Wagering on wellness

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At 8 a.m. on Saturdays, the Las Vegas Strip is still waking up. The all-night crowd blinks into the sunshine and stumbles toward bed. The sidewalks are quiet and clean, some still damp from recent hosings, and the streets are free of traffic. There are no erupting fountains, no costumed characters posing for $5 bills.

The whole place feels like a blank slate, a new Vegas day with the promise of unknown thrills.

In the plaza in front of the Monte Carlo, Alicia Goldsmith is leading a small crowd through downward dogs and breathing exercises. The standard casino soundtrack has been replaced by soothing yoga tunes, and a water feature trickles in the background. As nearby marquees blast their advertisements and early buses rumble down the four-mile tourist corridor known for decadence and debauchery, Goldsmith takes the group through a guided meditation in the least likely place in the world: the center of the Las Vegas Strip.

"All you have to do is show up," said Goldsmith, who has been teaching the free, weekly class since it launched last year.

Alicia Goldsmith teaches a weekly yoga class Strip-side in the plaza outside the Monte Carlo.
Alicia Goldsmith teaches a weekly yoga class Strip-side in the plaza outside the Monte Carlo.

The Monte Carlo provides the mats and towels, and the students range from visiting instructors to Electric Daisy Carnival attendees, still in their Technicolor club wear. Whatever event is in town is reflected in the people who show up to practice yoga surrounded by casinos.

The fact that there's a class at all, however, is a reflection of something else. As health-conscious living gains popularity in the U.S., Las Vegas resorts are making it easier for guests to bring their lifestyles with them on vacation.

In addition to Strip-side yoga, there are rock walls and boot camp classes, vegan menus and adventure spas, salt caves and gait analyses, all inside casinos and all contributing to a growing and thriving, not-so-sinful side of Sin City.

A wellspring of spas

Las Vegas claims many titles: the wedding capital of the world, the entertainment capital of the world, the place where you're most likely to see an Elvis impersonator getting a soy latte at Starbucks on a Sunday morning.

Deirdre Strunk, executive spa director at the Venetian and Palazzo's Canyon Ranch SpaClub, would add another to the list: "Here in Las Vegas, we're the spa capital of the world."

There are at least 45 spas inside Vegas resorts, many within the relatively small footprint of the Strip that entice customers with exotic treatments and unusual amenities they'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Strunk's own Canyon Ranch SpaClub is the largest spa in the U.S. and possibly the world, a 134,000-square-foot health and wellness mecca that includes two restaurants, Pilates and cycling studios, a full salon and a 40-foot climbing wall. The Aquavana wet area has nine environments, from an experiential rain lounge where clients can select a Caribbean storm or cool fog to an igloo lit by fiber optics and a wave room that simulates the crashing of ocean swells on a beach.

The signature Roman baths at the Qua spa at Caesars Palace.
The signature Roman baths at the Qua spa at Caesars Palace.

Just across the street, Caesars Palace boasts Qua Baths & Spa, a 50,000-square-foot shrine to relaxation and well-being where guests can sit through a snow flurry in the Arctic Ice Room, indulge in an herbal body wrap made with peppermint and clay or visit a tea sommelier.

At the recently rebranded Linq Hotel, the spa and fitness center cater to millennials with amenities such as a 24-hour gym and a room service fitness cart, which delivers a yoga mat, stability ball, foam roller and weight set to guests' doors free of charge. Spa purchases of $50 or more include a session in the Himalayan salt cave, where walls are cloaked in pink crystals and a machine pumps pharmaceutical-grade salt into the air to help with respiratory and skin conditions.

The Cosmopolitan's Sahra Spa features a Turkish-style hammam with alcoves for steam, cool plunge pools and a heated center stone. At the Bellagio, the fitness center offers group classes in Zumba, spinning, barre Pilates and boot camp.

Alternatives to indulgence

Healthful options aren't limited to the hotel gym or spa. Resorts up and down the Strip are taking a more holistic approach, offering organic produce in restaurants (Canyon Ranch), pillow menus for a better night's sleep (Nobu Hotel), ample vegan dishes (Wynn and Encore) and even whole hotel rooms focused on a more nourishing, invigorating Vegas experience.

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The Stay Well rooms at MGM Grand include a host of features aimed at making guests feel better during their time at the hotel, including an air purification system, blackout shades and a dawn-simulating alarm clock that awakes guests with subtle light instead of sound. The shower is infused with vitamin C, said to neutralize the effects of chlorine for healthier skin and hair.

"It's a point of differentiation," said Gregg Herning, vice president of sales at MGM Grand. "With people thinking of Vegas as being so unhealthy with smoking and everything, we're offering a complete alternative to what the stereotype might be."

The Stay Well program launched in 2012 with 42 rooms and has expanded to 171 rooms and suites (the entire 14th floor of the hotel) and a meetings program that launched in August 2014. Guestrooms are offered with a $30 upcharge above the standard rate, though Herning said, "We could definitely go higher if we wanted to.

"We're putting together the final plans on adding a second floor because the demand has been so astonishing," he added. "By the time I'm done, I'm hoping for a third floor."

Guests can relax to the sound of falling water in a nature-inspired atmosphere at the Space Between serenity lounge at the Cosmopolitan.
Guests can relax to the sound of falling water in a nature-inspired atmosphere at the Space Between serenity lounge at the Cosmopolitan.

New, healthier amenities and options are filtering into many areas of Vegas casinos. The Aria, the Cosmopolitan and the Bellagio have all jumped on the cold-pressed juice wagon, helping guests power up or fight an impending hangover with nutrient-rich elixirs packed with kale, ginger, carrots and beets. Perhaps nowhere on the Strip better represents Vegas' affair with wellness than Squeeze at the Linq, a cafe and cocktail bar where guests can order a fresh-pressed juice, gluten-free snack or a smoothie made with Greek yogurt, kiwi, kale, grapes, orange and tangerine -- additional vodka shot optional.

This is the new Vegas, where you can sin as much or as little as you want.

At the Wynn and Encore, every restaurant has vegan options right alongside the standard fare, from the steakhouse to the buffet.

The resort launched the program in 2010 after Steve Wynn adopted a plant-based diet and figured some of his guests might appreciate the option, too.

"We believe that a guest should find something suited to every dietary lifestyle within one menu," Steve Weitman, senior vice president of food and beverage, said of the resort's food philosophy. "You won't have to ask for a special menu or look far for options that appeal specifically to you."

Even guests who don't follow a strict diet might be tempted to eat a little healthier with creative fare at their fingertips. "The Old Bay cakes made with toasted pasta, blistered tomatoes and ancho-garlic aioli at Lakeside are pretty amazing, and the black truffle and romanesco risotto at SW Steakhouse is addictive," Weitman said.

Recently, the resort doubled down on its health focus, adding lighter versions of popular plates that clock in at 250 calories or less for appetizers, sides and desserts and 500 calories or less for main dishes.

"These selections have been carefully tested by an independent laboratory for calorie content," reads a standard note now at the bottom of the resort's restaurant menus. "They may be lower in calories, but they are every bit as delicious."

"When we first introduced our vegan and vegetarian selections back in 2010, we did not expect the tidal wave of media attention that would soon follow, with many Las Vegas Strip properties and resorts all across the nation following our lead," Weitman said. "We began hearing from people who were choosing Wynn as a destination largely because of our culinary offerings."

'Adapting to our visitors'

That comment is the key to understanding Las Vegas' subtle transformation.

The Country Club and all of Wynn's other restaurants offer both vegan dishes and low-calorie selections.
The Country Club and all of Wynn's other restaurants offer both vegan dishes and low-calorie selections. Photo Credit: Barbara Kraft

"I think where Las Vegas excels in terms of marketing is we're known for adapting to our visitors," said Caroline Coyle, vice president of brand strategy for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).

Today those visitors want a side of wellness with their adult escape.

"Resorts listen to their customers and create the features and services the market wants," Coyle added. "These spas and juice bars and all of the healthful vegan-style menus, if they were not in demand, the resorts would change their offerings."

Shannon Stringert, the Cosmopolitan's director of spa, salon and fitness, agreed. "Guests are no longer compromising their healthy at-home routines. They're making exercise a priority; they're selecting food items that make them feel healthy; they're choosing spa services that are results-driven."

Las Vegas wellness: By the numbers

• 45+: number of spas inside Las Vegas resorts

• 7%: Las Vegas visitors who hit the spa in 2014, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

• 134,000: square footage of Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian, the largest spa in the U.S.

• $200+: average treatment spend at Qua Baths & Spa at Caesars Palace

• 171: number of health-focused Stay Well rooms and suites at MGM Grand, with features like vitamin C-infused showers, dawn-simulating alarm clocks and air purifiers

• 500: maximum calories in special, lighter-fare entrees at the Wynn and Encore's restaurants

While it's hard to determine the number of visitors who attend a yoga class or buy a cold-pressed juice, the LVCVA's annual survey found that 7% of Vegas visitors spent time at a spa in 2014, vs. the 3% who reported visiting a spa in 2012 and 2010. Demographically, millennials were most likely to set aside time for health and wellness, with 9% visiting spas during their stays. Gen Xers were close behind at 8%.

"On an average Saturday in the summer, we'll probably do 650 appointments, and then we'll see another 450 people just in the gym and spa, if not more," said Canyon Ranch's Strunk.

Annual visitation at Qua at Caesars Palace tops 100,000. "We are no longer just an amenity; we are revenue-generating," said Qua Director Kristin Carpenter, who has worked in the spa sector for more than a decade. The average treatment spend at the Caesars spa is more than $200.

Still, as MGM's Herning said, many people still think of Las Vegas as an unhealthy destination -- full of cigarette smoke, cocktails and gamers parked at slot machines. Despite its spa-capital status, Sin City's branding as a party-hearty playground remains strong and successful. That's not something that the LVCVA is explicitly looking to change. Rather, the Southern Nevada marketing organization is simply shifting the focus slightly.

"Adult freedom and choice are certainly at the forefront in our marketing," said the LVCVA's Coyle. "We do a lot of research, and we listen to the customers and we talk to them about what resonates with them and what doesn't. The latest campaign focuses on transformation; we don't judge. Whatever that is for you, however you want to interpret that."

For Nevada, 'a divided perception'

Travel Nevada, the state's tourism marketing agency, is also focusing on the idea of freedom and choice, albeit with a less Vegas-centric approach.

"The perception of Nevada is very often guided by the perception of Las Vegas. It's kind of a divided perception," said Claudia Vecchio, director of the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. "Our current campaign really revolves around our slogan, which is 'Don't Fence Me In.'"

The Cosmopolitan's Sahra Suites are designed as a private retreat within the larger spa and feature treatment and living areas with seating, a flat-screen TV and a wet bar.
The Cosmopolitan's Sahra Suites are designed as a private retreat within the larger spa and feature treatment and living areas with seating, a flat-screen TV and a wet bar.

That phrase, the title of a Cole Porter tune, speaks to Nevada as both a wellness destination and an adventure lover's dream, where less than an hour from their casino's porte-cochere, visitors can hike to hot springs, climb world-class routes at Red Rock or go downhill skiing.

"If we continue to market Nevada as a wellness destination, there are tremendous opportunities for us," Vecchio added.

The casinos themselves are perhaps the most effective tool in spreading the message about Las Vegas' healthier side. Through billboards, social media posts, rewards for club card members and programs aimed at convention and trade show business, resorts are educating current and prospective guests that Vegas is more than a 24-hour party town.

Canyon Ranch has targeted meetings clients, helping corporations integrate wellness into their convention agendas, be it with boot camp classes for 200 or a team-building activity on the rock wall. Custom packages that enable guests to mix and match treatments have also proved popular.

The Cosmopolitan has focused on staying up with current trends. Earlier this year, the resort held a series of pop-up classes, bringing in trainers from fitness programs around the country like Barry's Bootcamp or 305 Fitness. After recognizing customer demand, in June the property launched its own Sweat 60 boot camp, a high-intensity group class offered twice daily five days a week.

Herning said MGM mentions its Stay Well rooms as much as it can, giving the health-centric rooms a nod in general advertising as well as addressing certain markets with more specific messaging.

The Linq has signed on as the official spa of the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon, where it will set up along the course to offer massages to runners.

There hasn't been a dramatic shift in messaging from Las Vegas resorts or the organizations charged with promoting them and the city as a whole. Rather, the not-so-sinful side of Vegas has been growing and building through small adjustments and steady changes, through listening to guests and giving them more of what they want, even if it's beet juice instead of beer.

In a way, you could say the health-conscious, wellness-focused elements of the Strip have emerged organically, and what could be more fitting than that?

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