I have a friend, a very creative marketer, who has a concept for a themed casino resort for Las Vegas. I'm sworn to secrecy on the details, but it's based on a foreign destination, and he has come up with clever, theme-consistent concepts for restaurants, bars, shows and activities.

There's only one problem: He's about six years too late.

New-builds going into Las Vegas today are, by Las Vegas standards, downright subtle. Echelon and CityCenter, two prominent new projects, are about style, urbanity and luxury. And this has Las Vegas' themed palaces, some of them shy of their 10th birthdays, a bit concerned.

The MGM Grand shed its Wizard of Oz image six years ago, and Treasure Island shape-shifted into TI, but each is housed in a neutral shell. Pity the owners of the Luxor, who have invested $1 billion -- and counting -- in trying to renovate Egypt out of their pyramid. (The original cost to build the resort was only $375 million.)

The de-theming of Las Vegas underscores the important difference between a theme and a brand. It turns out that the MGM Grand is far better at delivering celebrity chefs, Cirque du Soleil and luxury Skylofts than they were at creating a theme. Dorothy seemed out of her element walking through a casino, especially in contrast to the cocktail waitresses clad in mini-togas at Caesars. Luckily for MGM Grand, the Oz theme was easily subordinated to its roaring (not cowardly) lion logo.

If a theme ultimately doesn't run as deep in consumer consciousness as a brand, where does "reputation" fit in? Can it, like a theme, be changed?

Las Vegas' diminutive half-sister, Atlantic City, is hoping to demonstrate that it can.

At the turn of the millennium, its reputation was as a dumping ground for buses filled with slots-addicted day trippers. And no maw in Atlantic City was more welcoming to this breed of gambler than Harrah's.

I visited Atlantic City last week and saw new towers under construction at several properties, including Harrah's. This surprised me since Atlantic City has recently seen intense competition for the day-tripping slots gambler. I asked Harrah's general manager, Scott Barber, why he's investing so much just as his market is being diluted.

The new towers, he answered, are in response to the competition. The new Harrah's was targeting a different market.

Harrah's has been inspired by the popularity of its newest neighbor, the Borgata, which brought Las Vegas' post-thematic sensibilities to play.

Harrah's dream is now to attract Wall Street types, to trade up from leisure suits to Armani, from blue hairs to blue bloods. Harrah's is building another tower because it is targeting guests who will stay overnight.

To this end, working sometimes in concert with the Borgata and the Atlantic City CVB, the company has mapped a plan to upend the reputations of both the city and its own brand. Harrah's, its sister resort, Caesars, and the Borgata have invested millions in a collaboration with NJ Transit to open an express train route from Manhattan to Atlantic City that will begin operations next spring.

In preparation for the hoped-for invasion of brokers and bankers, the shops in Harrah's-owned properties have been upgraded. The company bought the storied Atlantic City Country Club so hotel guests could play quality golf. Showboat, also owned by Harrah's, opened a House of Blues. A Red Door Spa has opened at Harrah's, just a chip's throw from a very cool night club called The Pool.

In other words, it's not your grandmother's Atlantic City.

Still, Harrah's success in changing its reputation may be tied to the reputation of Atlantic City as a whole. It's troubling that only three Atlantic City properties -- two owned by Harrah's -- signed on to subsidize the train. The others either are hoping to draft along behind this investment or simply don't buy into the vision of a changed Atlantic City. If the latter is the case, that's not a good sign. The city's reputation will be hard to change if the majority of casino owners continue to pump fresh oxygen into the status quo.


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