John Unwin has been giving me a hard-hat tour of the Cosmopolitan for the better part of an hour, pointing out the “casino cabanas” and the lobby columns patterned in high-definition video screens. But it’s not until we reach the building’s eastern edge, where it opens onto the sidewalk of the Las Vegas Strip, that I realize just how different it’s going to be. “We’re going to put a Droog in this corner,” the hotel’s CEO tells me. A what? “You know: Droog, the Dutch design store. Slots would make more money, but I think Droog is cooler.”
It’s one thing for a hotel to give up casino space to retail shops. For it to replace one-armed bandits with an avant-garde store that sells ironic products—think a $4,600 chair made from old rags—is another thing entirely. Include the sunlight-filled casino (a rarity), the artist-in-residence studio, and a Yoko Ono video looping on the massive marquee, and it becomes clear what an eclectic departure this project will be from the Vegas norm.
It will have to be, if it has any chance of succeeding. The Cosmopolitan opens this month in a town still reeling from the Great Recession and an ill-timed building boom that has added 11,500 new rooms to the Strip in the past two years. Since July 2008, visits to Las Vegas are down 4 percent, occupancy rates are down 9 percent, and the average room rate has dropped 25 percent. “This is without question the most challenging time in Las Vegas history,” says Randall Fine, managing director of gaming consultants the Fine Point Group.
The Cosmopolitan sits between Bellagio and CityCenter, MGM Resorts’ glittering, $8.5 billion Oz. Las Vegas is bracing to see if it can absorb the hotel’s 2,000 new rooms (plus about a thousand more joining them in the spring). But the real question isn’t whether room rates will stay soft a while longer—everyone pretty much agrees that they will—but rather what kind of traveler is going to fill the Cosmopolitan’s rooms in the first place.
Despite its recent troubles, there’s no question that Las Vegas is evolving, from a theme park that’s derivative of other destinations to a place that’s defining its own urban style. The continued success of Wynn and Encore—which command some of the Strip’s highest room rates—has proved that you can attract upscale visitors to the area without resorting to silly themes and kitschy décor. Likewise, CityCenter’s 4,000-room flagship, Aria, exhibits true sophistication despite its scale.
Unwin, who worked for Caesars Palace, Fairmont Hotels, and Ian Schrager before being tapped for the CEO position at the Cosmopolitan, says he’s trying to draw people who have never been to Vegas, or who’ve visited and decided it wasn’t for them. People like me, in other words—who get the concept of this town as escapist fun, but often find the reality unfulfilling. Unwin talks a lot about what he calls the “curious class”—consumers whose spirit of adventure and creativity means they travel more for new experiences than for status. “It’s about purpose over mindless premium,” he says. Having just experienced “mindless premium”—paying $35 for a shot of absinthe the night before at a restaurant on the Strip—I know what he’s talking about.
From the outside, the Cosmopolitan looks like any other generic glass-and-steel Vegas skyscraper. But inside, those video columns in the lobby will be programmed with works curated by New York’s Art Production Fund, Digital Kitchen, and the Lab at Rockwell Group. Along one side of the casino, the walls are covered in hand-stitched chocolate leather, while the dramatic centerpiece is a massive chandelier that conceals a three-story bar. The Cosmopolitan’s best physical feature is its verticality. Wedged into an 8.7-acre sliver of land, it packs all the requisite ingredients—100,000 square feet of gaming, a 32-room spa, 14 restaurants, three pools, shops, a nightclub—into two 50-plus-story buildings connected by several lower-rise structures. Unlike at some of its competitors, guests at the Cosmopolitan won’t need 15 minutes to walk from their rooms to their dinner reservations. Elevators are directly across from the main check-in desk, avoiding a bag-drag past dozens of blackjack tables. “The thing that was most challenging about the site may have been its biggest asset,” says Rockwell Group founder David Rockwell. “The space is more constricted, but you end up with more freedom.”
Another advantage Unwin has enjoyed: time. The Cosmopolitan began life in 2005 as a condo hotel—which explains why the bulk of the rooms are upward of 700 square feet, with balconies and kitchenettes—but the original developer defaulted in 2008. That gave the new owner, Deutsche Bank, the opportunity to adapt to the changing atmosphere. Instead of a lavish shopping center like CityCenter’s Crystals, Unwin is bringing in boutiques with a more casual profile and lower price points, such as CRSVR Sneaker Boutique.
Similarly, the restaurants—all new to Vegas—seem intended to establish the Cosmopolitan’s foodie street cred. “I love Le Cirque,” Unwin says, “but I prefer places where you can just hang out, even though the food is high-quality.” Chef and Food Network star Scott Conant will set up the fifth location of his sexy Meatpacking District spot, Scarpetta, as well as a wine bar. José Andrés will open a version of his Washington, D.C., tapas bar, Jaleo, plus a new restaurant that combines Mexican and Chinese cuisine. There will also be outposts of Blue Ribbon Sushi (the cult New York restaurant from the Bromberg brothers) and Milos Estiatorio (Greek seafood in Manhattan, Athens, and Montreal). Even more in tune with the hotel’s urban vibe is a “secret” pizza parlor, which won’t be promoted, but will instead be lying in wait—a discovery for those in the know.
The plan is to keep Cosmopolitan’s room rates competitive with hotels such as Aria, Wynn, and Bellagio. But in an age when it’s easy to find a deal offering a room on the Strip for less than a C-note, some observers fear the Cosmopolitan will start drawing customers from party-hearty off-Strip hotels like the Palms or the Hard Rock—frat-boy types unlikely to appreciate the Fornasetti wallpaper lining the closets or the intricately carved sandstone walls of its desert-themed spa.
Unwin is confident that the Cosmopolitan’s point of view is distinct enough to attract a sophisticated crowd. “The times are really ripe for something different,” Unwin says. Indeed, the hotel is set to be the city’s last major opening for a few years, which means it will become the standard for what happens in Vegas next.
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A quick look at the names behind the Cosmopolitan.
It’s his first time at the helm, but John Unwin has got the chops, having trained with one of the best in the business: Ian Schrager.
The Nightlife Guru
Club baron Noah Tepperberg has the Midas touch, with spots such as Tao in New York and Lavo in Vegas.
The peripatetic David Rockwell has created restaurants (Nobu), hotels (Starwood’s Aloft), Broadway sets (Hairspray), and even a children’s hospital in the Bronx.
Cofounder of Art Production Fund, Yvonne Force Villareal is helping create the hotel’s cutting-edge installations.
José Andrés Ferran Adrià protégé; signature dishes run the gamut from molecular to Mediterranean.
Bruce and Eric Bromberg Brother owners of New York’s Blue Ribbon mini-empire; known for home cooking gone haute.
Scott Conant Host of Food Network’s 24 Hour Restaurant Battle; his Italian restaurant, Scarpetta, got three stars from the New York Times.
David Myers An alum of N.Y.C.’s Daniel and L.A.’s Patina; combines French technique with California flair at Comme Ça.
Costas Spiliadis Chef-owner of Milos Estiatorio; the Greek restaurateur claims to be the first to have served olive oil with bread.