The challenges were significant. John Unwin's primary task was to open a 3,000-room hotel last December in Las Vegas, a market supersaturated with fresh inventory. His immediate neighborhood -- he's right next door to CityCenter and its three new hotels -- is awash in capacity.
He had also inherited a superstructure that had to be repurposed. His property, the Cosmopolitan, was designed to be about three-quarters condo and one-quarter hotel, and the condo units were built to a much higher standard than typical hotel rooms. This added significantly to the cost basis and, as a result, to concern from his owners about return on investment.
The Cosmopolitan is an independent property (owned by Deutsche Bank) in a town dominated by very big, multiproperty players. His lack of scale was physical as well as fiscal: The property sits on 8.5 acres, whereas Las Vegas Strip resorts typically have a footprint of 50 to 150 acres.
And within this relatively small space, he had to figure out how to put a casino, restaurants, retail areas and a spa into a property whose original architecture had been conceived as primarily residential.
The property opened on schedule, and I met with Unwin last week in New York to see how he was progressing.
Unwin is a seasoned hotelier. He had previously worked at Caesars Palace, Hiltons, Marriotts, Fairmonts and, for eight years, Ian Schrager hotels. During the hour or so we talked, Unwin seemed relaxed and, in an understated fashion, happy.
He said things were working out. His first-quarter results showed occupancy "at market" within his luxe tier, which includes the Wynn, Bellagio and Palazzio. And, he said, he had the highest average daily rate among the group. He expects the same to be true when Q2 numbers come in.
Unwin said that in many ways, his set-in-concrete limitations made things easier, since they took some decisions out of his hands. His biggest challenge, he said, was to create and articulate a unique brand in a very competitive marketplace.
In that regard, he believes he's found a "wide open space." He set out to bring spirit and vibrancy to a luxury brand. He calls it "polish without pretense." "It's not about formality," he said, "or the labels or, overtly, about status. It's casual, but with a high degree of focus on execution."
His staff of 5,500 auditioned, as much as applied, for their jobs. The process, he said, filtered toward people who could project unscripted and authentic friendliness.
"Our staff doesn't wear name tags," he said. "They have to introduce themselves and engage the customer. In the casino, they can't shake hands -- it's against regulations -- but they can greet guests. You have to bring yourself every day, and that's not easy to do."
Unwin has other differentiators, some inherited, some introduced. He has a significant number of rooms with large terraces, many with views overlooking the Bellagio's water shows. And the Cosmopolitan's identity program recognizes all of a guest's spend, not just the gaming spend.
He has rotating artists-in-residence in a studio on the restaurant level. The retail space is filled with boutiques that may have only one other location, their home-base. Unwin added an unsigned and unpromoted pizza-by-the-slice shop that guests must discover on their own.
His marketing mantra, Unwin says, is to bring business to Las Vegas that wouldn't have happened otherwise. "We're trying to get both detractors and defectors -- those who have been there and checked it off their list and those who don't think Las Vegas is for them."
That strikes me as setting the bar unnecessarily high, but then again, pursuing a difficult goal will pressure the staff to deliver far above expectations.
Ultimately, Unwin sees the Cosmopolitan as a game changer on the magnitude of the Mirage or Bellagio. "I believe that, a few years from now, the Cosmopolitan will be seen as the beginning of a new era, the era of the intimate, the spirited, the vibrant and the accessible."
Circumstances forced Unwin both into a box (literally) and to think outside the box. But it will be quite some time before his theory, that the Cosmopolitan represents the dawn of a new era, can be tested. No matter how successful the Cosmopolitan might prove to be, there's simply too much capacity to be absorbed in Las Vegas for anyone else to imitate or innovate in the near term.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.