I had such a busy day yesterday that I couldn’t post this. It’s ironic because this article was the culmination of about a month of interviews, analysis, observation, writing, and re-writing. It’s the cover story for the March 25 Vegas Seven, about Aria’s first 100 days:
Aria, the centerpiece of the 67-acre mini city, has drawn the most attention simply because it’s the main place that people want to visit, thanks to its restaurants, bars and casino. The Crystals shopping center is only about half full. The Mandarin Oriental, by design, pursues a mere sliver of the luxury market. And Vdara at this point seems like just another finely appointed nongaming hotel—pleasant enough but nothing to inspire a trip to Las Vegas. Right now, Aria defines CityCenter.
So the question of the moment is, does Aria work?
MGM Mirage executives will tell you the overall project has been an unqualified success. “CityCenter is the single most powerful reason to have hope for a resurgence in our tourist economy,” MGM Mirage chairman and CEO Jim Murren says.
Do the numbers justify this optimism? Most metrics of casino performance aren’t publicly available, but we do know a little bit about Aria: Over its first 15 days of business, it earned $7 million in operating income, or about $466,000 a day. Its successful big sister, Bellagio, by comparison, averaged $430,000 for all of 2009. If projected out for the year, that would make Aria about 8 percent more profitable than Bellagio. But Bellagio only cost $1.6 billion to build. Aria carries the weight of CityCenter, and that’s a $8.5 billion load.
Even before it came out, I wanted to use this blog to talk a little about the process of writing the piece and share a few more thoughts.
I was thrilled to be asked to write the feature story on CityCenter–it’s something I’ve already written on quite a bit and probably the biggest Vegas casino story of the past few years. More importantly, my opinions about the place haven’t calcified into dogma. Each time I go there, I see things I like, things I don’t, and things that don’t make an impression either way. I didn’t have an emotional or intellectual investment in “proving” that CityCenter was a success or a failure, so I started out with a fairly blank slate.
I talked to a lot of people, both at the property and online, about what worked and what didn’t work for them as guests. But with James Reza focusing on the guest experience in his piece, most of that ended up being background. It let me ask very frank questions to the “Big 3” (Jim Murren, Bobby Baldwin, Bill McBeath), because I had a strong base of customer feedback–not nearly as comprehensive as what they have, but, I think, a representative sampling.
With Baldwin and McBeath, I focused mostly on operational issues–things like cell phones, the light levels, the parking garage, check-in times, etc. I also asked Baldwin some “big picture” questions. I asked Murren exclusively about the big picture stuff, including financing and the role of art in the project. I want to reproduce here Murren’s response to my question, “How has public art helped differentiate CityCenter,” because I think it’s significant, though it ultimately didn’t fit in with the story I was telling in Vegas Seven:
If we can begin a conversation about art, we stimulate dialogue. The world needs more talking, less polarizing. Art is a great way to begin a conversation: it’s neutral ground, something people can all relate to in one way or another. My hope is that the message of the art at CityCenter is that we care about people. There’s also a significant amount of art in the Nevada Cancer Institute (of which Murren’s wife Heather is co-founder), which sends a resounding message to patients and employees that you care about them, that you feel it’s important that they feel stimulated and inspired. There’s clearly a psychological benefit to art. Art has a calming effect, it enlivens people, energizes areas, and creates moments. That’s what the resort community tries to do—create snapshots that you’ll remember for a long time. Hopefully we create a lot of those moments here—that’s how CityCenter will be defined—when people go home after experiencing the art, those are our ambassadors.
Clearly Murren isn’t coming at the business from the angle of a Benny Binion or Jackie Gaughan. But you know what? That’s OK. Binion and Gaughan weren’t coming at the business from the angle of Bill Graham and Jim McKay. There were probably people who thought that Binion was unbelievably pretentious for putting carpet into his Horseshoe (though I doubt anyone said so to his face).
One of the outgrowths of this project was the UNLV Gaming Podcast interview with Bill McBeath. It was a chance to let the broader community see a little bit of what goes into running a casino resort–a lot of hard work.
In summary, I’m grateful to Vegas Seven for giving me the chance to ask questions and write a story that I hope gets people thinking.