Mr. Las Vegas

Ever since Steve Wynn sold Mirage Resorts in 2000 to Kirk Kerkorian for $6.4 billion, and shortly thereafter announced his plans to build one more resort and casino, Wynn Resort and Casino (originally named, Le Rêve), Las Vegas and the wonderful world of entertainment, gaming, and — dare we say? — upscale, celebrity-chef-branded dining, had been waiting patiently for five years to find out what Wynn hath wrought. Vegas and the world found out April 27, 2005.

What Wynn wrought at a cost of $2.5 billion is mind-boggling: the 2,716-room resort that employs 8,000 includes 22 food and beverage outlets, nine of them run by chefs whose names and restaurants are legendary, having copped collectively enough stars to start their own galaxy. The list is formidable. Unlike the restaurants at Bellagio (one of the Mirage hotels snared by Kerkorian) and elsewhere up and down The Strip that are absentee-managed by the chefs whose names appear on the door, those at The Wynn are chef-driven and staffed. Heed Steve Wynn: “If my name appears on this hotel, then the chefs whose names are on their restaurants here damn well better be here rather than cooking somewhere else.” No Pucks or Lagasses at the Wynn.

Encore Suites (emphasis on “suites,”), the $1.74-billion addition, when it opens later this year, will add 2,034 rooms to the Wynn.

The deal that transferred ownership of Mirage Resorts to MGM Grand and Kerkorian was reported in all of its gossipy and quasi-tabloid fashion in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal. Excerpt: At a meeting in Steve Wynn's office between Wynn and several Goldman Sachs bankers, offers and counteroffers were exchanged, one of which enraged Wynn which, in turn, bothered his German shepherd guard dogs. Sensing his master had been threatened, one of them “shoved his nose into [a banker's] crotch in an attack position. The dog stayed that way, staring at the investment banker, for the full length of Wynn's tirade.”

Sixty-six year-old Steve Wynn is an easy, but evasive, target. Easy because he's Steve Wynn, giving bloggers and other media charlatans ample opportunity to take potshots; evasive, because he's always on the move and regularly (stubbornly) refuses to sit still for interviews, except for those publications where he knows he'll be appreciated and ass-kissed. How we got this 30-minute version still remains a wonder — a request for a follow-up was turned down more than a dozen times.

Wynn didn't like the idea of this interview. At the outset, he told me that on his calendar for the day, there were distractions and commitments; that this interview was one of them (a distraction) and could we “get this over with quickly.”

Q LH: What you've achieved flies in the face of the stereotypical garishness of Las Vegas; you've managed to deal with, then neutralize, that stereotype. With that in mind, what challenges did you face in developing the Wynn and how did you address and solve them?

A Wynn: When I was standing on the property in 2000, having purchased this lovely piece of land [The Desert Inn stood on that piece of land for 50 years: Wynn bought it for $270 million, demolished it in 2001] that was so strategically located, adjacent to all of the convention centers with a lot of strip frontage, the problem facing me was, well, we did Bellagio and Bellagio itself was an evolutionary project. We started at the Nugget, we went to Mirage, Treasure Island. Bellagio represented the culmination of that line of experience in terms of design and awareness of customer sensitivity and access to capital. Those combinations produced Bellagio, a thoughtful and carefully considered project.

Because we design and build our own projects in-house, my crew and I — there are three or four of us who design these places (we design all of them ourselves) — knew more about the strengths and weaknesses of Bellagio than anyone else. And I stress we knew the weaknesses, but we also knew the strengths of that project and how it would appeal to the public. We had months and months of experience.

We didn't “sell” The Wynn until the summer of 2000, even though we were thinking about it in the fall of 1998. Bellagio loomed for the first time as a competitor that we had created ourselves. That was not true when we were building any of our other hotels. We were really only competing with the projects that we had done for less money earlier in our careers. But, now there was Bellagio, sitting on a fine corner on 65 acres of real estate: a well-done job, having set standards of excellence that no one had ever experienced in Vegas. Like it or not, Bellagio was to become competition for the Wynn.

Q LH: And critics couldn't wait to draw comparisons?

A Wynn: Our challenge was to surpass the standards we had worked so hard to set at Bellagio. You really can't just do another Bellagio. Is there another level? For that reason we had to go back to very primary ideas. We had to reexamine the most fundamental issues that have to do with design.

So, after a period of time of walking the property [the resort covers 215 acres] and thinking about it (and I'm talking about four or five months), we came to the conclusion (as we have in the past) that confirmed the notion that anything of enduring value has to do and begin with an idea, not a thing. It's first an idea and then the stuff of buildings and places. But, if you have a strong enough idea, then no matter what happens, you will at least have that core value in place. Human beings tend to be fallible. They achieve only partial success in their goals. We falter sometimes. But, if you start with a great idea and you're 80-percent successful, you've still got something.

If you start only with ‘things,’ you get lost almost immediately. I've never had much confidence in a building itself giving anyone any sustainable advantage: your friends and neighbors can copy the building within 15 or 18 months. So, buildings don't give you the kind of edge you need. Nor, and for that reason, can they give you the confidence to build yet another one based upon something as simple as a thing.

So, I was looking for ideas during 2000. The idea I came up with — and this is the challenge — was how to find a building that would resonate with human aspirations. Now, that's pretty puffy and lofty-sounding talk, but to resonate with human aspirations would mean that the building and the place and the people in it would have something that was very enduring.

I was lucky enough to have a good education from the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in English lit and took coursework in cultural anthropology and comparative religion and the history of art and architecture and all of those other liberal arts things. I was comfortable with the vocabulary and idioms and thoughts of several centuries of stuff; and I said to myself, well, from everything I've studied and retained, I knew how old the Earth was (about 4.5 billion years old), but that nothing much exciting had happened with multi-cellular life until 680 million years ago at the time of the Precambrian explosion. Complex multi-cellular life exploded on this planet — hence the name Precambrian explosion — and everything that unfolded in the past 680 million years on this planet unfolded in terms of two major driving forces: water and the diffused warmth and light of the sun through our atmosphere. Those are pretty primordial things — water and sunshine.

So, I said, well, I'm going to try to link up with a primordial force; and I'm going to use water and sunshine and the products of water and sunshine like plants and greenery that produce oxygen that allow us to survive. I'm going to put skylights and natural light everywhere. And I'm going to let the sun dapple mosaic tile floors that have the gaiety and the happiness that Henry Matisse taught us that he could do with color.

I had a painting called The Persian Robe by Matisse that showed his assistant and model, Lydia Delectorskaya, sitting at a table with a purple-and-white-striped robe surrounded by anemones. It is those anemones by Matisse that were the inspiration for the mosaic tile floors and the carpeting in our place. And so my art history, my sense of the human resonance with beautiful color in plants and gardens, our reliance emotionally on sunshine and water — those are the things that I explored in order to resolve the challenges of finding and creating a better place than what I had done before — Mirage, Bellagio, and so forth.

Part two of the interview with Steve Wynn will explore more details of the development of the Wynn as well as Steve Wynn's thoughts on the future of casino hotels.

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