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CityCenter Opening Raises Fears and Optimism with Industry Employees

By Doug Elfman, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 30, 2009--On Saturday, I walked from Mandalay Bay to the Wynn, interviewing employees at hotels -- people who work on their feet -- asking them an open-ended question:

"What do you think of CityCenter?"

Every worker expressed hope that the MGM Mirage-owned property, which opens its first hotel, Vdara, on Tuesday, succeeds.

"None of us can afford to think anything else" during hard times, said a worker in a high-end, Harrah's-based retail store.

But quite a few workers worry CityCenter "overhired" 10,000 to 12,000 employees and could end up laying off as many as 4,000 people once CityCenter gets rolling.

"That's what every place does" when a new property opens, a cocktail server said. "They overhire."

A few workers told me they worry CityCenter's fancy newness will lure away super gamblers (the richest of high rolling "whales") from other properties. They said the loss of just one super whale from a property could lead to layoffs.

Some supervisors in high-end retail stores said Vegas has been feeding off wealthy shoppers from Mexico City; CityCenter will create a shiny new shopping destination for "passport internationals," especially well-off Chinese clientele who have fortified Vegas for decades and who are used to shopping at such centers around the world.

"China right now runs the planet. The reason I'm solvent now is because of China," an optimistic retailer at a Harrah's-owned hotel told me.

CityCenter retailers won't earn a fortune from locals or L.A. buyers, since "people don't shop at Tom Ford and Bulgari daily," that high-end retailer said, and added:

It will be slow-going for CityCenter's shopping in the short term if only 40 percent of stores are even open soon.

"Who wants to walk through a half-dead mall?"

Not one retailer I talked to expects CityCenter's high-end stores to dilute overall business from Strip malls at Caesars, The Venetian, Bellagio, Fashion Show mall or anywhere else. It may even help their business with a new influx of visitors, they said.

Several workers at non-MGM Mirage-owned hotels wonder if CityCenter will drown MGM.

"Aren't they gonna file bankruptcy?" a cocktail server said to another server.

The other server responded, "Don't you worry about MGM."

The first server replied, "You watch."

Workers at hotels near CityCenter, such as Planet Hollywood, expect their properties to pick up foot traffic.

But that doesn't mean these workers plan to walk across the street to visit CityCenter after a shift. A typical refrain: "I never go to the Strip when I'm not working."

Several employees at non-MGM Mirage hotels fretted that CityCenter's eventual 8,000 rooms will damage room rates at other properties during conventions and trade shows.

"That's bread and butter" for properties and workers across the Strip, a customer service representative said.

On the other hand, a beverage director for a restaurant said The Venetian in particular is too big, too good and too highly reputed for CityCenter to hurt its convention business.

One cocktail server repeated a story she heard, that condo sales at CityCenter could have gone better, and that a restaurateur was given a free condo just for opening an eatery there.

Most workers I talked to think CityCenter's traditional glassy towers look "cool," "futuristic," "space age," "beautiful," "gorgeous," "breathtaking" and "gives the Strip a downtown urban feel."

But other Strip workers said they prefer theme facades; think CityCenter looks like any boring "commercial building" in Los Angeles; and seems odd and "out of place" next to Vegas-y facades like Bellagio and Caesars.

CityCenter hasn't generated happy-go-lucky buzz, as previous hotel openings have, because it's been a long and challenged construction.

"For an $8.5 billion property, there's no buzz at all," a worker at an MGM Mirage-owned hotel told me.

A different MGM Mirage-property employee said co-workers rarely talk about CityCenter, except to chat about which co-workers got jobs there.

"We mostly talk about what's going on in our hotel," such as "who got laid off," she said.

The mood of workers at MGM Mirage-owned hotels was optimistic but tempered by situational caution, talking to a journalist about an MGM Mirage property.

A Bellagio worker listened to my question, "What do you think about CityCenter," and responded, "Would you like me to call security?" A floor worker at New York-New York referred me to the public relations department to comment for him.

Consequently, I decided not to quote anyone in this column by name, for my concern their properties might be displeased.

Everyone told me CityCenter will be good for the economy, either a little or a lot. A retailer at a non-MGM Mirage hotel called it a "fabulous" addition.

An older casino employee at a non-MGM Mirage hotel told me that regardless of CityCenter's existence, she and co-workers are scared every day they'll be fired for making one mistake, or be laid off, or replaced with a young female in a little skirt.

She said this during slow business on a holiday weekend. A driver told me it was the worst Thanksgiving weekend business he's seen in the decade he's been driving.

A customer service representative at a non-MGM Mirage hotel was aghast that CityCenter will open four new nightclubs.

"Because we need four nightclubs," she said sarcastically. "We were shy by exactly four nightclubs."

To be clear, I interviewed workers while walking through Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, MGM, Hooters, the Tropicana, New York-New York, Planet Hollywood, Paris, Bellagio, Caesars, The Venetian, the Palazzo, Wynn and Encore.

The thing workers said is most likely: Congestion is about to get much worse:

"I think traffic's gonna be a bitch, don't you?"

Doug Elfman's column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 702-383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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