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Jennifer Robison

Las Vegas resorts never looked better

29 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The latest Mobil Travel Guide shows the march of luxury up and down the Strip continues unabated.

Mobil's lists of Five- and Four-Star winners included 19 Southern Nevada's hotels, restaurants and spas. Mobil named 419 winners across North America.

The Tower Suites at Wynn Las Vegas earned Mobil's Five-Star honors for the second year in a row. The tower, with 650 units, remains the Silver State's only Five-Star hotel. It's also the only casino-hotel in the world with the Five-Star badge, said Andrew Pascal, president of the property.

An emphasis on customer service has helped the Tower Suites earn and keep its Five Stars, as well as AAA's Five Diamond award and the Michelin Five Red Pavilion Award, Pascal said.

"We're relentless about our service," he said. "So much of what we do as far as developing our employees is to make sure they understand what the standards are and how to service our guests. All the people who work for us understand what Mobil, AAA and Michelin mean, and how respected they are, and this is really a recognition of our employees and their efforts."

Seventeen restaurants nationwide won Five Stars from Mobil Travel Guide. Las Vegas has two of them: Alex, inside Wynn Las Vegas, and Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, inside MGM Grand. Las Vegas now has as many Five-Star restaurants as the entire state of California. Only New York City, which claimed four Five-Star eateries, bested Las Vegas. Nevada also had six Four-Star restaurants, all of them inside Bellagio, Mandalay Bay or Caesars Palace.

For Alex Stratta, executive chef of Alex, the award is a vindication of sorts. His former restaurant, Renoir, at The Mirage, had won Five Stars three consecutive years before losing that highest honor in 2002 because Renoir didn't meet criteria such as a restroom inside the restaurant.

"They upped their standards and, at the time, obviously, I wasn't happy about losing them," Stratta said.

The loss gave him a goal when he opened Alex at Wynn Las Vegas. Today, his restaurant has a Michelin Two-Star rating and an AAA Five Diamond Award in addition to the Mobil accolade.

"Mobil is the one that really stands out," Stratta said, "an affirmation of quality and consistency. I'm very, very pleased about that."

But, Stratta said, "being able to go in there and cook is only half the ballgame. You really need the support of a hotel like the Wynn to back you. I'm the one in front of the restaurant, but really, there's a couple of hundred people supporting me to make that happen."

Winning four or five stars isn't easy, said Jayne Griswold, vice president of Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil's inspectors assess hotels based on more than 750 criteria, while restaurants must meet the highest standards on more than 250 benchmarks. Mobil rates spas in about 450 service areas.

Nevada had five Four-Star spas on Mobil's list, but no Five-Star spas. The United States has three Five-Star spas, and they're in New York, California and South Carolina.

Las Vegas didn't have any Five-Star hotels before 2007. The city also experienced a drought of Five-Star restaurants from 2002 to 2007, after modified grading criteria bumped Bellagio's Picasso and The Mirage's Renoir from the list. Renoir has since closed, while Picasso remains on Mobil's Four-Star roster.

Stratta noted the pressure to stay on top.

"We're being looked at with very high expectations," he said. "Those expectations need to be met."

The pressure is equal, if not higher, at Joël Robuchon, which is the only Las Vegas restaurant to earn a Michelin Three-Star rating in addition to the other awards.

"I think it was Irving Berlin who said, 'The trouble with being a success is you have to keep on being a success,' " said David McIntyre, MGM Grand's vice president of food and beverage. But he said he's concerned about neither the pressure nor a risk of complacency.

"I don't think the physical and mental makeup of the chefs and the people that are involved in this organization would allow themselves to be complacent," he said. "They win because of that almost obsessive quest for perfection. It's the tireless pursuit of the flawless ingredient or devotion to every aspect of the meal experience."

Griswold said the growing ranks of Five- and Four-Star hotels, eateries and spas in Southern Nevada indicates that local resorts are focusing more on the overall guest experience than they are on merely bringing in hordes of gamblers.

"It's more personalized and custom-crafted, rather than scripted," Griswold said. "The staff is fully engaged in day-to-day interactions with guests. You will not see hotel staff staring straight ahead, standing around and chewing gum in the lobby. What you find are staff members looking for ways to anticipate the next thing a guest might need."

And that could mean taking a newspaper to a customer waiting in the lobby, or inviting a patron to enjoy a special service.

Sustaining that kind of service isn't easy for a megaresort, and that makes Las Vegas' number of Four- and Five-Star hotels all the more remarkable, Griswold said. It's one thing to surpass service expectations daily when you're managing a 300-room boutique hotel. It's quite another accomplishment to maintain such attention to detail in a 4,000-room hotel-casino.

Griswold said she expects Las Vegas to add a spate of stars through 2010, as a raft of luxury resorts opens in the coming years.

She said Las Vegas has a chance to rival New York, Chicago and Southern California in its representation among Five- and Four-Star winners. That, in turn, will increase visitation to Las Vegas, as people curious to see the new offerings flock to the Strip.

"People want to be where the luxury is," Griswold said."