Though down almost a million visitors from last year, Las Vegas is gearing up for next month’s debut of MGM Mirage’s CityCenter, an $11 billion, 68-acre megaplex that seals the city’s reputation for over-the-top innovation. T+L checks in with Vegas expert Howard Lefkowitz, CEO of booking site Vegas.com, on America’s top vacation destination.
Q: Hotels are folding, expansions halted. Vegas and a lot of other convention cities have suffered in this economy. What, in your opinion, will keep Vegas alive?
A: The absolute reality is that Vegas has been a leisure destination for a very long time. Conventions continue to be important, but the majority of the city’s visitors are walking up and down the Strip carrying yards of margaritas. Vegas is big value. Yes, there have been some pullbacks, but our room occupancies—in the high 80s and mid 90s—have been the envy of the industry; and we continue to innovate. City Center opens in December. That’s when we’ll show the world that no one does hospitality and entertainment like Las Vegas. The party rages on in Las Vegas. It’s just cheaper.
Q: Despite the economic downturn, there have been venue openings and new entertainers. What are your favorites?
A: There’s a new Emeril Lagasse's Stadium sports bar at the Venetian which has hundreds of large screen TVs, big plush chairs and Emeril’s comfort food—so you can watch your games eat, drink and be merry. Then Wayne Newton—Mr. Las Vegas himself is going to perform again at the Tropicana. We’re really excited about that. He’s one of the Old School entertainers who’s made Las Vegas what it is today.
Q: People go to Vegas to have a good time. What do you recommend to people who've come to town and are set on doing just that?
A: It depends on what you want to do. When times are good, people want to go to Vegas. When times are bad, people need to come to Vegas. There’s so much choice and there’s something for every economic scale: there’s cheap blackjack, expensive blackjack; all-you-can eat buffets or Michelin-starred restaurants; little, out-of-the-way comedy clubs, or you can go see Cher. Each person can customize their own trip. Or rather, each person can Vegasize their own experience. We have a trademark out on that word.
Q: Vegas conjures up a lot of images for people: showgirls, casinos, buffets. What do people not know about Vegas?
A: One thing that people don’t know about Vegas is that you can spend your entire trip here without ever touching a slot machine. If the weather’s good, you can go to Red Rock Canyon for a hike through the Valley of Fire. You can tour the Hoover Dam. You can go boating. In the winter, you’re 40 minutes from skiing on Mt. Charleston. You don’t necessarily have to be inside the casino.
Q: So much about Vegas caters to visitors. Where do the locals go to hang out?
A: A lot of chefs who have trained under the Strip’s top names have migrated to the suburbs to open their own places. These restaurants have a quaint, neighborhood feel. Todd’s Unique Fine Dining is a great example; their short ribs are amazing. Rosemary’s Restaurant, on West Sahara Avenue, has unforgettable barbecue shrimp, and tasty seared sea scallops served with an apple cider beurre blanc and parsnip potato puree. But don’t get me wrong. Locals enjoy the Strip too. Sometimes on the weekend, I’ll say to my family, “Let’s go to Vegas!”
Q: What are the best features of Vegas.com? What can you book on your site that you can't get elsewhere?
A: We have the whole cornucopia of Las Vegas products all in one place—limousines, tours, dinner and show packages. We also have a real-time inventory shopping cart, a patented technology owned by Vegas.com. If an item—like an air and hotel package, tickets to a museum exhibit or a magic show—is available, you can buy it. If it’s not, you won’t be able to drop it into your cart.
Lisa Cheng is an assistant research editor at Travel + Leisure.