Vegas restaurants. And while entertaining waterworks by the design firm Wet and a new Cirque du Soleil show have the potential to raise the bar on their previous accomplishments, the bar was already put in place long ago.
Ironically, what is most innovative about CityCenter is unlikely to be trendsetting. In contrast to most properties on the Strip, CityCenter's imposing profile and thoughtful attention to detail appear to have been driven by architects, designers and curators rather than marketers. It is well planned and well executed, and it incorporates cutting-edge sustainability technology. And the Mandarin Oriental, in particular, achieves the chic and refined urban sensibility that CityCenter planners promised when the project was announced six years ago.
The primary reason CityCenter is unlikely to be a trendsetter in the manner of the Mirage and the Bellagio is that for a trend to occur, someone has to follow a new example. And oddsmakers are betting that there is a near-zero possibility that another CityCenter-like project will rise anytime soon.
New restaurants and shows will open and towers may be refurbished, but as regards major growth and development, Las Vegas has just entered its Ice Age.
The deep freeze on major developments in Las Vegas is a function of dysfunctional banking, and even CityCenter's parent company, MGM Mirage, concedes that construction projects in Las Vegas are unlikely to bounce back soon. CityCenter "may be the last new-concept Las Vegas resort appearing for a decade," Gordon Absher, vice president of public affairs for MGM Mirage, told me.
Getting a new project under way is "a different process, far different than the past," he continued. "We used to have Wall Street chasing us. When we went for financing, we would come with an idea and have our offers oversubscribed.
"Now we need to complete our plans fully, not just go in with drawings. They want to see not just estimates but firm figures. You're looking for $2 billion to $5 billion [for a major newbuild], and that whole [financing] process could take five to six years. And then you've got to build it."
These changes in obtaining funding are not specific to Las Vegas. "It's changed for everyone," Absher said. But its impact on Las Vegas' fast-and-furious pace might be more noticeable than in other locales.
It was not that long ago that people would say, "If you haven't been to Vegas recently, you haven't been to Vegas." But it may well be that if you visit Las Vegas in 2010 and you like it, you'll be safe to say "Las Vegas is my favorite destination" until at least 2020 without fear that the destination has changed significantly, and that someone who has been there more recently than you has had a vastly different experience.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.