Class Comes to Vegas

When authorities finally caught Willie Sutton, America’s “Most Wanted” bank robber, they asked him, “Why do you rob banks?’’ His reply: “Because that’s where the money is.” Now, more than a half-century later, some of the world’s finest purveyors of luxury goods have heeded Sutton’s advice, if not his methods, and gone where the money is.

That would be Las Vegas. Glitter Gulch. Sin City.

Talk about a turnaround! Nobody knows how to shed a tawdry image better than Las Vegas. The city has worked diligently to change its persona from a smoke-clouded haven for boozy gamblers to a squeaky-clean family playground and a place where sophisticated couples can enjoy fine dining and elegant shopping. Now, city-sized hotels with nationally famous attractions – like Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers at the Mirage or the exploding pirate ship at Treasure Island – dot Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as “the Strip.” And the Strip’s two shopping malls boast the best per-square-foot sales of any malls in the United States.

To be sure, the Elvis Presley impersonators, $5.99 dinner buffets, and seedy wedding chapels are still there. They’re all part of the Las Vegas mystique, where larger-than-life is a way of life. Luxury retailers, however, have proved that glitter and good taste can peacefully profit side by side.

The results have not been lost on carriage-trade jewelers, who are moving in quickly, testing the city’s demand for a better class of merchandise with high price tags. Among the latest big names trekking to the desert are New York-based Fred Leighton and Tiffany & Co., as well as Hyde Park Jewelers, headquartered in Colorado.

One thing is certain: After these pioneers put down roots, more are sure to follow. The question is, what inspired these and other prestige names to move to Glitter Gulch?

The wagon train began with a handful of status chefs banking on the idea that not everybody wanted to wait in line with 300 strangers to dine at one of the town’s ubiquitous buffets. Renowned Beverly Hills culinary guru Wolfgang Puck was the first entrepreneur to see the possibilities in Las Vegas. His famous Spago, once the place to see and be seen around Hollywood, opened a branch in the Forum Shops at Caesars in 1992, followed by the Wolfgang Puck Café in the MGM Grand. When the Forum Shops expanded in 1997, Puck’s desert empire expanded again with Chinois, his second eatery in that mall. Other famous chefs, like New Orleans’ Emeril Lagasse, followed. His Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House is in the MGM Grand. Reportedly Le Cirque, New York’s premier power-lunch palace, is coming too.

Before the renaissance, hotels in Las Vegas were mostly places for weary gamblers to take a break, get a cheap meal, or sleep off a hangover. A few fancier ones catered to high rollers and VIPs, but they still weren’t true luxury hotels. The new breed of Las Vegas luxury hotel casinos, however, are as well-appointed, service-oriented – and pricey – as any of the nation’s best spas and resorts.

One of the most heralded events, slated for fall 1998, is the opening of the Bellagio Resort and Casino. This paean to luxury is another brainchild of entrepreneur Steve Wynn, whose vision also begat the Mirage and Treasure Island. Originally conceived as a high-roller hotel, Bellagio has morphed into a top-of-the-line luxury accommodation with elegant suites, a lobby decorated with $150 million of fine art, and world-class shopping. Among the stellar retail tenants will be Hermès, Prada, Armani, Gucci, and Chanel, not to mention Fred Leighton and Tiffany & Co.

“We had offers everywhere to open a branch, but none were tempting enough until Steve Wynn knocked on our door,” says Mara Leighton, daughter of Fred Leighton and co-owner of the store. “We thought Vegas would be appealing because it’s such an exciting place.”

It was the large number of foreign visitors, however, that most appealed to Leighton, Mara says. “Las Vegas attracts transients from all over the world. It’s an ideal way for us to reach an international clientele.” The Fred Leighton branch, slated to open in October, will contain the same type of exquisite estate pieces as the New York flagship, but with one major difference: It will never remove the pieces from display.

“The jewelry will be on display 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” explains Leighton. “Steve Wynn didn’t want the windows ever to be empty.” The hours of the store also have to be compatible with the city’s night life, opening at 10 a.m. and remaining open until midnight, seven days a week.

According to Leighton, the world-class appeal of Las Vegas – sweetened by the high rollers and visiting and resident celebrities – more than makes up for any inconveniences of setting up shop. In fact, she says, the biggest challenge at this point is learning how to run a second location.

Tiffany & Co. plans to open a 6,500-sq.-ft. store in the Bellagio resort next spring. Characterizing Las Vegas as a “very desirable market,” chairman William R. Chaney also says the city has “many existing and potential customers who appreciate exceptional product design, quality, and value.”

The new store will carry the full range of Tiffany products, including regular and designer jewelry lines as well as silver, china, crystal, and gifts. The interior will echo elements of the Fifth Avenue flagship, with cherrywood panels and showcases and vitrines in steel and glass.

Not all the status boom is reserved for the Bellagio. The Venetian, a luxury property being built on the site of the old Sands hotel and casino, will have a 750,000-sq.-ft. mall, and the Forum Shops at Caesars is undergoing yet another expansion. That mall, which opened with 70 stores in 1992, has an impressive tenant list including the likes of Christian Dior, Escada, Gianni Versace, DKNY, Polo/Ralph Lauren, and Fendi. An additional 35 stores opened in August 1997, and ground will be broken in late 1998 for 240,000 more square feet of retail space, to be completed by the year 2000.

Getting in on the ground floor of the expansion was Hyde Park Jewelers, a Denver-based retailer that made the move to Las Vegas about a year ago, when the Forum Shops opened its new wing. According to president Michael Pollak, the choice of venue was a logical one based on Hyde Park’s long-term plans to develop a strong regional presence.

“We did some research to identify the most high-end, luxury-oriented locations,” he explains. Once Las Vegas popped up on his company’s radar screen, the decision was made. But it didn’t happen overnight. “It took three to four years to secure that spot!” Pollak says, referring to his store’s enviable location in the new wing of the Forum Shops, adjacent to Wolfgang Puck’s high-profile Chinois restaurant and F.A.O. Schwarz’s fantasyland of costly toys.

According to Pollak, the store has outperformed its projected volume in its first year by about 15% and shows no signs of slowing down. He credits the store’s strong performance to its high level of branded merchandise in both watches and fine jewelry. Pollak estimates his relatively small (1,250 sq. ft.) store houses about 18 designer jewelry lines.

“When people travel to Las Vegas, they tend to trust brands, such as designer jewelry and top watch brands. If they feel comfortable with the merchandise in a store, they will spend $1,000 to $25,000, even if they don’t know the jeweler,” he says.

Aside from regular mall traffic, advertising to bring in customers is a priority for this operation. Hyde Park Jewelers advertises in the hotels’ in-room service-promotion books, which Pollak characterizes as the store’s No. 1 vehicle. Ads also appear in local magazines and newspapers, and even in electronic messages at the baggage pickup area of the airport.

In all, Pollak believes his store’s move to Las Vegas was a good one. “The Strip is starting to fill in,” and the casually elegant setting of the Forum has proved a good way to “capture a customer into a retail environment,” he notes. It’s also a good way to keep them there. Like its soon-to-arrive neighbors, Hyde Park’s hours are long – from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Watching from the wings is David Sacco, designer and owner of the Master Touch Gallery in Maui, Hawaii. For now, the designer and retailer is staying on in paradise, but he says his thoughts are constantly wandering to Las Vegas. Why? It’s the fantasy mind set that goes with the mood of the place, he explains. People are buying an experience. “It’s one of the few places in the world that money flows like water with no restriction. Las Vegas is where people can make dreams come true.”

SIN CITY’S SIZZLING SALES

Lady Luck has certainly smiled upon the retailers of Las Vegas. The two shopping malls currently on the Strip boast sales figures anywhere from 60% to 400% above national averages.

The International Council of Shopping Centers says the 1997 national average of tenant sales, excluding anchor stores, in more than 400 regional and superregional malls was $291 per square foot. The figure at Las Vegas’s Fashion Show Mall: $498.

Maureen Taylor Crampton, marketing director of the Forum Shops at Caesars, says that mall’s 1997 average sales-per-square-foot figure was $1,200, making it a prince among malls – even among super-upscale malls. According to the National Research Bureau in Chicago, sales at other status centers like the Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich., the Borgata in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif., checked in, respectively, at $500, $358, and $204 per square foot. Neither association had figures for comparable non-mall shopping districts such as Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue.

Crampton says Forum Shops customers come from all sectors – big winners splurging on a special treat, people who send their spouses off shopping while they gamble, and people who’d just rather shop than gamble. “Studies have proven that people tend to spend more when they’re in Las Vegas. It’s like a fantasy world, and they want to have part of it.”