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Reality becomes Fantasy

in one of the seminal design-related books of the past half-century, architect Robert Venturi extolled the notion of "Learning from Las Vegas." One of the major lessons to be learned, he maintained, was that architects could create a sense of place and a sense of excitement just by building big "sheds" and decorating them with lights, images, colors and signs.

Las Vegas now has a new lesson to teach, and in many respects it's exactly the opposite of the old one. Today the focus is not false facades, but on near replication of reality. The quick and easy virtues of 1950s-1970s Las Vegas that Venturi found so liberating have been replaced by meticulous attention to detail, expert craftsmanship and use of expensive materials rivalling that found in works commissioned by European royalty.

The Philadelphia-based architect saw the city, or more precisely "The Strip," as a kind of movie set for the projection of visitors' fantasies. The city remains a fantasyland, to be sure, but the "sets" have become so elaborate and life-like you can step right into them without breaking the illusion. Where Venturi's Las Vegas was a drive-by kind of place that was meant to be viewed quickly without close examination, the Las Vegas of today is a place to be savored on foot, or even, in the case of the Venetian's Grand Canal Shoppes, by gondola.

The Grand Canal Shoppes is one of the four newest casino-based entertainment-retail projects destined to make their marks on the Las Vegas landscape. If preceding examples such as Mandalay Bay, New York, New York and Bellagio were stunning, this quartet is, well, stunningly stunning.

"As opposed to theming a mall, we feel people are demanding more of a total environment," says Paul Beirnes, director of marketing for Desert Passage, a 500,000 sq.ft. retail complex connected to the Aladdin hotel and casino that is scheduled to open Aug. 18. "We have created a complete sensory environment, a sensory adventure in which visitors can totally immerse themselves. It's not just the idea of place 3/4 it is that place, or as close as you're going to come without actually going there."

When it opens, Desert Passage will have seven linked "environments," each based on a different location along the historic Spice Routes that wound from the Straits of Gibraltar to India. By most accounts, the project promises to be one of the most elaborate spaces ever built.

Unlike the standard themed mall, the project will not have painted murals or wood cut-outs here and there to create an impression of some exotic locale. It will have an unbroken procession of elements made from either the exact same materials used to build the real place, or from synthetics that duplicate those materials so closely you will have to be right up against something before you can tell it's an imitation. Even then, the average visitor may not be able to tell the difference, according to Beirnes.

"You enter the building through a nine-story stone archway and as in North Africa, where you'd expect to see an erosion line and maybe things stuck to the wall from years of weather, we have that too. The gateway looks old, not new," he says.

Once inside, he continues, visitors find themselves in the middle of a Moroccan street with buildings made of mud or plaster with straw and hay mixed in just as they would be in the older parts of Fez or Casablanca. In other areas, there are hand-painted ceramic tiles, gold leaf and real marble. "We even used cobblestone for some of the streets," he says. "Everything is as authentic and true to the reality of the ancient market cities as you could imagine."

It is not through materials alone, however, that Desert Passage attempts to replicate North African and Middle Eastern sites. In a radical departure from standard retailing practices, shop spaces vary widely in size and dimension.

"Typically you'd put in rectangular shops with glass fronts, all based on the same modules. But we asked retailers what they would do if they were going to open a store in Tangiers or Istanbul, and they told us they'd take a shop that was available and fit themselves into it. We told them that's exactly what we want. We want it to look like they found an old building in an old city and adapted themselves to fit, even to the kind of sign they would have. You won't see the standard corporate logo. You'll see very individual signage," says Beirnes.

Stores also are not arrayed conventionally. In most malls, there is no discernible pattern to the placement of shops in relation to one another. A shoe store might be next to a music store and a home furnishings store might come after that. At Desert Passage, shops are grouped by category.

For example, Beirnes says retailers such as Sephora, Bath & Body and Origins are grouped in a courtyard with an olive tree in the center, as if these were spice merchants where scent is the primary focus. Home furnishings stores such as Z Gallerie, Wyland Gallery and Tresor are found inside the Sultan's Palace, with merchandise displayed as if you were in the local ruler's actual home. In one of the more astonishing effects, several eating places are arrayed on the slopes of an eight-story-high hillside overlooking the Lost City, a magical place protected by 85-foot walls.

The cost of developing Desert Passage is, not surprisingly, enormous. San Diego-based TrizecHahn Development Corp. and Aladdin Gaming LLC, which is 75% owned by Sigman Sommer Family Trust, a New York real estate developer, and 25% owned by London Clubs International PLC, a London-based casino operator, are spending $1.3 billion to build the hotel, casino and retail center. Will it be worth it? Obviously nobody connected with the project would be willing to answer in the negative, at least not publicly, but projections indicate the money will have been well spent.

"We expect to get 50,000 to 55,000 people per day passing through," says Beirnes, whose experience includes working in the marketing department of Disney World in Orlando. "On the biggest days of the year, we did 60,000 people per day at Disney World. These are projections for every day of the year."

The experience of other projects also supports the high projections. According to Fred Walters, general manager of the Grand Canal Shoppes, that project averages 45,000 to 50,000 visits per day. More to the point, in just a year of operation - the project opened in June 1999 - sales have reached the $1,000-per-square-foot-per-year level. "That's approaching the $1,200 a sq.ft. of the Forum Shops [at Caesar's Palace], which have been open 10 years," he remarks.

In Walters' opinion, more competition will not result in spreading the existing pool of customers thinner but rather will bring more business for everybody.

"These consumer retail dollars went untapped in the Las Vegas market. Shopping is a universal hobby for everybody, but especially people who come here to gamble want something more to do. The average visitor spends only four to six hours gambling, so we're providing them with something else to do and a reason to spend extra time here," he says.

In addition, he points out, Las Vegas is projected to host close to 34 million visitors this year, up more than 1 million from last year's total. Each year for about the past decade, the city has seen gains of 1 million to 2 million guests, he says.

Were it merely shopping they provided, the projects probably wouldn't work. As Walters notes, these projects could not become major attractions if they were mere repetitions of the malls people see in their hometowns.

But clearly these aren't merely upgraded versions of existing shopping centers. They aren't even top-of-the-line examples of the retail entertainment centers that are popping up all across the country. These are, for want of a better word, shopping theme parks.

The Grand Canal Shoppes, for example, centers on a 1,200-foot-long (soon to be 1,800-foot-long) replica of Venice's largest waterway, complete with gondolas piloted by singing gondoliers. As in Venice, the canal runs alongside Piazza San Marco, which is ringed by "outdoor" cafes. (The project is entirely indoors, thougha 70-foot-high domed ceiling over the piazza lends a sense of openness rarely found inside an enclosed shopping center.)

Though not quite so elaborate as Desert Passage, the Venice project, which was developed and owned by Las Vegas Sands, Inc. and is managed by Forest City Enterprises, is plenty elaborate and definitely grand. Attached to the Venetian hotel on one side and the Sands Convention Center on the other, the 500,000 sq.ft. project features Italian Renaissance-style murals and paintings in frames of 24 karat gold, and many of the tenants are themselves representative of the theme. These include Venetian glass dealer Ripa de Monti, Carnevale mask maker Il Prato, Ca D'Oro jewelry, Cesare Paciotti shoes and some half dozen other Italian retailers that are either exclusive to the project or one of a select group of outlets in the U.S. Only a handful of the project's 70 some retailers and restaurateurs are familiar names. These include AnnTaylor, Banana Republic, BCBG, bebe, Brookstone and Kenneth Cole.

Unlike Desert Passage, which is entirely thematic, the Grand Canal Shoppes does have some entertainment tenants with no connection to Venice. Tenants include the only authentic Madame Tussaud's wax museum in the United States (this one called Mme Tussaud's Celebrity Encounter), as well as C2K, a broadcast-based nightclub, and WB Sound Stage 16, a new entertainment concept from Warner Bros. Studios.

Opening about the same time as the Grand Canal Shoppes, the retail complex at Paris, Las Vegas also aims for a remarkable sense of verisimilitude and authenticity. The centerpiece of the overall hotel, casino and retail project is a 50%-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with a restaurant near the top serving haute cuisine. The Paris project also features a 2/3 -scale replica of the Arc de Triomphe.

These are not approximate replicas. The French government provided copies of the original engineering blueprints for the monuments, allowing recreation of the two structures down to the smallest detail. According to Bob Dowd, director of public relations for Bally's Resort and Paris Las Vegas, the Eiffel Tower even has the exact number and placement of bolts as the original.

At only 30,000 sq. ft., the project's retail component is less prominent than the preceding projects, but it more than matches them in panache. A boulangerie turns out fresh baguettes baked in a professional bakery oven imported from France. Craftsmen prepare lithographs on a 120-year-old press, also imported from France and one of only five or six of its kind still extant.

All 10 of the project's restaurants and cafes, even Le Village Buffet, serve French food in a French atmosphere. The shops, all unique to the project in the United States, at minimum have French names and ambience and in many cases have French owners.

However, the aim is not to recreate Paris but to suggest it, Dowd emphasizes. "This is not Paris. There's one true Paris in the universe. It's in a country called France. Nonetheless, with as much authenticity as we can, we try to give you a flavor of the real place and reconnect you with your memories of it if you've been there or fulfill your fantasy image of it if you haven't," he says.

This honest approach, he adds, is what won the project's developer, Las Vegas-based Park Place Entertainment, the cooperation of the French government. "They saw we weren't trying to imitate Paris and steal their tourists," Dowd observes. "Arthur Goldman, the chairman of Park Place, is a real Francophile, and one of his hopes is that people coming here will be inspired to travel to France and experience it first-hand."

A common factor in all three of the above projects is the incorporation of "street" entertainers and the training of waiters, shop clerks and other help to speak with an appropriate accent and exhibit other characteristics appropriate to the milieu. Employees of Paris Las Vegas all learn basic French phrases, while the gondoliers at the Grand Canal Shoppes audition by singing Italian arias. Desert Passage will have belly dancers, whirling dervishes and snake charmers (relax, the snakes aren't real).

Given their complexity, the projects are much more management-intensive than most shopping centers. All three interviewees note that the number of people required to keep things running and well maintained is huge.

For example, Walters says maintaining the canal is itself a major enterprise. The upkeep on the gondolas, each of which is fitted with an electric motor that operates 14 hours a day, is especially costly and requires a specially trained mechanical crew, he remarks.

Another factor in upkeep is the extra attention required for unique materials, such as gold leaf, marble and, in the case of Desert Passage, mud. Surfaces in standard malls are chosen specifically for their ease of maintenance. In these projects, each element may require its own method of cleaning.

Other complicating factors include irregular spaces and, perhaps most important of all, the hours of operation. Shops are open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight 365 days a year, and the environments themselves are open 24 hours a day. The standard practice of sending the cleaning crew in en masse after hours does not work in Las Vegas. Here, retail areas must be cleaned one section at a time.

The big question hanging over Las Vegas is how much is too much. Though the new era of elaborately themed casinos began about 10 years ago, the big push has occurred in the past two years. Once people have seen the new attractions, will they return again and again? According to Beirnes, with the opening of the new Aladdin, the city will have added 20,000 hotel rooms in a single 10-month period. More are planned, including a second casino and hotel tower on the Aladdin property.

At the same time, he points out that 43 percent of visitors to Las Vegas come from Southern California. Without them, the city cannot survive. But how many more people can Southern California provide? Will other sources step in to provide the increased tourist base?

Significantly, room rates have also risen steeply. Gone are the days of $30 a night rooms with an all-you-can-eat breakfast included. According to Dowd, rooms at Bellagio begin at $250 a night. The rack rate at the Venetian is $185 a night. At Bally's and Paris Las Vegas, rooms go for $129 a night. With the demise of the $1.99 buffet and advent of restaurants with $40 entrees, trips to Las Vegas have become quite pricey, and the number of people making four and five visits a year seems almost certain to drop.

But then again, maybe not. After all, says Dowd, "This is a fantasy city. America looks at us and says, you're out of control, but people keep coming in ever increasing numbers. They seem to want this."

"We're in what's called the Experience Economy," adds Beirnes, "and we're providing the ultimate experience. You always have to keep pushing the limits."

Remarking on the fact that some retailers 3/4 Sephora, for one 3/4 have taken large spaces in all the new projects, he continues, "If you went to Harvard Business School and asked them to paint a scenario where a retailer had four flagship stores within a few blocks of each other, they'd say that's crazy, no way. But we've got it here. It's not normal, but you can't do normal in Las Vegas."

As for the future, plans are afoot for a new project with a San Francisco theme, but after that, who knows. As Dowd comments, "The joke here is, hey, have you heard about the new casino? It's called Las Vegas."

The most recent addition to the "immersion environment" lineup in Las Vegas may prove a real test of authenticity. The owners of Showcase Mall, a fairly conventional mall next to the MGM Grand Hotel, plan a $33 million expansion that will include a $4 million "experience environment" featuring a replica of the Grand Canyon. Attractions will include a helicopter ride, thunderstorms and flash floods.

Unlike Desert Passage, The Grand Canal Shoppes and Paris Las Vegas, the project is not part of an overall theme for the mall. According to Melvin Guieb, project manager forthe project's architect, AM Partners of Honolulu, the Grand Canyon is a 24,000-sq.-ft., self-contained space. The owner is M&K Enterprises, one of three partners that owns Showcase Mall.

Guieb says the project, which was conceived by AM principal Charles Lau, aims to attract the visitor who wants a more "natural" environment to counter the relentless urban thrust of the surrounding environment.

Though it might seem ironic to create an artificial version of a natural wonder that is easily reachable from Las Vegas, Guieb says the project is intended to "play off" the proximity of the national park by encouraging people to visit the real thing. One way of doing this may be by offering helicopter rides from the roof of Showcase Mall to Grand Canyon National Park. Permission for this has not yet been granted, however, nor is it likely to be by the time the project opens in July.

Not to worry. In case the real thing doesn't pan out, the project will offer internal "helicopter rides" over the man-made canyon. It will also offer an hourly thunderstorm and flash flood that are sure to be a lot safer than what a visitor might experience in the Grand Canyon itself.

Because the project is a rent-paying tenant, it will earn money from the sale of souvenirs and other items relating to travel. Guieb says the complex includes 10 selling areas placed at various points surrounding the artificial canyon.

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