|By Ron Sylvester, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 21, 2013--By most measures, Mandalay Bay had a banner year in 2012.
It sold out its convention center. The Shark Reef aquarium set an attendance record with 900,000 visitors. Carlos Santana signed a residency at the House of Blues.
That wasn't good enough.
Owner MGM Resorts International embarked on a massive renovation of the 3,000-room resort, the first since it opened in 1999. Construction began late last year and is expected to be completed by summer.
"I've got more construction walls than I have real walls," Mandalay Bay President Chuck Bowling said.
Many of the resort's original venues haven't changed in 14 years.
A second phase of construction, slated to start this summer, will rebrand The Hotel as the Delano Las Vegas, with a projected 2014 opening date. MGM officials would not disclose the cost of the projects.
Bowling recently sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss the changes.
Why embark on such an ambitious project now?
Coming out of this recession, the biggest question was: What does Mandalay Bay stand for, and how are we going to separate ourselves from the competition?
We have to create our own demand.
As we go back to redefining the resort experience, we knew there was a couple of elements we weren't pristine at. There were some shortfalls, so we were able to reinvest in it.
What did you think was lacking?
We have a great entertainment footprint. We have the events center. We have the beach and our concerts, where you can sit out in your shorts under the stars and listen to great music. We have the House of Blues. But we didn't have that A-list show. One of the things that frustrated all of us was seeing people catch cabs to go to another show somewhere else in town.
So we were fortunate to create the partnership with Cirque du Soleil and the Michael Jackson estate. On May 23, we're going to open what we hope is one of the most amazing shows (a full-time-residency production dedicated to the King of Pop), not only in Las Vegas, but around the world. We think that's really going to cement our entertainment.
The other long line getting out of here was going to find great nightlife. We did not have that. Many years ago, Mandalay Bay had Rumjungle, but that closed.
We went out on a search and came to an agreement with the Light Group, one of the leaders in nightlife. They partnered with Cirque du Soleil, and in March, we're going to open Light (Cirque's first standalone nightclub, which will feature acrobatic performers.) You're going to have this experience that is above you and around you. It's going to be very different.
What about the hotel rooms?
We have three hotels (Mandalay Bay, The Hotel and the Four Seasons). Some of the amenities at the Four Seasons weren't up to snuff, so we did this amazing renovation. That was finished last month.
Another thing it didn't have was a great lobby-lounge experience. We're in the process of opening a lobby-lounge this spring where locals and power brokers can come. It will be indoor/outdoor with fire pits, like you'd find at Red Rock or Green Valley Ranch. That's going to really cement our five-star level.
We also have The Hotel, which has a very high occupancy rate. But I had always referred to The Hotel as the Abbott and Costello brand: What hotel are you staying at? The Hotel. What hotel? The Hotel!
We partnered with the Morgans Hotel Group, which has one of the great brands in the Delano. It's very popular in South America, which is one of our fastest growing markets. It will open in the first quarter of next year.
(No changes are planned for the rooms at Mandalay Bay.)
Are you renovating the restaurants and casino?
We've worked with the Light Group on several new restaurant concepts.
We've got a great new Japanese restaurant. Chef Akira Back, from Yellowtail, will design the menu. We're still working on the name, but that will open in April.
Where Red, White and Blue was, the Light Group is going to open Citizen's Kitchen and Bar, a casual breakfast, lunch and dinner bar and bistro. They also went into Red Square, which was popular, and remade the menu and vodka locker.
We are also planning to redo Mizuya, and we are redoing Shanghai Lilly. We're still working on designs for those right now.
The casino hadn't been touched since the day we opened. We're completely renovating it, with new carpet, chairs and music.
Then we have all these other things going on behind the scenes. We also are partnering with Light to bring in a day club at the South Lagoon pool that will open this summer. We've got a new food court coming in this summer with more branded names.
Things have been happening so fast, our plans are still coming together. We think it will be the most talked-about resort in Las Vegas.
How do operate with all the construction?
In most hotels, you close one restaurant, and that's all you've got. Even though I took out three restaurants at once, I still have 17 more to offer.
People walk up to the construction walls and see Light, Cirque and Michael Jackson. We want them to say, 'Hey, I've got to come back.' From a marketing standpoint, we want to say, "Thanks for staying with us, but come back in June and you won't believe it."
The Bellagio and MGM Grand, other MGM Resorts International properties, underwent major renovations recently, too. What's the strategy? Why so many upgrades?
Our company was in the best shape going into the recession. We invested minimally during the recession, and that left us a good position to come out of it strong. Now we're investing more back into our properties.
The beauty of our company is all the properties have their own niche. Each of us have our own market position.
Are the renovations a sign of confidence that the economy has rebounded?
Certainly, the economy is getting better. But we've got a long way to go.
The interest in Las Vegas isn't waning. We were knocking on the door of 40 million visitors this year. There's a huge opportunity for international tourism that's continuing to grow.
That's why this the right time. As Las Vegas continues to recover, we want MGM and Mandalay Bay to be positioned to get their fair share of the business. We think these investments will make sure we attract people here for the first time and give us the best opportunity to bring back people who haven't seen us in a while.
The main thing is, once we get them here, give them no reason to go anywhere else. Whatever experience you want to do, you can find all under one roof.
How did Mandalay Bay stay competitive during the downturn?
We knew what business we were in. We've got a resort built around the convention business. We try to stay focused on that.
It was tough during the early part of the Obama administration because people said, "I can't hold my meetings in Las Vegas. I can't sell that boondoggle."
We had to remind them that we host some of the most prestigious corporate licensing in the world. We host some of the top Fortune 100 meetings, as well. We use conventions to fill mid-week and still create that tourist or vacation destination on the weekend.
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