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.