View From Vegas: Vegas Gone Wild

Meeting Planning

Charles Darwin would have loved Las Vegas. Okay, maybe not, but he would at least have appreciated the never-ending game of “survival of the fittest” that leads some businesses to emerge and thrive, only to be imitated again and again, while others are forced to mutate or fail as quickly as they are born.

While the recent months have seen the demise of many famous Vegas attractions—including such stalwarts as Folies Bergere, which ran for nearly 50 years before shutting down earlier this year, and Elton John at Caesars Palace, which wrapped last month—a steady supply of new shows, restaurants and hotels are ready to take their place in the desert sun.

For meeting planners, this means that it’s never really possible to say “been there, done that” when it comes to Las Vegas. There’s always something new to check out.

Consider “Dinner in the Sky,” a new venture that is well suited for groups of incentive winners, board members or other VIPs, assuming no one has vertigo. Up to 22 guests can strap in around a “SkyTable,” which ascends 180 feet into the air, where a team of servers dish out Over the Top Fillet Medallions or Sky Chicken as guests gaze across the Las Vegas Strip and desert. There is even an on-board A/V system with multiple screens for presentations and product reveals ($249 per person, $289 for sunset).

Or consider a different type of adaptation: a new show at the Las Vegas Hilton, “Platinum Masters’ Monster Circus,” which aims to get by on the idea that what’s old is new again, combining performances by former heavy metal stars from bands like Quiet Riot, Ratt and DIO with sexy dancers, circus acts, aerialists and a ringmaster called “Sicko The Clown.” After all, in Vegas show business, as in nature, it’s never clear which traits or behaviors will pay off in the long term.    

Of course, the biggest and most important new “animal” emerging in the Vegas ecosystem is the MGM-Mirage CityCenter, a behemoth of unprecedented scale that continues its long, difficult journey toward birth. Despite threats of default earlier this year, the project is nearing completion; the first property, Vdara (pronounced “vuh-DAH-ruh”), is slated to open October 1, when it will attempt to carve its own little spot in the wild kingdom.

“Our branding message is about access and escape,” says Tara (rhymes with Vdara) Russell, VP of sales and marketing for the property. “We wanted to fill a niche as a small, high-end, contemporary property, where service is key. Because we’re so small, it’s just a short walk from the convention space to the front desk. It’s under 30 seconds. You never have that in Las Vegas.”

Of course, Vdara could only be considered small by the enormous standards of Las Vegas. With 57 stories, this nongaming, nonsmoking property has 1,495 suites, which would make it one of the biggest hotels in most cities. Rooms range from 528 to 1,650 sq. ft., with 250 corner-view units with panoramic views. One notable feature is that more than half the property’s suites have kitchenettes with ovens, refrigerators and seating areas. To cater to those who want to cook in their suites, there is even an on-site organic grocery store, The Gourmet Grocer.

Other Vdara amenities include a two-level spa, salon and fitness facility; Silk Road, a modern trans-ethnic restaurant; Bar Vdara, an eclectic lobby lounge; and The Sky Pool & Lounge, which sits directly over the porte-cochere (with views of The Strip) and features 19 cabanas, several of which have their own little dipping pools. The pool area spans 40,000 sq. ft. and can hold 1,200 people for events. Martin Heierling, previously from Bellagio’s Four-Diamond restaurant Sensi, will serve as executive chef for all of Vdara’s food and beverage offerings.

The most notable feature of Vdara is its design, which draws upon ’50s-style modernism merged with urban chic; even the hotel’s name was concocted by style-minded people. “Vdara is a made-up name thought up by the property’s original design group,” Russell says. “‘V’ stands for Vegas and ‘ara’ is synonymous with boutique, high-end hotels, like the Aviara or Vicara. It’s an internationally inspired design, very urban and relaxed, with lots of playful spaces. For example, there are cool swings in the bar area that sway back and forth.”

For meetings groups, Vdara aims to distinguish itself through high personal touch. Vdara has just under 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 4,000-square-foot ballroom and three breakout rooms, including an executive boardroom for 14 people. “A program of 150 rooms will be considered a full-facility user at Vdara,” Russell says. Vdara is connected to the Bellagio Spa Tower, and is also adjacent to the Aria Resort Casino. While Vdara will manage its own meeting contracts, the property expects to accommodate overflow from Bellagio and Aria, both of which are managed by MGM-Mirage. (The two other hotels in CityCenter, the Mandarin Oriental and The Harmon, are owned by the MGM-Mirage but have different managers.)

While only time can tell whether this new creation will thrive, Russell says signs so far are positive, despite the particularly competitive landscape. “We started taking reservations in February, and I’m happy to report that we’re doing well,” he says. “We’ll be offering some grand-opening specials and rates, although right now everyone’s doing special rates, so I guess ours will have to be that much more special.” (Nightly rates at Vdara will range from $159 to $2,000. For more information, see