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CityCenter

The other CityCenter

Talking with a couple of out-of-towners who think MGM Mirage’s latest gamble is - wait for it - the best place in town

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Center-staged: Maybe there are people interested in a grand-scale replica of an urban experience.
Photo: Steve Marcus

In the run-up to the grand debut of CityCenter, MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren said a lot of stuff. As a journalist, I focused on the absurdity of so much of it, from the claim that there was something analogous to Central Park somewhere in the 67-acre, $8.5-billion complex to the suggestion that there is anything novel, nine years after the Palms opened, about the concept of a themeless Vegas resort.

One of the strangest claims was when Murren told me CityCenter would draw in a whole new class of clientele from all over the world who had yet to discover Las Vegas and all the high-end offerings it had in store.

Who, I wondered, were these creatures? Who could possibly be left out there unaware of Vegas? Who on any level of social strata hadn't at least given it some thought as a potential vacation destination? Who would hear of CityCenter and finally be persuaded that they could have a good time on the once-tacky Strip?

And then, late last month, I found two such people. As it turned out, I didn't have to look any farther than my own family. And I realized that, for fairness' sake, I owed Murren and his gang this column.

This couple were my partner Miles' sister, Sarah, and her husband, Michael. They swooped in from Tampa for a five-day swing, the first proper visit they'd paid us in the 5 1/2 years Miles and I have been together. Indeed, they came in 2007 somewhat grudgingly because, well, we were having our wedding. They didn't stay any longer than necessary.

This go-round, in fact, was prompted not by an itch to visit us but because Michael and Sarah are looking to get out of Florida, and Michael, a pharmacist, had a job interview with a mail-order pharmacy firm based in Henderson.

It's not that they don't like us, it's just that they've never viewed Vegas as worthy of precious vacation time. The prospect of living here intrigued them first and foremost because of us, though, so they figured they'd give the city another try, with two of the best imaginable escorts. Sarah, probably the most intense pre-travel researcher I've ever met, had assessed the field before booking at Vdara, the nongaming, nonsmoking condo-hotel at CityCenter. They paid $179 for the first night, which was a Saturday, and $129 for their other three nights.

I didn't get to see them much because I was slammed with work, but I managed two bookend meals, Sunday brunch on their first morning at the Wynn's Country Club Restaurant and dinner on their final evening at Todd English's P.U.B., which straddles the border of the Crystals shopping complex and the hotel-casino Aria.

Truth be told, I steered us to Wynn that Sunday because I wanted to impress them and encourage them to want to move here. And while they found gazing across the Wynn Golf Course on a breezy spring day lovely and sedate, in the end it was CityCenter that enthralled them beyond belief.

Well, beyond my belief, anyhow. On that last night, it was all they could talk about. If Michael landed the job — sadly, he did not — they were seriously considering buying a flat at the Helmut Jahn-designed Veer Towers.

"This place is incredible," Michael raved more than once. "They've got everything right here."

As I do with most friends, relatives, podcast listeners, people I sit with on planes or anyone else willing to tell me about their Vegas experiences, I commenced an interrogation. Among my inquiries in this case: If they had to choose between Wynn and Vdara, which would they pick?

"Well, I don't know what the rooms are like at Wynn, but our place at Vdara was phenomenal, and they've got everything right here," Michael answered. "The Wynn isn't really in the middle of it all, you know?"

Somewhere deep in the MGM Mirage digs at Bellagio from whence Steve Wynn once ruled his first casino empire before the MGM folks snatched it from him, executives ought to be pumping their fists at that reply.

I started pondering why Sarah and Michael were so enamored, and I realized that they were, in fact, precisely the people Murren meant. They're childless, petless fortysomethings who love to travel, don't gamble and — here's the key — always go on vacations to big cities.

In the years I've known Miles' sister and her husband, I've only ever heard of them going to two places: New York and San Francisco. They're not the sort who would go on a beach holiday; their chief purpose is to be somewhere that feels cosmopolitan, where they can eat truly superior meals and drink outstanding wine. Every recommendation they've ever provided us regarding our own trips to New York or San Francisco involved new restaurants to try and places with great cityscape views.

What did they get out of CityCenter? Terrific seafood at Michael Mina's American Fish, phenomenal tapas at Julian Serrano, tasty gourmet pizza at Wolfgang Puck Brasserie, fine sandwiches at Todd English's P.U.B. and delicious, fresh cocktails with a dazzling Strip vista from the Mandarin Oriental's 23rd-floor sky-lobby bar.

I was fascinated. They barely noticed all the nifty water features the WET Design peeps had placed at Aria and Crystals, knew nothing of the vaunted architects who had created these buildings, and stared at me blankly as I pointed out the Henry Moore in the much-maligned "pocket park" and the Maya Lin over the Aria registration desk. They didn't take in any shows and, so far as I know, didn't slip a single buck into a slot machine.

Yet they were completely thrilled by their Vegas experience and said it had altered their perception of the city for the better. They were walking, talking versions of Jim Murren, except they weren't paid to spout all this stuff.

So now I must concede, there is a population of people who really are interested in a grand-scale replica of an urban experience and do not, as so many have said, find CityCenter cold and impersonal. Service problems that plagued the complex in its early months seem to have been resolved in most cases, although the Todd English place remained a bastion of rude waiters and excessively loud music. That was really the only complaint Sarah and Michael had on their entire trip, so I was happy it was the last night after they'd been smitten.

The question remains: Are there enough people like Sarah and Michael to make CityCenter successful? I'm still unconvinced. Neither their room rates nor the city's visitation numbers have yet to reflect any bump even after the massive PR blitz the complex has enjoyed in its early going.

But any which way, it impressed these two people whose company I so greatly enjoy and made them want to return. That in turn might get them to come to us for Christmas, which in turn will save Miles and me a pile of dough. So, thanks, Mr. Murren, and good luck with all that.

Follow Steve on Twitter @TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.Com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. Email him at SteveFriess@aol.com.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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