Behind the door is another world. Once inside, the buzz is palpable. An electronic billboard counts the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the September opening of the first of two $750 million Planet Hollywood Towers. The salespeople are encyclopedias in dress shoes, answering an avalanche of questions. Taking it all in is a ripped-from-the-Census mix of potential customers who seem to like what they see in the mock-up vacation villas.
As expansions go, the PH Towers fit with the recent megaresort trend of creating separate, distinguishable projects on a property, such as the MGM Grand's Residences, Mandalay Bay's Hotel and the Palms Place condos.
But the towers are unique in the sense that as the first timeshare residences connected to a major Strip resort, they're simultaneously creating and carving out a niche in the vacation ownership and weekly rentals markets heretofore ignored by casino megaresorts.
Return of the timeshare
Five years ago, these markets were afterthoughts; condo-hotels were the rage. Every day brought a new website announcing a new condo project: more than 100 at the height of the market's euphoria, promising to add 72,000 units to the city's room inventory.
One by one, the plans fell, among them Ivana Trump's high-rise and the $3 billion Las Ramblas, fronted by an investment group led by actor George Clooney.
Only 10,000 condos have been built, and a third to half of them are empty, a byproduct of overestimated demand. The bubble burst before the global economy tanked in 2007, forcing companies like Boyd Gaming and the Venetian to halt projects and others, like MGM Mirage, to scramble to complete financing on under-construction projects. Meantime, the decision by Planet Hollywood officials to sit on the sidelines during the condo-hotel room boom is looking prescient.
Groundbreaking on the second tower will occur soon after the first one opens in September.
"We shied away from the condo hotel market because there were simply too many projects and not enough demand," said Bill Feather, president of Planet Hollywood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. "We thought there was an opportunity in the vacation owners and weekly rental business, people who wanted to own something on the Strip and customers who wanted to stay more than a day or a couple of days.
"They wanted to stay a week but didn't want to invest in a condo and hope it could be rented out so they could recoup costs," he added. "We had our financing in place before the economic crisis hit."
Encased in sea-blue glass, the towers will rise 52 stories. Each of the 2,400 suites will come with a stainless-steel kitchen replete with full-sized refrigerator, stove, microwave oven, dishwasher, marble flooring in the bathroom, Jacuzzi tub, separate shower and high-end linens on the beds.
There will be studio and one-, two- and four-bedroom layouts. Ownership amenities will include a 46th-floor pool for the penthouse suites, a gym, restaurants, on-site casino and marketplace/deli and use of a ground-floor pool featuring a sandy beach and ringed by private cabanas.
Planet Hollywood teamed with Orlando-based Westgate Resorts on the towers. During July's topping-off ceremony for the first tower, Westgate President and CEO David Siegel praised the collaboration as "the world's first vacation ownership resort directly connected to a major resort, casino and retail mall complex and surrounded by the most prestigious properties in Las Vegas."
The towers mark the latest chapter in the Strip location's interesting history.
Edwin Lowe, the man behind the board game Yahtzee, opened the $12 million, 450-room Tallyho on the site in 1962, closing after just one year. Milton Prell bought the property in 1966, adding the 500-seat Baghdad Theater and infusing an Arabian theme.
The property, renamed the Aladdin, made history on May 1, 1967, hosting the wedding of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. A $60 million face-lift in 1969 added a 19-story tower and 7,500-seat theater. Neil Diamond was paid $750,000 to perform two shows at the grand reopening in 1976.
Investment groups led by Wayne Newton and Johnny Carson, respectively, dueled for the rights to purchase the Aladdin in the early 1980s.
Neither succeeded, and the Aladdin, nearly $4 million in debt, declared bankruptcy, the first of a handful of bankruptcy filings. Gaming regulators forced the resort's closure from January 1986 to April 1, 1987, to investigate charges of skimming and mob ties.
Japanese mogul Ginji Yasuda bought the Aladdin for $54 million later that year, only to file for bankruptcy in 1989.
Despite steadily improving business over the ensuing 10 years, the Aladdin was imploded at 7:30 p.m. on April 27, 1998, to make way for a $1.4 billion megaresort. The new resort opened in August 2000. Weeks after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the Aladdin's owners filed for bankruptcy again.
In 2004, a group led by Robert Earl, co-founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain, bought the 2,587-room resort for $635 million, rebranding it Planet Hollywood in April 2007.
The new owners spent more than $200 million on improvements -- including better Stripfront access, a clearly marked casino entrance, the city's first Trader Vic's restaurant and renovated rooms -- and infusing the Planet Hollywood brand. The 7,000-seat performing arts theater hosts a variety of acts, from pop singer Kenny Loggins to teen heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers.
Vice President of Hotel Marketing Darren Green said the PH Towers provide another carrot for visitors. "Early feedback from the sales side has been strong," he said.
Another selling point is location: Harmon Avenue, a few blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard, has been called the Strip's proverbial "50-yard line." The towers are within walking distance of MGM Mirage's $9 billion CityCenter and offer landscape views of the Vegas skyline.
"We want people to see the towers as a destination within a destination, a place that offers a getaway from the typical Strip experience," Feather said. "This is an upscale destination without all the craziness of the Strip.
"At the same time, we're linked with Planet Hollywood so customers have easy access to great restaurants, shopping and entertainment," he added. "Together, we're going to totally reinvent the Las Vegasexperience."