Desert Inn Oasis for the Strip

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Contributing editor Amy Baratta checked out the renovations at the Desert Inn resort. Her report follows:

LAS VEGAS -- If I hadn't just come from McCarran Airport and driven past the signs for casino properties that line Las Vegas Boulevard, I wouldn't have believed I was standing in the lobby of a hotel anywhere near the famed Strip, let alone smack dab on it.

The cool marble and spacious atrium that overlooked a palm-tree-studded pool complex seemed to belong in a resort community like Palm Springs. The 18-hole championship golf course just beyond the pool -- the only golf course on the Strip -- and the absence of casino noise only confirmed my initial impression.

That is the secret -- and the beauty -- of the Desert Inn, a newly renovated 715-room property that, at least during my three-night stay, proved to be a relaxing oasis in this nonstop city of neon.

That is just what the property is striving for, according to John Koster, Desert Inn's president and chief operating officer.

The buzz word for the concept these days is "destination resort," a property that offers everything a guest could want. Theoretically, a guest would not have to set foot off the property unless he or she wanted to.

So far, according to Koster, the Desert Inn is the first property in the city to achieve this.

"I don't think any other property has gotten into that niche in Las Vegas," he said.

Formerly an ITT Sheraton property, the 48-year-old Desert Inn, which has had a string of owners over the years, now belongs to Starwood Hotels, which took over ITT Sheraton earlier this year.

"In the revolving ownership [of the Desert Inn], it's just another change in ownership -- although a very big one," Koster said, noting that with the recent completion of the $200 million renovation, no other physical changes have been planned for the property.

Indeed, Koster said, the only changes that seem to be in the cards for the Desert Inn are marketing oriented.

"There was a concern that there would be a heavy Westin orientation," Koster said, noting that Starwood also owns the Westin brand.

"As a former Sheraton guy, I, like most of my senior management staff, didn't know what direction [things would be heading]."

Even if the Desert Inn were to be rebranded a Westin property, Koster said, he doesn't necessarily see that as a negative "as long as it [doesn't become] the Westin Desert Inn.

"I think it would be a disadvantage to put Westin or any other name in front of 'the Desert Inn.' "

Ultimately, what Koster predicts is a merger of Sheraton and Westin's frequent-stay programs.

The Desert Inn has been participating in Sheraton's since 1993, he added.

There is always the possibility, too, that the hotel will be sold, Koster said.

On the block during its ITT Sheraton days, the Desert Inn "still is apparently for sale," he said. "From what I understand, offers are still coming in. Starwood is handling that."

That company, however, "likes this property," he added. "We still take in million-dollar customers."

What Starwood -- and now the public -- sees is a $200 million investment that, in the long run, figures to be worth every penny.

When Koster first arrived at the Desert Inn in 1993, the hotel "was very tired," he said. "It had a good reputation as being a high-end property of the past."

Like an old wall with several layers of paint on it, the hotel's layout reflected years of multiple ownership.

"We had staff walking through guest areas -- it was not master-planned at all," Koster said. "There was a philosophy of 'Let's just add another wing.' "

The renovations, started in 1996, were aimed at "bringing back Desert Inn's tradition as a high-end property catering to high-end customers."

Nothing was spared, not even old wooden structures and the inn's old country club, which was torn down "because it was blocking the view [of the pool and garden area] from the new grand lobby," he said.

The lobby was a departure from the old Las Vegas because it isn't anywhere near the hotel's casino, which has a separate entrance.

"We wanted it so you're not walking into a slot machine," Koster said. "We have gotten some flak from old casino types that the grand lobby is too far from the casino, but we wanted to give our customers a sense of arrival."

Through it all, the Desert Inn stayed open.

The goal was to try to not let the work get in the way of guests staying at the property, no small feat for a project such as this.

"It was not a good period of time," Koster said. "We managed it with varying degrees of success.

"It's easy to shut down an entire building, such as ... the clubhouse. We knocked down the old one and built a new one. There's a little inconvenience but not that much.

"The problem starts when you do the main building and the casino area, and you build a new bar or rebuild a restaurant. That's when you start seriously inconveniencing customers."

Especially from March through September last year, when work was being done on the hotel's lobby and front entrance, the hotel, Koster said, "looked like a war zone."

"People thought we were actually closed," he added.

At that point, he said, "I thought we would close and speed up renovations, but [ITT Sheraton] wanted to try and maintain some high-end customer base."

The guests, he said, were very understanding then and now are returning in droves and providing a lot of positive feedback about the renovated property.

"Our success is that we have entered a niche that no one else is in," he said. "The Mirage and Caesars -- they are supertankers, giant must-see attractions that do very, very well and have created a tremendous impact on Las Vegas. But you can't fill [a property] with 3,000 high-end customers every day of the year."

In fact, the Desert Inn has done quite the opposite of most new casino properties here, actually reducing the number of guest rooms from 800 to 715 to make room for more and larger suites, according to Koster.

My one-bedroom suite in the St. Andrews tower offered fantastic views of the pool and golf course and contained more than ample room for two occupants.

Besides a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, the suite featured a bedroom with TV set, living area with comfortable couches and a TV/stereo entertainment center, powder room, dining table for six and a wet bar with minirefrigerator and another TV.

Desert Inn

Phone: (800) 492-4400 or (702) 733-4444

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