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Jennifer Robison

Newest Strip resorts letting the sunshine in

11 December 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The first time you walk through the casino at CityCenter's Aria hotel-casino, you'll probably notice something a little different.

"What's this strange light dappling my hands?" you might ask. "Oh my gosh, could it be? I think it's -- it is! It's sunlight! In a casino!"

Actually, your surprise might be short-lived. Natural light amidst the slots is a little more common on the Strip these days, thanks to the city's two newest megaresorts. Encore, which opened in December 2008, makes heavy use of daylight, with windows at the back of the gaming floor. And inside Aria, panels of windows line the gaming area's margins, while skylights punctuate the VIP salons with sunshine. Other key areas, including the buffet and several high-end restaurants, also bring sunlight into Aria.

Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for CityCenter, said he wouldn't call Aria's daylighting an industry trend, but rather a continuation of a design evolution that expands on natural lighting inside other company resorts such as Bellagio, where retail component Via Bellagio and the conservatory have clear glass ceilings. CityCenter's planners wanted to create a resort that's "luxurious but connected with nature," Van Assche said.

"We created the building to have a sense of the outdoors, to make the exterior feel as part of the interior," he added.

But industry observers say Encore and Aria herald a new, brighter design era for Strip casinos (provided any new resorts get built on the Strip in the next half a decade).

"We're moving away from the old idea of 'capture' -- that we have to get you in one place and we have to hold you, and we do it by keeping it dark, hiding the doors and not letting you know the difference between night and day," said Bill Thompson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who specializes in gambling studies.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, said windowless floor plans inside many Strip casinos likely resulted more from structural issues than a desire to disorient consumers. After all, when you have 100,000 square feet of space topped with hotel towers and catwalks up high for surveillance crews, well, windows and skylights can be impractical.

Today, though, digital surveillance with cameras and evolving hotel designs mean more options for resort architects who want to bring in natural light. Newer resort footprints make a difference, too. Megaresorts built in the last decade or two are set back far enough from the Strip and have large-enough lots that walking between properties just isn't that easy for the casual tourist. The intimidating distance and size factors allow casinos to risk letting patrons see the light of day, Thompson said, especially because hard-core gamblers tend to play in one place and avoid hotel-hopping anyway.

Plus, Strip resorts rely less than ever on revenue from gambling to power their earnings, Thompson noted. A decade ago, resorts earned 60 percent of their revenue at the slots and tables. Today, less than half of their sales come from gambling, as entertainment, shopping, dining and even room rates combine to outstrip gaming income.

"Now, they want people to circulate, and to spend money at shops and on meals and shows as well as on gambling," Thompson said. "(Natural) lighting can maybe tell people it's dinner time, and the casino makes 60 percent of its money from dinner" and other nongaming attractions.

Besides, even if a customer leaves for the resort next door, odds are the same operator owns the second destination as well. Take Encore, which sits next to its sister property, Wynn Las Vegas. And anyone leaving Aria to head to a neighboring resort will end up at Bellagio or the Monte Carlo, both of which MGM Mirage also owns.

But CityCenter executives say the windows have little to do with attempting to alter customers' habits and more to do with creating a pleasant atmosphere.

"There is an innate human comfort with daylight in an interior space," Van Assche said. "It heightens the experience, which can be said of any interior space that features daylight."

Experts say it's too early to pinpoint how natural light inside casinos might affect customer behavior. Those kinds of studies might take half a decade to begin emerging, Thompson said.

Schwartz conjectured that watching day turn to night could go either way: It might force a gambler away from the tables, or it could make him speed up his betting pace.

Thompson said he doubts the average time Strip tourists spend gambling -- about four hours a day -- will change with the addition of casino windows. The trend could offer societal benefits, though, because "it's the compulsive gambler who gets into time warps and forgets what time it is," Thompson said. "And those are the gamblers you don't want -- people who are leaving their kids in their cars."

Observers also agree that Strip resorts built in the next five to 10 years will likely feature casino windows, if only because glass feels modern.

"For now, it would be a mistake to talk about it in scientific terms. It's more a stylistic choice," Schwartz said. "This is the style that looks new and contemporary. Right now, it looks fresh."

Other design shifts might also encourage casino windows. If gaming floors shrink, for example, it might be easier to include windows and doors for natural light, Schwartz said.