Business was brisk at the MGM Grand Las Vegas on a recent weekday afternoon, with hotel guests buzzing about the property, seemingly unaware that the world's largest hotel-casino was nearing the end of an unprecedented renovation.
That renovation is now complete.
The differences are both subtle (new signage, carpeting and slot machine frames) and substantive (the lion habitat is gone, and crews are working outside on a 75,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub concept).
The last time the 5,000-plus room property underwent a major revamp, Bill Clinton was still in office, a gallon of gas was $1.17 and the dot-com bubble hadn't yet burst.
"The main tower was last renovated in 1999, and the casino floor was redesigned between 2000 and 2003, so we had planned on these major changes for some time," said Timothy Kelly, vice president of hotel operations for the MGM Grand.
Opened in 1993, the gigantic MGM Grand quickly became famous for its lion habitat, nightlife offerings (Studio 54) and prowess as an entertainment hub (a favored spot for concerts by A-listers and some of the biggest fights in combat sports).
But 13 years of relative stasis is a lifetime in Las Vegas' continually changing mega-resort landscape.
Dubbed the Grand Renovation, the changes keep the MGM Grand fresh and exciting for customers both old and new, according to Kelly.
"We waited because we wanted to get it right," he said. "We had a good understanding of what we wanted. We appeal to a broad base of customers; [we're] kind of all things to all people."
Noting that while MGM offers a luxury component with its Mansion and Sky Lofts as well as suites of all kinds, Kelly said the resort is "still very much a convention property, with one of the largest convention spaces in the city."
"And we still offer great dining and top-notch entertainment in a great venue, the Grand Garden Arena, which hosts concerts, sporting events and more," he added. "We took extra time [on this renovation], and we were able to accomplish the net result."
The MGM Grand began the upgrade 11 months ago, investing $160 million in its guestrooms and suites as well as closing popular venues such as the Lion Habitat, Studio 54 and Crazy Horse Theater to make way for new offerings. MGM would not say how much the entire renovation will cost.
The MGM is not the only property in Las Vegas that's gone under the knife over the past year.
On the Strip, the Bellagio (also under the MGM Resorts International umbrella), Caesars Palace, the Flamingo and the Wynn have all initiated or completed multimillion-dollar renovations, as have El Cortez, the Golden Gate and the Plaza downtown.
Elevator lobbies and hotel corridors have been modernized with floral prints, bright colors and scent technology, all meant to enhance the new room product, which feature various motifs and modern technology, including flat-screen TVs, energy-efficient thermostats, solar-powered shades and upgraded Internet infrastructure.
Suites also got a modern makeover, including new indoor and outdoor furniture for the two-story Skyline Terrace Suite, whose terrace offers 270-degree views of the Las Vegas Strip.
MGM Grand regulars will likely notice changes on the casino floor. Included in the design of the new carpet are pathways that make the property more navigable.
Slot machines have been relocated to create wider aisles, while the signage has been switched from green to light beige and the text enlarged and changed from white to black to enhance visibility.
The pathways and signage are designed to make it easier to find the property's new "neighborhoods," or focal points of specific types of activity.
For example, the District refers to MGM Grand's Restaurant Row, while the Underground is the retail and entertainment corridor abutting the parking garage.
"It's really about creating the right ambience and feel for the customer [with our amenities]," Kelly said. "Our strategic vision over the next few years is to make [the property] inviting and easy to navigate. We've renamed some areas, striving to achieve different neighborhoods, and even updated the slot bases, which is small thing that people will notice."
The Underground is home to comedian Brad Garrett's new 250-seat comedy club. Opening at 8 p.m. nightly, the club features performances by Garrett as well as other top comedians and up-and-coming acts.
"Brad Garrett is a great addition to the property," Kelly said. "We're big on entertainment. He epitomizes entertainment and comedy in so many ways. He partnered with us to build this theater. So it's been a great success for us."
(General admission tickets are priced at $59 and $79 when Garrett appears or $39, $49 and $59 for performances that don't include Garrett; prices do not include applicable service charges and taxes.)
The most notable and ambitious change will be repurposing the Studio 54 into Hakkasan, a five-story, 75,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub. Cranes lined the front of the hotel for months, creating what will be the largest nightclub in the city.
Launched in 2001 in London's Hanway Place, Hakkasan's became the only Chinese restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin star. Hakkasan Hanway Place and Hakkasan Mayfair in London also hold Michelin stars. The Las Vegas eatery will join U.S. outposts in Miami and New York.
"It's going to be a five-level entertainment experience, with great cuisine, rich interiors [as well as] a nightclub element," Kelly said. "We wanted to create a unique experience and to build upon the foundation of the restaurant."
More changes planned
While the Grand Renovation is a major step forward in MGM Grand's plans for a complete property revamp, Kelly said more changes are on the way, including a new concept from famed seafood chef Michael Mina and new experiences in the former Lion Habitat and Crazy Horse theater spaces.
The property's Wet Republic day-club pool parties will also receive some enhancement after pool season closes.
"It will take a year or two to go to get to the completion point," Kelly said. "We want to continue to bring new experiences and enhance experiences. We will look to create more hot spots and to build upon the convention, entertainment and guest experiences on the property."
For more information on the Grand Renovation, visit www.thegrandrenovation.com.