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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

MGM Grand, Wolfgang Puck Chiefs Honored

28 April 2005

LAS VEGAS -- The president of the world's largest hotel is a man who is surprisingly modest about leading one of the most dramatic transformations of any single property in the hotel business.

Gamal Aziz, a 20-year veteran of the hospitality business, was honored along with Wolfgang Puck's operations chief Tom Kaplan at the 26th annual Las Vegas International Hotel & Restaurant Show. The show runs through today at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

"It truly was a surprise," said Aziz, who joins past honorees of the Nevada Hotelier of the Year award including MGM Mirage Chief Executive Terry Lanni and casino boss Steve Wynn. "This was a great honor and completely justifies the work that the leadership and the team at MGM Grand have done."

Under his nearly five-year tenure at MGM Grand, the 5,000-room flagship of gaming empire MGM Mirage replaced a mass-market image taken from the MGM movie library with a series of upscale attractions that go head-to-head with the most luxurious spots on the Strip.

"Our strategy was to cater to people from all walks of life and all segments of the market," Aziz said. "We were a family destination. We had a theme park. We had the yellow brick road. We had Dorothy and Toto." Three years later "we made a clean separation from that past and focused more on what MGM Grand has always been associated with, which is entertainment, Hollywood and glamour."

The transformation has nearly doubled profit at the property and made it "top of mind" among discriminating travelers, he said.

Aziz spent 14 years with the Westin hotel chain, heading up such swanky properties as the Plaza in New York and the St. Francis in San Francisco.

He came to Las Vegas nine years ago to assume a food and beverage position at Caesars Palace and eventually became senior vice president of Bellagio, playing an integral role in that resort's 1998 debut.

The Bellagio would be the impetus that MGM Grand needed to become more competitive.

Wynn's resort "reinvented Las Vegas as a food destination" and offered an impressive lineup of attractions "of great substance and continuity and timelessness," Aziz said.

"It wasn't just today's news. It was the kind of destination and amenities that will be here in the next 10 to 20 years," he said.

At MGM Grand, "we realized that a change must take place or we would not have survived," Aziz said. "We wanted to be ahead of the curve. We have been leaders and not followers and in order to be a leader you really have to reinvent yourself."

Last year the property opened five restaurants, two bars, two high-end retail outlets, a new sports book and poker room and Ka, a new Cirque du Soleil show that cost more than $165 million. Restaurants have been central to the property's transformation. MGM Grand has added nine award-winning restaurants in less than five years, including Michael Mina's Nobhill, Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, Stephen Hanson's Fiamma Trattoria and Vicente Wolf's Diego.

"His collection of restaurants at MGM Grand is as good as Bellagio's," Kaplan said. "He not only gets it, he is one step ahead."

Kaplan calls the Nevada Restauranteur of the Year award "the highest honor I have received in my 23-and-a-half years of being in this business."

Kaplan, responsible for development and operations at Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group in Las Vegas, moved from Los Angeles in 1992 where he had overseen Puck's original Spago restaurant in West Hollywood. Puck's company grew from Spago at Caesars' Forum Shops in 1992 to five Las Vegas locations. The company is developing a new restaurant at the Venetian's upcoming Palazzo resort and is working on two other hotel restaurants in town.

Puck arrived at a time when "no one else dared to come to Vegas," Kaplan said. Even then, he said, Caesars Palace didn't want Spago in the casino but Forum Shops developer Sheldon Gordon wanted to give it a shot.

It wasn't until two years later that a major hotel -- MGM Grand -- would hire brand-name chefs Emeril Lagasse and Mark Miller.

"Most hotels were concerned with the lack of control they would have with a third-party operator, felt they could do better and did not want to lose the revenues," Kaplan said. "What if a customer had a bad meal? They'd blame the casino, leave and gamble somewhere else."

Those concerns are long gone, Kaplan said.

"Nowhere else in the world, period, can restaurants be created like they are in Vegas," he said. "No one else has the capital to build $15 million restaurants like Mix (at Mandalay Bay) or Sensi at Bellagio. The best chefs in America are here and arguably the best in the world from France are coming" to restaurants at MGM Grand and Caesars Palace, he said.

Aziz, a champion of fine dining, says he's ready for the competition.

"I'm someone that really doesn't look in the rearview mirror too much," he said. "The day after the award I'm going to start all over again, find out where the competition is going and make sure they don't get an inch ahead of us."