As much as casino-watchers have been vexed by the total media clampdown on all but the smallest scintillae of revelation about Steve Wynn's Encore, it was worth the wait. Or, to put it differently, Aria and Fontainebleau have just been given an exceptionally difficult act to follow.
I say that as someone who was disappointed with Wynn Las Vegas when it debuted in 2005. Despite the modernity promised by the exterior, what I found inside was a pastel-colored version of Bellagio -- smaller, muted, rearranged and more than a bit fussy.
Let it not be said that there is anything pastel about Encore, nor anything tentative. For starters, primary colors are back "in" with a vengeance, specifically red. Now, I like red but we're talking RED!!! For relief, the VIP area is dominated by green. But did I mention to utter profusion of RED??? If Dario Argento designed a casino, this would be it.
My tour group, which included fellow Vegas Gang-sters David G. Schwartz, Chuck Monster and Robert Earl's favorite writer, Hunter Hillegas, had the good fortune of being in the tour group led by Wynn Resorts design guru Roger Thomas. For the latter, Encore represents his Vegas swan song and it closes the circle in other way: As Thomas put it, when Wynn and he remade the downtown Golden Nugget, it was the death knell of that Vegas staple, "the red casino." Not another would be built after that. "We killed [the red casino], we get to bring it back," Thomas says by way of explaining the riot of scarlet luxuriating throughout Encore.
Above and beyond its coloristic impact, Encore is the most tactile casino on the Strip and probably in the U.S. You'll be wanting to "cop a feel" many times over, whether it's of the wood finishes, the wall coverings or the sculpted textures like the "wall of bodies" that ushers you into nightclub XS. (Once you get in -- if you get in -- the view across the dance floor and the "European" [read: topless] pool to the al fresco bar opposite is one of the bigger "wow" effects at Encore.)
They mix a mean sangria there, too. The color scheme is as gilded as the casino is reddish and Thomas confesses, "I'm certain Goldfinger had a little to do with it." Whatever the case, it's like Christian Audigier -- The Nightclub (right down to the fashion boutique) but for people with taste.
There will be other articles and blogs appraising the aesthetic and functionality of Encore, so I'll leave the assessment to experts and confine myself to various jottings made while trying to walk and scribble simultaneously.
Thomas, who's been with Wynn since 1981, describes himself as the "partial author" of The Mirage, the seminal property of contemporary Las Vegas, and "full author" of Treasure Island. He's not necessarily patting himself on the back, as he says that one of the lessons learned at the Island was not to fully theme a casino (a lesson that several non-Wynn casinos failed to heed) and not to have one designer do the entire hotel. His subsequent approach has been to assemble teams he knows and admires, who hit it off with Wynn himself, and who have the reputation of being on time and on budget.
Despite those last criterion, not every last light fixture or handrail was in place (some uninstalled fixtures, left carelessly in the middle of a hallway, nearly cost posterity the future writings of Dr. Schwartz). Nor did we get more than the teensiest peek at the Encore Theater, which has been redone -- again -- for Danny F. Gans. The proscenium has been moved back but that's the only specific we were given.
Flocked with butterflies. Other than the ocean of RED, the design element likeliest to be mentioned are the omnipresent butterflies. They're in the moldings, the tiling, the wall coverings ... in short, everywhere. Not only do they "represent an abudance of good luck," they provide Thomas with a metaphor for the transformative process he and Wynn enjoy: turning the unromantic elements of cement and steel into an escapist paradise. There are no Strip views at ground level because, Thomas says, "When you're cocooned at Wynn, everything is beautiful." (He did not, however, croon" ... in its own little way.")
The third design element, less obvious to the eye, is a running motif of garlands of laurels. These were inspired by the most famous tale of metamorphosis (no, not Franz Kafka's), the myth of Daphne, depicted in a statue in the Lobby Bar & Café. Yet another reinvention is Switch, the restaurant whose decor changes every 20 minutes. It sounds godawfully corny but, in actuality, it's wondrous to behold -- like a dining experience by way of Cirque du Soleil. The revelation of multiple 18-foot chandeliers is a particular coup de theatre. "Steve can't help himself," Thomas explains. "He's a lover of theatre."
Encore's Esplanade mall has less natural light, more space than its opposite number at Wynn LV, which was one of the areas where it was most obviously "Bellagio II." The decision to mix design styles is evident in the amalgam of sharp angles and wave forms in the conjoined Rolex/Wynn & Co. boutiques. It provides relief from the overall aesthetic -- as intended -- without making a violently contrasting statement.
(My favorite design element, in truth, was the chair in Wynn & Co.; pure Heaven to anyone with an aching back. I want one, dammit!)
If natural light is somewhat lacking in the mall, Encore's atrium more than compensates. This vaulted, latticed space is Wynn's biggest "You have arrived" statement to date. Its conservatory-writ-large style manages paradoxically to be both grandiose and subdued. It's crowned with a pair of huge sconces salvaged from a demolished hotel in Cap d'Antibes.
Path of Excess = Palace of Wisdom? In the mall and, in fact, throughout the property, Thomas' preference for layering details sometimes induces sensory overload. The stated intention was to create a property that would require several visits to fully appreciate and one can report: Mission Accomplished. For instance, if there's a spa in town more ornate and in-your-face indulgent than the mere lobby of the Encore spa, well, I've not seen it. Several in my group agreed that Wynn could charge people for audio tours of Encore, and rightly so. It feels less like you're being shown through a resort and more like being given a walk-through of a working palace.
A good thing, though, that Wynn's attempts to buy up and demolish the nearby Guardian Angel Cathedral were rebuffed, though. Not only could Wynn use some guardian angels in the current economy, Encore's beauty parlor overlooks the cathedral and, were it not there, you'd have an all-too-clear view of some genuinely craptastic buildings on Covention Center Drive. The Catholic diocese did Wynn a favor by turning him down.
Of the many iterations of "suite" at Encore, we were shown two: a Tower Suite that makes up in comfort what it lacks in size (it's generous to call it a "suite," though it may make you feel better about what you're paying to stay there) and a Salon Suite in which you could land a helicopter. Something very intense and Asian was going down in what appeared to be an even larger suite at the end of the hall -- a huddle with the CEO of Tagruato Corp. perhaps?
Even the elevators are differentiated in their decor. One had a red alligator-skin motif while another was clad in butterflies rampant on a field of purple. I mean, we're talking spare no expense here, folks. The fabric for the drapes in the VIP room was purchased three years ago and kept under wraps until now.
The Sinatra restaurant is dominated by gargantuan, larger-than-life-size portraits of the Chairman of the Board himself. Is it a restaurant or a shrine? I felt I ought to genuflect or at least make the Sign of the Cross. But the real conversation-starters here are two hefty obelisks which flank the bar, while overhead sails a bejeweled galleon. Thomas rescued these from the shipwreck that was a failed New York City restaurant.
Society will be, for want of a better term, Encore's bread-and-butter restaurant, as well as a must-visit for chocoholics. Thomas' goal here was, "A room that Oscar Wilde would like."
Now stop for a moment. Can you imagine Thomas saying that to William Weidner and getting anything more than a basilisk stare? Or having a conversation with Gary Loveman about the metaphorical significance of butterflies? The Harrah's Entertainment CEO would probably just want to know what the return on invested capital from butterflies was going to be.
Which goes to the heart of what makes a Wynn property different from anything else in the marketplace: His willingness to invest monetary and artistic capital in things which don't translate to the bottom line in a quantifiable way but which create a "must-see" factor. I have no idea what the ROI of the Bellagio fountain is but it's -- and not arguably, I'll contend -- the fulcrum of the Strip, the icon off of which everything else plays. Wynn is an anomaly: a casino industry CEO with the temperament of an artist ... but an artist who's chosen a very unusual art form by which to express himself.
To have come all this way and not have spoken of the Encore casino floor itself is not to imply that it's an afterthought (the way the Venetian's casino floor feels like a waystation between the super-grandiose lobby and the Grand Canal Shoppes, for when you simply must shoppe 'til you droppe). Actually, quite a bit of thought has clearly gone into the casino, the part of Encore in which Wynn's experience with Macao is most prevalent.
Even more than Wynn LV, it's dominated by semi-secluded areas. But unlike the serpentine traffic patterns of its sister property, Encore's casino is neat and orderly, laid out in a street-and-block system, with superior lines of sight. Bucking the "more is more" trend, Encore has only 850 slots, which we're told are on an infrastructure ready for server-based-gaming when (or if) it takes off.
The innate conservatism of Wynn's approach here is the sort of thing that stands him in good stead with the banks. (Server-based Aria could be a triumph of gaming technology but it's a helluva ski jump.) In the mass-market area, each '21' table is flanked by a pair of table lamps, providing an appealingly homey (or "very residential," in Thomas-ese) vibe to the table game pit.
Steve Wynn looks suspiciously like he's been Photoshopped into his own atrium at Encore, but at least it gives you a sense of scale.
It's difficult to rank Encore in the pantheon of recent Las Vegas megaresorts because Wynn's most serious competion in the last decade has been ... Steve Wynn. Even had Palazzo's rollout not been a near-total botch, it still has that expensive-shopping-mall-that's-doomed-to-fail look about it. Planet Hollywood, had it all reopened simultaneously, would have flung some serious "Wow!" at its audience, but Robert Earl's had to relaunch it incrementally and progress of late has been agonizingly slow. Other than the Criss Angel bomb Believe, it may be the Strip's most expensive work in progress.
So ... will Encore create excitement unto itself? I believe so. Does it represent not only a leap forward for Wynn but an even bigger one than expected? Yes and yes. But ...
Will it drive business? If I owned WYNN stock (which I don't), I would sleep very well tonight.