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Chris Jones

Makeover Part of MGM Grand's Plan

11 March 2004

LAS VEGAS -- In the ultracompetitive game of "Here, here! Look at me!" that helps dictate success or failure for properties up and down the Strip, it never pays to come across as too old or outdated.

That's why the nation's largest hotel is getting a face lift at the ripe old age of 10, a bit of preteen cosmetic surgery that MGM Grand executives and industry experts believe will allow the 5,034-room property to better compete within the city's ever-evolving gaming, entertainment and dining sectors.

"We're constantly reinventing the hotel," David Van Kalsbeek, senior vice president of sales and marketing for MGM Grand, said this week.

In its early days, Van Kalsbeek said MGM Grand too often functioned as a dormitory for local visitors who roomed at the property but went elsewhere when seeking food and fun. After it ditched its initial "Wizard of Oz" theme in the late 1990s, the property has consistently added chic new nightclubs such as Tabu and Studio 54, as well as an expanded roster of eateries that now include restaurants operated by four James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs.

"Our cab line at night used to be very long with people going someplace else," Van Kalsbeek said. "Now that cab line is shorter, and we have a lot more people coming in to enjoy all the things that we have. That's really what we want to see."

More reasons for patrons to stay are on the way, he added. In recent weeks, the resort has hosted world championship boxing and comedian Chris Rock, a Britney Spears concert and appearances from Playboy Playmates and a pair of popular stock car drivers. Lost among those diverse events and their fans were the countless construction workers readying a number of other projects, including several new or expanded restaurants, a modernized monorail station and theater that will soon house Las Vegas' fourth Cirque du Soleil production.

Chef Tom Colicchio, whose Craftsteak restaurant has already proved successful along MGM Grand's Studio Walk corridor, will in late May debut a new deli-style eatery called 'Wichcraft. That month will also mark the debut of 32 Degrees, a frozen drink bar featuring drinks made from fresh fruits, Van Kalsbeek said.

Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck's longtime eatery has closed to make way for the new Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill sometime this summer, around the time fellow culinary media icon Emeril Lagasse plans to reopen his New Orleans Fish House following a scheduled mid-May closure for interior renovations.

MGM also plans to open a pair of as-yet-unnamed restaurants, one featuring Mexican fare, the other Japanese, in the sites that recently housed Ricardo's and Mark Miller's Coyote Café and Grill Room. Coupled with existing favorites Nobhill, Pearl and Fiamma Trattoria, Van Kalsbeek said the hotel will soon offer dining options on par with any hotel in the world.

Parent company MGM Mirage does not disclose food and beverage revenue for individual properties, but the company's bars and eateries took in more than $757 million in revenue in fiscal 2002, the most current data available, company spokeswoman Yvette Monet said. That figure was up 4.5 percent compared with the previous year.

A new monorail station will put incoming passengers near the Studio Walk once the oft-delayed transportation service comes online, and Van Kalsbeek said details on the new Cirque show should be revealed in early May in time for its planned summer debut.

Eric Hausler, senior gaming analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group, said MGM Mirage is wise to pour more money into MGM Grand.

"In Vegas, it's reinvest or die," Hausler said. "Just look at any of the old Strip properties that have decayed over time because their owners haven't put anything back into them. There's always something new coming around the corner, and MGM is very smart to try to keep things fresh."

Van Kalsbeek said MGM Grand's current push is aimed squarely at nearby rival Mandalay Bay, whose mix of a large entertainment venue, world-class restaurants and other amenities has made it one of the Strip's hottest spots since it opened in March 1999.

To a lesser extent, MGM Grand's improvements have also allowed it to compete with its sister Bellagio property among the well-heeled set. Still, Van Kalsbeek denied MGM Grand is trying to crowd Bellagio in the battle to become the city's top luxury hotel.

"If they're the Mercedes, we're the Porsche," Van Kalsbeek said. "You can spend just as much on either one, but it's a different experience with each."