There's an illustration on the MGM Resorts International corporate website that depicts a marvelous fantasyland consisting of the company's resorts and attractions. Set on what looks like a jungle archipelago, the iconic shapes of the Aria, Excalibur and Circus Circus rise above the canopy while a curtain of waterfalls splashes into the sea.
In this vision, Mandalay Bay is an island outpost, and New York-New York is visible in the distance, connected to shore by the Brooklyn Bridge. The Mirage's volcano erupts in dramatic fashion near a golden lion of roughly equal size. The MGM Macau rises from the desert, and the Luxor sits on a rocky bluff, its spotlight blasting toward the heavens. In the foreground, an oversize roulette wheel is lodged in the sand like a stranded UFO, and the Bellagio fountains erupt from a turquoise bay next to a pair of leaping dolphins. There's even a rainbow arcing into the sky. Why not, right?
It's fiction, of course. Las Vegas is set in a desert surrounded by suburban sprawl, and the largest nearby body of water is Lake Mead, which doesn't so much resemble an idyllic bay as a bathtub slowly draining.
But if the details are a bit of a stretch, the feeling invoked by the image is dead on: Las Vegas is an outlandish wonder world where the pyramids are next to medieval castles, and the Eiffel Tower is located a block from the Statue of Liberty.
However, take a trip down the Strip today and you'll find there's something different among the Venetian palaces and famous casinos. National brands such as Delano, Mandarin Oriental, SLS and W Hotel are riding marquees and crowning skyscrapers. Four Seasons, Trump and Nobu Hotel are all present on the boulevard, and next year New York-born NoMad will join them, transforming a piece of the former Monte Carlo.
As national hotels move into the neighborhood, Vegas-born brands are expanding beyond the desert enclave; parallel trends suggesting that "only in Vegas" might not only be in Vegas anymore.
The Tea Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental, which opened in Las Vegas’ CityCenter in 2009. Donald Bowman, the hotel’s general manager, said, “We did a lot of things different than our brand standard but in a way that’s perfect for the city.”
The big hotel brands move in
If you're going to talk about national hotel brands in Las Vegas, you have to start with the Hilton. Built by Kirk Kerkorian as the International, the megaresort was the largest hotel in the world when it opened with a performance by Barbra Streisand in 1969. But it was Elvis Presley who put the Paradise Road property on the map, playing a series of legendary shows that set attendance records in 1969, then surpassed them in 1970 and '72.
By then, the resort had been sold to the Hilton Hotels Corp. and rechristened the Las Vegas Hilton. The hotel hosted boxing events, such as Muhammad Ali's loss to Leon Spinks and Mike Tyson's victory over Tony Tucker, and countless shows from headliner Barry Manilow before being redubbed the LVH in 2012 and eventually the Westgate Las Vegas two years later.
In the four decades between the Hilton's opening and its rebranding, national hotel chains trickled into the market. The first Hard Rock Hotel & Casino debuted in 1995, drawing celebrities like then-newlyweds Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee for its opening night. The Four Seasons arrived in 1999, positioned as the only luxury, nongaming hotel on the Strip and was attached to Mandalay Bay with a separate entrance, lobby, restaurants and spa. In 2003, Westin entered the market with the Westin Casuarina hotel and casino on Flamingo Road, later renamed the Westin Las Vegas.
In the last decade, however, the pace has quickened: Trump International debuted in 2008; the Mandarin Oriental opened at the CityCenter in 2009. In 2013, as Vegas began to pull out of a deep economic slump, the Nobu Hotel took over a tower at Caesars Palace. MGM rebranded THEHotel as the Delano in 2014, and later that year, SLS celebrated its arrival on the Strip at the former home of the Sahara.
Finally, last December the W Hotel sashayed into town, remodeling the Lux Tower at the SLS, plopping a massive W atop the Strip-facing marquee and adding another national brand to the Las Vegas mix.
The W Las Vegas, which opened in December in what had been the SLS Las Vegas’ Lux Tower, contains design touches such as the marquee light bulbs above the Living Room bar.
What siren song is calling these brands to the Strip? Applied Analysis principal analyst Jeremy Aguero points first to a resurgent local economy.
"There was a great deal of uncertainty relative to whether or not Las Vegas would survive the recession," he said. "This industry and this community were particularly hard hit. I think there was a gentleman in Time magazine who called Las Vegas the 'world's greatest ghost-town-in-waiting.'"
That dire prediction obviously did not come to pass. After seeing visitation drop in 2008, the city's tourism numbers have rebounded and exceeded their prerecession highs. In 2014, Las Vegas welcomed a record 41 million visitors. In 2015, it hit 42 million. In 2016, Vegas set a record for the third consecutive year, drawing nearly 43 million people.
"When you get 43 million visitors every single year, the fact is that their customers are coming here anyway," Aguero said of national brands that are eyeing the Vegas market. "If the brand isn't here, someone else has the potential of gobbling up at least some of the market share that they would otherwise have, if not converting them to another brand. I can tell you, for some of the folks we've talked to, it's a pretty serious concern."
However, it's not just the sky-high visitation stats that are enticing national brands into the fray. It's also the demographic evolution of the Vegas visitor: who's coming, what they want and how they're spending once they arrive.
Mehmet Erdem, associate professor at the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said, "If you look at national chains and the proliferation of them entering the Las Vegas market, there is a direct correlation with how [for] travelers, the demographics are changing."
According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Las Vegas visitors are getting younger. Millennials accounted for more than a third of arrivals in 2016, tied with Generation X guests and surpassing the baby boomers.
Today's tourists are also spending less at the slot machines and blackjack tables. For fiscal 2016, gaming accounted for 34% of the Strip's total revenue, the remaining revenue coming from hotel rooms, dining, entertainment and everything else.
"The fact that Las Vegas has been able to differentiate its spending profile makes more hotel brands fit better in the market and gives them increased interest relative to their ability to compete here," Aguero said.
Donald Bowman, general manager of Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, agreed.
"I think Mandarin saw the tide turning, and as we looked we said, 'Yes, there's absolutely an opportunity,'" he said.
The lobby of the Delano. MGM Resorts rebranded its THEHotel tower in Mandalay Bay as the Delano in 2014, working closely with Morgans Hotel Group to capture the essence of the South Beach-based brand.
Delivering well-known brands
Entering the Las Vegas market can be an intimidating prospect. Six of the 10 largest hotels in the world are neighbors on the Strip, and the existing properties offer a something-for-everyone range of services and amenities.
"You can't just say, 'Give me $5 billion and I'm going to build a little integrated resort here and go against these gaming companies,' " Erdem said. "There's a natural hesitation to go ahead and build something and put your name on top."
Instead, some hotel giants have opted to open timeshare towers in the casino corridor or partner with existing resorts. In 2010, Marriott partnered with the Cosmopolitan to add the resort to its Autograph Collection, enabling Marriott regulars to use reward points at the hip hotel casino and granting Cosmo access to Marriott's massive customer database.
In January 2013, the Tropicana signed a similar agreement with Hilton Worldwide, rebranding the newly renovated resort as Tropicana Las Vegas -- A DoubleTree by Hilton and incorporating the property into Hilton's HHonors program. Two years later, Starwood Hotels & Resorts added the SLS Las Vegas to its Tribute Portfolio, responding to customer demand for Las Vegas and expanding Starwood's presence in the market. This month SLS owners Las Vegas Resort Holdings announced the sale of the property to Alex Meruelo and the Meruelo Group, which also owns the Grand Sierra Resort Hotel & Casino in Reno, Nev.
Other brands have arrived through licensing agreements, such as the Delano.
When it was time to give the tower in Mandalay Bay a refresh, MGM Resorts considered two strategies, said Lili Tomovich, chief experience officer for MGM Resorts.
"One would have been to come up with our own brand and put a significant amount of investment behind that to develop a brand new brand," Tomovich said. "Or we could partner with one that was already established."
They chose door No. 2, working with Morgans Hotel Group to import the Delano from South Beach to the Strip.
"The biggest challenge, really, when you take any brand that's well established in any other market is just how do you deliver that brand at scale?" Tomovich said. "Things that other brands may take for granted from a guest service perspective, for example, become much more challenging when you're talking about 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 rooms vs. a regular hotel in another city.
"We wanted to make sure we could deliver the essence of the Delano brand and what it stood for -- that boutique feeling and that hip, cool, desirable place with great followership -- yet customize it to the location where it was in the desert."
Today, guests entering from the porte-cochere pass between a pair of hulking boulders sourced in Nevada, while in the Mojave-tone lobby, a sculpture of suspended rocks evokes an explosion paused in midair. It's the Delano, but it's the Delano a la Vegas.
Playing card wallpaper in the elevator lobby at the W Las Vegas, another of the hotel's unique design touches.
The same is true at the new W Hotel. While the property checks all of W's defining boxes, it also features clever nods to the city and to the building's former life as the Sahara. Casino dice become mosaics in the Living Room lounge, and poker chips form an art piece behind the welcome desk. In a wedding chapel-inspired nook off the lobby bar, a fortunetelling machine dispenses predictions, prenup suggestions and marriage advice.
"You couldn't pick it up from one location and set it down in another," said W Hotels global brand leader Anthony Ingham. "The story would no longer make sense."
However, not every brand fits as easily into the Las Vegas landscape.
The Mandarin Oriental's Bowman remembers struggling with how to adapt a brand known for serenity and calm to the chaos of the Strip: "I laid awake, thinking, how do you create a Mandarin Oriental environment here?"
"Through many small touches," he said, like an entrance courtyard with a bamboo stand, a light soundtrack of gongs and chimes in the elevators and the service the company is known for. "Guests really do feel a sense that they're at a Mandarin Oriental."
Still, the Vegas location isn't a clone of other Mandarins around the globe.
"We did a lot of things different than our brand standard but in a way that is perfect for the city," Bowman said, pointing to the lobby's Moet & Chandon Champagne vending machine -- the only one publicly available in the U.S. -- which dispenses petite bottles of brut and rose.
"It's been a sensation," Bowman said. "It might not work at the MO Hyde Park in London as well, but it's very aligned with our brand."
A rendering of the Primrose Terrace at the ParkMGM, scheduled to open in 2018, one of two hotels that will reinvent the Monte Carlo location. The Park MGM brand is being developed specifically with an eye toward expanding into markets outside Las Vegas.
A two-way street
The Las Vegas hotel market, when viewed from 30,000 feet, evinces movement in all directions. While national brands plant flags on the Strip through partnerships and new properties, indigenous Vegas brands are staging a parallel expansion, growing beyond the desert into traditional gaming destinations like Macau and considering new markets like Japan.
Today, the Las Vegas Sands Co. has six resorts in Asia, including the Parisian Macao, which opened last fall, and only two in Las Vegas.
"Ten percent of our company's profitability comes out of the U.S., and 90% comes out of Asia," said Sands vice president of communications Ron Reese. "We really are an Asian company based in the U.S."
Wynn Resorts recently spent $4 billion on the Wynn Palace Cotai Strip in Macau, which opened in August, and the company is developing a casino resort at Boston Harbor slated to open in 2019.
The MGM National Harbor opened in Washington last December, and the MGM Springfield is expected to debut in Massachusetts next year. Later this summer, the second Bellagio hotel will arrive in Shanghai with 162 guestrooms, a restaurant by chef Julian Serrano and no casino.
"The awareness of Bellagio in China is super strong, and we are always interested in looking at how we expand that brand," Tomovich said. "It's the same level of luxury service, minus a casino. I think it's going to be a home run in Shanghai."
MGM is also preparing to reinvent Vegas' Monte Carlo as a pair of new hotels: a location of the Sydell Group's hip-as-they-come NoMad brand and Park MGM, a new brand developed specifically with an eye toward exportation beyond the desert.
"There's a bunch of interesting markets right now that have opened the doors to gaming," Tomovich said. "But outside of gaming, we're also interested in building our brand from a hospitality perspective. We're really on an upswing of transformation and development."
According to Aguero, all this growth is good for Las Vegas. While the expansion of gaming was once expected to diminish Sin City, it's actually had the opposite effect.
"Because those brands are so strong, it has appeared over the past 20 years that the proliferation of gaming and Las Vegas-style hotel-casino operations and management has largely led to an increase in visitors," Aguero said.
If you redrew that MGM Resorts illustration to include the entire Strip as it exists today, those tropical atolls would harbor familiar national and international logos amid the pyramids and castles. But that poses questions for hoteliers. For example, is there a risk to importing so many big-name brands? To intermingling the only-in-Vegas vibe with resorts you might find in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco? What if the Vegas snow globe stops feeling like its own magical kingdom and starts feeling more like everywhere else?
"I think the forces in the free market would not allow that," Erdem said. "We don't have it in our DNA to be ordinary. Even if you bring in traditional, cookie-cutter brands, they're going to have to look different, they're going to have to speak different."
Aguero agreed. "What my gut tells me is that the risk is far smaller than the potential reward," he said. "I would never want to diminish what makes Las Vegas unique by watering it down or normalizing it in some way. I think with 43 million visitors, there's enough Las Vegas to go around, to absorb some of those brands and to take us from 43 million to 53 million [annual visitors] by keeping old friends and making some new ones."