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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Megaclubs Go Mainstream

30 November 2004

Behind a massive construction wall wedged between an Elton John retail store and the sports book at Caesars Palace, a short-lived legacy is methodically torn down in time for a polished, adults-only image to emerge by the end of the year.

A team of more than 120 construction workers swarms over the site of the former Magical Empire at Caesars, the site of formal dinners and magic acts with toga-wearing hosts that was considered a top themed attraction for families when it opened in 1996.

In keeping with bold developments in years past, Caesars Palace will replace the Roman grotto with a two-story, 36,000-square-foot nightclub called Pure on New Year's Eve. The $14 million club will be the largest on the Strip and bigger than many neighborhood casinos.

It is the latest effort by a Strip property to keep up with a proliferation of high-end nightclubs that have become important money centers for casinos after hours. And like the strong themes that have taken a backseat to contemporary design in 21st Century Vegas, these nightspots have a sensual theme that is carefully crafted to lure young adults.

"You come to Las Vegas to have a good time," Pure developer and co-owner Robert Frey said. "No one says they're coming here to relax. They expect to stay out all night. If I don't have something to do at night those people are going to go somewhere else."

Treasure Island officials were still missing something after sinking several million dollars into a makeover last year that included replacing the resort's private theme with more modern, adult attractions including a bar, restaurant and "Sirens of TI," a show that replaced the iconic outdoor pirate show with scantily clad women.

"We knew we were going to build (a club), one way or the other, and had the capital (approved) to do it," Treasure Island President Scott Sibella said. "Any time of night there'd be a long cabline of people wanting to get away from the (casino) and go to a dance club. We knew we didn't have space to create a big nightclub like Rain or Studio 54 so we took advantage of the outdoor area and created a South Beach feel, with water and fresh air."

The most notable aspect of Tangerine, the Miami-flavored club that opened at Treasure Island this summer, is the burlesque performances that occur throughout the night. The shows are an outgrowth of a burgeoning burlesque scene in Los Angeles, where trendsetting clubs have replaced flashing lights and go-go dancers with vintage bump and grind acts.

The club will have tough competition with the likes of Rain at the Palms -- the second-biggest dance club in town at 26,000 square feet, Bellagio's powerhouse nightspot Light and MGM Grand's Studio 54 and Luxor's Ra, which are credited with ushering in the first major casino nightclubs in 1997. Ra, the forerunner of clubs can draw roughly 1,000 people per night and up to 1,700 people on a busy night.

Several more clubs are set to debut over the next several months, including a venue at The Mirage, a Paris Hilton club at the Aladdin and a lounge and Chippendales theater at the Rio. Another burlesque club, Forty Deuce, opened last month at Mandalay Place off the Mandalay Bay casino. And Mix, a space-age restaurant and lounge with a 360-degree view of the Strip, opened this month on the 64th floor of the new hotel tower at Mandalay Bay.

Casinos didn't welcome clubs with open arms, Frey said. In fact, he said, they seemed paranoid about working with outside developers at first.

"It's hard to get (your foot) in the door but once you do something well they trust you," said Frey, who earned his stripes with the out-of-the-box success of Coyote Ugly at New York-New York, Bikinis at the Rio and Tangerine.

Clubs are hothouses for trouble that can potentially spill out on the casino floor, threatening a resort's reputation and even its coveted gaming license, he said.

Frey said his company spends time to train employees to look for fake IDs and has experienced security detail.

"I'd rather make less money than have the wrong kind of people," he said. "It's not about short-term (profit), it's about long-term investor returns."

At Pure, those investors include a host of celebrities including Caesars Palace resident diva Celine Dion, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Heat star Shaquille O'Neal, a Vegas regular who likes to deejay on occasion.

Andrew Sasson, the developer of Light and Caramel at Bellagio and Mist, a lounge at Treasure Island, calls himself "lucky" to have the support of casino owners MGM Mirage.

"It took me five years to get a deal and I made about 20 proposals," Sasson said.

Casinos are embracing clubs because they are drawing a new segment of young affluent people who may not have previously partied in Vegas, he said.

"I'm seeing younger faces at the blackjack tables," he said. "This is the MTV generation."

Locals have also become an important part of the club boom, Sasson said.

"There is built-in market with the people who live here. These people like to go out. They work in the entertainment business. The nightclubs and bars don't have to survive off tourists."

While they don't offer gambling and customers may not be gamblers, clubs can make huge profits at their bars and by offering amenities such as bottle service, where attractive women charge $100 or more per person to uncork and serve expensive drinks, owners say.

As corporate giants enter the fray, more marketing and development dollars are being spent on nightlife, raising the bar on entertainment, they say. But money doesn't necessarily breed success.

Some properties are installing cookie-cutter clubs and lounges that mimic the competition without offering anything new or innovative, Sasson said. Some clubs are losing money by giving away passes but the casinos are still keeping them open to create a crowd.

"There's room for a lot of nightclubs but you are going to start to see places fail," Sasson said. "But there are other (clubs) that are good that are going to grow the market and that's a great thing for Las Vegas. You can't just stick in a chandelier and a disco ball and expect to have a great club."

"It's going to get very competitive," Sibella added. "Nowhere in the world do people spend money in clubs like they do in Las Vegas. But if you don't know how to market these clubs, you have no chance."

Tangerine looks out onto the Treasure Island lagoon and the club installed plate glass windows and heaters so clubgoers could enjoy the outdoors in cold weather. It's that kind of touch that will keep the venue competitive even as newer clubs open on the Strip, he said.

Caesars Palace President Mark Juliano said Pure is expected to be a distillation of the right club atmosphere for all tastes.

"Sometimes we're a bit behind the curve when it comes to trends but when we get on board we do it better than everyone else because we look to what has staying power," Juliano said.

Pure will feature four rooms with four different deejays, six bars and an outdoor terrace that looks out onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The Pussycat Dolls Lounge, which takes its name from a burlesque troupe in Los Angeles, will open next door in February featuring performances where women will "drop in on swings" and "pop out of a champagne glass," among other things.

The club is designed to capture Caesars guests who are now going to clubs at other properties, Juliano said. It also will draw new customers.

"This is going to be one of the most spectacular nightclubs in the country and a draw for locals as well," he said.

One venue that didn't follow the leader is the new Chippendales theater and lounge at the Rio, which will open in a retail area on the second floor and away from the casino. Billed as the "Ultimate Girls' Night Out," the lounge will be decorated in shades of purple and magenta and feature a bathroom with plush furniture. The 400-seat theater features skyboxes for reunions, bachelorette parties and other events. Women will exit through a retail store that will feature items

"Chippendales is the No. 1 brand in women's entertainment. I didn't go out and visit one competitor. We met with the Chippendales and we heard what the girls are saying. We said, 'Let's design something that is right for them.' This is something that sets us apart," Rio General Manager Marilyn Winn said.

On the ground floor, the Rio's Bikinis nightclub continues to draw crowds to a formerly quiet area of the casino near the parking garage.

"It has filled that end of the building with excitement and attracted young club-goers," Winn said. No one says they're coming here to relax. They expect to stay out all night. If I don't have something to do at night those people are going to go somewhere else."