Las Vegas New Year’s Eve: To Dance

Headliners of all stripes and styles are seizing the moment to take stages all around town, and that includes several major hotel performances. Whether they’re opening a hot new nightclub or just partying with old friends, musicians all over the city want to make it a night to remember.

At the Cosmopolitan, the legendary Stevie Wonder is kicking off 2012 at the Chelsea, while a potential heir to the piano crooner throne John Legend will be onstage at The Pearl at the Palms, followed by an afterparty at Moon. Also on piano, Bruno Mars is playing The Bank at the Bellagio, while Chris Brown’s show at Pure at Caesar’s Palace will be set to the backdrop of the Strip’s fireworks show. And throwback alert: Vanessa Williams will be taking the stage at the Riviera, performing her favorite old R&B hits.

The rockers of Guns N’ Roses are finishing off their farewell tour with a two and a half hour set at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel—singer/rapper Drake will kick off 2012 with a performance the following day. If you like your rock a little more alt, Franky Perez is playing a set at Rocks Lounge at the Red Rock Hotel; their other venues are hosting DJ BKNY at Lucky Bar, and Latin dance group Toto Zara at Onyx. Turntables more your speed? Steve Angello (the house DJ and one-third of DJ trio Swedish House Mafia will be spinning all night at XS Nightclub at Encore. And if “Party Rock” is your anthem of the year, LMFAO is coming to Haze at Aria for the midnight show.

In clubland, House of Blues at Mandalay Bay goes punk for the evening, with performances by Old Man Markley and NOFX, while producer and rapper B.o.B. takes over LAX at the Luxor. Poptart Fergie opens up the new outpost of 1OAK at the Mirage, while bandmate Will.i.am is spinning at Surrender at Encore with DJ Ammo. And for one of the biggest tickets of the night, R&B goddess Mary J. Blige opens RPM Nightclub at the Tropicana. Many VIP packages have already sold out, but the hotels are planning on making these concerts a party—even the cheap seats are sure to come along with a good time.

If you haven’t had enough (or, let’s face it, are still up the next day) dance out your hangover at Hyde, the new club opening at the Bellagio at 5pm on Jan. 1 with DJ88 spinning, snacks from Circo, and a special show by DJ Paul Oakenfold.

Cy and Jesse Waits, Two of a Kind

“It’s the Godzilla of nightclubs.” That was the reaction of our nightlife guru Steve Lewis when I asked him about XS, the mega club at casino maven Steve Wynn’s Encore hotel in Las Vegas. But unlike the fictional Japanese monster who stomped on citizens and cities with uncontrollable glee, XS is a tightly controlled, carefully calculated environment designed to redefine nightlife and provide customers with the ultimate Vegas experience. As Lewis later put it, “This is the machine.”

The operators of this machine (which at $100 million, makes it one of the most expensive nightclubs ever built), are identical twin brothers Cy and Jesse Waits. Growing up in a dusty Southern California town, they had no inkling that by the age of 34, they’d be sitting atop one of the biggest nightlife empires in the country. But that’s exactly where the brothers find themselves, after forging a lasting partnership with legendary club impresario and film producer Victor Drai on a number of amazingly successful endeavors, including XS, Tryst nightclub at the Wynn, Drai’s after hours inside Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon, and Drai’s Hollywood, which recently opened in the W Hollywood. “We grew up in such a small town, I never even thought I’d meet anyone that I saw on TV,” says Cy, who now schmoozes on the regular with stars from the film, music, and sports worlds.

So how did the Waits’ find themselves at the forefront of West Coast nightlife? After all, there isn’t a school that teaches you how to master the inner workings of a mega club. The answer is experience. Growing up, they were the kids in the neighborhood who threw the house parties. “We were always trying to make everyone comfortable, making sure everyone is set up and feeling good about themselves,” says Cy. “We were the social butterflies, walking around and getting everyone’s input.” Jesse was the first one to move to Vegas, leaving the sleepy beaches of Hawaii for the blinding lights and monolithic hotels of the Strip. There, he cut his teeth at some of the city’s best clubs, excelling at everything from bartending to promoting. Soon, he was joined by Cy, who initially planned to work in the industry for a year, before returning to California to pursue other endeavors. But Las Vegas is a revenue beast, with billions of dollars being sucked up by its nightlife and entertainment industries, and Cy quickly realized the boundless opportunity a partnership with his brother could bring. “We started from the bottom up. We did everything in the nightclub business so we get it. We understand the aspect of what it takes to bartend or what the door guy goes through. We get it,” he says.

Eventually, Jesse found himself managing the popular Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay, where they met Victor Drai. “We just kind of befriended each other,” says Jesse. “He was just a nice guy who would buy bottles. We started hanging out as friends and eventually, after three years of knowing him, decided to join him at Drai’s After Hours.”

Their big break came when La Bete, hotelier Steve Wynn’s first nightclub, failed to do the kind of business necessary to succeed in Vegas’ cutthroat landscape. “It was designed poorly for a nightclub,” says Jesse. “Their structure, management, and promotional team was not as well thought out as it should have been. To run a nightclub, it takes more personality than it does a corporate structure.” Drai and the twins stepped in, and after redesigning and rebranding the club, Tryst was born. Around the mid-aughts, Tryst nightclub at the Wynn rose to become Vegas’ premiere nightlife destination. (You might recall the infamous night when a pantless Britney Spears’ partied with Paris Hilton. That happened at Tryst. “It was pretty bizarre, she was asking for the attention” says Jesse.) With a hundred-foot waterfall cascading over the dancefloor, the never-seen-that-before opulence of Tryst was only the beginning.

image The waterfall at Tryst. image XS.

It’s difficult to fully grasp the scope of XS without experiencing it for yourself. Both Jesse and Cy seemed at a loss for words when trying to convey its epicness. They both told me it’s something I need to see to believe. At 40,000 square feet, XS is such a behemoth, it effectively stole its sister club’s clientele. “It’s a black hole, basically,” says Jesse, “not just for our business, but everybody’s business.” Indeed, as far as most are concerned, the extravagance on display at XS will be difficult to match. Lewis, who’s been designing nightclubs for over a decade, went as far as calling it “the best nightclub in the country.” With a capacity of 4,000, XS is designed with a high style and to allow a particular flow so that it never feels crowded. “It was not another building that we renovated to make into a nightclub. It was built for that purpose,” says Jesse.

XS’ unabashed extravagance is best bottled up (pun intended) in the Ono Cocktail, which, if ordered, is the equivalent of drinking liquid gold. Invented by Cy, the drink is more a muscle flex than a thirst quencher. When someone orders one, the XS staff makes sure the whole club knows it. At $10,000, it’s composed of Charles Heidsieck champagne and Louis XIII de Remy Martin Black Pearl cognac, and each glass comes with gold XS cufflinks for the men, and a black pearl. “I would say we have sold at least 12 or 15 of them in a year. I mean that’s pretty good for a cocktail that’s $10,000,” says Cy.

The twins admit the look of the place is mostly thanks to Victor Drai’s distinct vision. He’s the mastermind, they say. “He doesn’t think about how it’s going to work, all he focuses on is the look and flow,” says Cy. All of Drai’s spots are created to look like lush, dense paradises that avoid any tawdriness. Drai’s After Hours in Vegas is dotted with red velvet couches, leopard print carpeting, and Tamara de Lempicka prints. It all stems from his trailblazing sense of style. “He was popping his collar long before anybody else was doing it,” says Cy. “He’s got his boots and his swagger. He’s amazing. You have a conversation with him and you’d be surprised he’s 65. It feels like he’s 22.”

But after 12 years in the nightclub industry, the Waits brothers have also developed a sixth sense for what makes a club work. Once Drai has exercised his particular brand of showmanship on the place, Cy and Jesse will work on the club’s personality. They’re after the little things, the details customers don’t notice, but nevertheless that enhance their experience. Says Cy, “We’ll sit down in booths and make sure everything is comfortable. Everything needs to have a feeling to it. Where are the table sides? How big is the booth? How far are your knees from the ground? How many stripper poles should there be?”

Once the club is open, it’s the twins’ job to make sure it has legs. And, like any cohesive partnership, they’ve adapted and split their duties to play to their particular strengths. As Jesse tells it, he’s on the “marketing” side of things. He’s at the door every night greeting clients, whether it’s the governor of Nevada or someone looking to spend their roulette winnings on a bottle of Goose. At a club with thousands of people, personal attention from its top personnel can make nights. That’s what Jesse, and to some degree his brother, provide. He sees himself as the club’s diplomat, on the front lines with the clientele. Cy, on the other hand, thinks of himself as the problem solver, the fix-it guy. He handles the staff and ensures all the cogs of the machine are running in unison. Neither brother is ever without his BlackBerry, except while practicing martial arts.

Cy and Jesse are constantly traveling between their permanent homes in Vegas (they live in mansions on a golf course, Cy on the 8th hole, Jesse on the 2nd) and their temporary ones L.A. (they have neighboring penthouses at the W). Cy had eighty thousand tons of sand installed in his yard, a personal beach in the middle of the desert. Both brothers have multiple motorcycles, the product of a riding, hippie father of the Easy Rider ilk. They’ve made several Most Eligible Bachelor lists, although Jesse is now in a long term relationship with former Playmate of the Year, Jayde Nicole. They rarely, if ever, drink. Their sobriety is part dedication to a healthy lifestyle, but also, it’s impossible to control a nightlife empire after you’ve had seven gin and tonics.

Most siblings have a competitive edge, but for identical twins, that edge is sharpened. “When we were kids, it used to be who can throw the biggest rock through the window,” says Cy. That they work so closely together is an achievement, even if they admit to butting heads occasionally. “It’s war sometimes,” Cy says. “A couple of years ago, there were times when we almost got into fist fights over the most ridiculous things. We’ve gotten past that. When we first started working together again, we were in each other’s face. If Jesse’s really emotional about something, or I’m really emotional about something, one of us will just back off and we’ll just not talk for a few days until we cool down, and then it’s like nothing ever happened.”

Adds his brother, “The best thing about working with my brother is that out of anybody I know, I can trust him because he has my best interest at heart. If anything went down, I know that he would protect me and back me one hundred percent. And in a work environment where people are constantly trying to move up, that’s hard to find.”

World’s Largest Bikini Parade in Vegas

imageThursday will mark a great day. It will (hopefully) be the day that Las Vegas sets a Guinness Book World Record for the largest bikini parade in history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Las Vegas sign installation, and what better way to celebrate a half-century of sun and sin than a bikini retrospective? Lead by Girl Next Door Holly Madison, the event will kick off by a bikini fashion show featuring retro suits from the 50s, groovy suits from the 60s and 70s, neon tankinis from the 80s, string bikini’s from the 90s, and the latest in bondage bathing suits from this season.

After the show, Las Vegas Boulevard will be shut down so hundreds of ladies can march in the streets in itsy bitsy bikinis. All of this will of course be followed up with pool parties up and down the strip. Mayor Oscar Goodman is celebrating by making an official proclamation that summer starts May 14. The fashion show begins at 10am, and the parade kicks off at the Fashion Show Mall around noon. As far as the pool parties go, there’s a lot going on. At the Mirage, Bare is offering complimentary entry all day for Las Vegas residents. At Mandalay Bay, the first 100 non-guests will get access to the Mandalay Bay Beach, cabanas are on discount by $100 for the first 100 takers, cocktails are running $5, bottles go for $100, and Pacifico is only $3. At both the Monte Carlo and Luxor, the pool will open to the public and drinks will be on special sale from noon-6pm. Over at Planet Hollywood, the pool will be open and there will be drink specials, but here’s the clutch move — the bikini models will be there from noon-6pm. In case you’d like to participate in the bikini march, it looks like there are spots still open; click here for the Craigslist ad

Vegas Casinos Crapping Out on Recession

The crapped-out economy has hit Las Vegas hard. With the city’s industry crashing like casinos were Chryslers, everyone from CEOs to chambermaids is muttering that “It’s never been this bad.” And, well, it hasn’t. Gambling revenues tumbled, with the take on the Strip’s tables dropping 15% in January (compared to January 2008). Moody’s Investors Service has repeatedly downgraded virtually every casino company — MGM Mirage twice in a week! — citing “aggressive and substantial debt-financed development activity and earnings pressure from slowing consumer spending trends that began in fiscal 2008.” In short: Casinos went into massive hock to expand extravagantly. Then everyone got The Fear, and blowing five grand on blackjack and bottle service became less appealing. Well, not less appealing, but more difficult to get away with on a regular basis.

MGM Mirage (MGM Grand, Mirage, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, etc.) is struggling to complete its sprawling City Center project. The company was forced to sell the Treasure Island casino to a Kansas billionaire when banks refused further construction loans. The complex’s centerpiece was to be the Harmon Hotel, a shimmering boutique tower designed by celebrated architect Lord Norman Foster — which was chopped in half in mid-build, reportedly due to construction problems and evaporating condo sales. Even with cutbacks and postponements, MGM Mirage is scrambling to restructure debt and float this thing until it opens in the fall.

The Fontainebleau — a sister property to the Miami Beach hotel — is believed to have enough cash to complete construction and open in October. But both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s are going negative, and some wonder whether the high-tech, high-style resort will sell enough of the all-important condo units to survive.

Another project in limbo is Echelon Place, which was to have contained Vegas’ very own Mondrian and Delano Hotels. Boyd Gaming (Sam’s Town, Orleans, Gold Coast, Main Street, etc.) had to suspend the project when a chunk of financing fell through. Man, they better not have torn down the Stardust for nothing.

The Sands Corporation (Venetian, Palazzo) has been ousting executives and cutting costs — but it’s also opening casinos in Singapore and, erm, Pennsylvania. CEO Sheldon Adelson (Forbes’ third-richest man in America — last year) has expressed confidence in thundering tones, but he’s already had to pour a billion dollars of his own money into the company to meet loan requirements, and may be looking to offload some of his interests in Macau.

Station Casinos (Green Valley Ranch, Red Rock, Aliante, Boulder Station, etc.) is scrambling to renegotiate with bondholders as the clock ticks toward an April 15 bankruptcy filing deadline. Boyd Gaming offered to buy most of Station’s properties, but Station’s Fertitta family rejected them. Boyd persists, meaning we may have a good, old-fashioned casino family war between the Boyds and the Feritttas. Station’s plans for a luxe Strip property — Viva — have died quietly.

So, who isn’t putting a poker face on panic? Well, Boyd Gaming has enough cash to buy other casinos, even if they have halted new ones. Hilton announced that it will take over the foreclosed-upon Cosmopolitan Towers project as one of the launching pads for its new Denizen hotels brand. Wynn Corporation seemed to be weathering the tsunami, but Steve Wynn’s just-announced divorce from wife (and longtime boardmember) Elaine Wynn could cause chaos. Both have lawyered up — Elaine with Don Schiller, who got one of the biggest divorce settlements is history for Juanita (Mrs. Michael) Jordan. Nothing like watching billionaires divorce to take everyone’s mind off of their own bottom line.

Vegas Financial Fallout = Cheap Hotel Rates

imageThere’s rumblings of the “B” word in Las Vegas. MGM Mirage, of the Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bay, and MGM Grand, is in danger of defaulting on their debts of $13.5 billion and filing Chapter 11. Other hotels are in similar predicaments, so this is the time to book hotel rooms in Vegas, as rates are dropping to unheard-of numbers at primo properties — like $149 a night at the Four Seasons.

The best way to get these crazy deals is to sign up for the hotels’ newsletters, as they publish their best rates to their biggest fans first. Just as an example: Those on the Mandalay Bay email list were offered an exclusive Four Seasons deal called the “Vegas Escape.” It included rooms for $149 plus a $25 spa credit, with a two-night minimum March 10-May 14, based on availability. If you want to get really ridiculous about it, there are rates as low as $6.25 for rooms outside of town — but who wants to stay on the fringes when the deals in town are so good?

Las Vegas Not Happy with Obama

imageLas Vegas is trying its best to clean up the sordid rep its worked so hard to re-create after the last time they failed to become a family-friendly vacation destination. They’ve changed their salacious slogan to something much more benign, and they’re hoping this switch will help sagging tourism. Now, hoteliers like the Wynn and The Venetian are hopping mad about Barack Obama’s perceived slam on Las Vegas. They claim his comment that bailed-out bankers “can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime” is causing more convention and meeting cancellations in a city already hurt by the recession.

Goldman Sachs heeded Obama’s warning and moved their conference from Mandalay Bay to the San Francisco Marriott. Apparently American International Group, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup’s Primerica unit have also canceled events in Vegas. Sin City is getting the short of the stick here, as the town is now being seen as an increasingly bad PR move and companies are willing to pay cancellation fees rather than be associated with the playboy metropolis. According to the New York Times, Obama isn’t a hater on Las Vegas per se. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel responded to the complaints by saying “the president’s criticism was aimed at the potential use of taxpayer funds for junkets and in no way reflects his thoughts about any one particular city.” Perhaps the big casinos can reform their image by offering free financial counseling with every $100 lost at blackjack.

Industry Insiders: Ludo Lefebvre, Lavo’s Messenger of Happiness

The creator of the Mediterranean masterwork menu at Lavo at the Palazzo in Vegas, chef Ludo Lefebvre on his rebel image, the year of the Aries, and succumbing to In-N-Out.

Where can you be found when kitchen duty is over? I like L’atelier de Joel Robuchon. The food is perfectly executed, and it is a comfortable environment. I also like Picasso at the Bellagio and Mix at the Mandalay. My other two current choices in Las Vegas are found off the Strip. First, Lotus of Siam. When you pull in to the parking lot, you will never expect the quality of food you are going to have. As soon as you open the door and see all of the press and the awards on the wall, you know that it’s going to be a special experience. I really love that the chef is doing what she loves, and not worried about a fancy environment. No one eats the curtains and the plates, so does it really matter?

Casa di Amore is another local’s restaurant off the Strip. I walk in and feel like I am visiting Las Vegas 30 years ago. It’s very classic Italian. There is live music most nights. I’ve won some money here at the video poker machines, so maybe that’s why I really like it. When we finished Christmas dinner at home, we all decided to go to Casa di Amore for a nightcap. It is just that kind of place. Finally, my friend Martin Picard opened up a restaurant in Montreal called Au Pied du Cochon. I love his concept. It’s great, simple food and a friendly, comfortable ambiance. He says that when you go to a restaurant to eat salad, you have a problem.

How would you describe yourself? I want to describe myself like an artist at heart. I love to be creative, and my food is really an expression of who I am. I am a messenger of happiness for the customer.

Where does this love of cooking come from? As a kid, I would stay with my grandmother all the time, and she cooked every day. My grandpa had a big garden with lots of fresh vegetables, and every day I was with my grandmother in the kitchen, cooking with fresh ingredients.

Do you use some of your grandmother’s recipes today? No, not really. Of course I have some memories of her food. I’m from Burgundy, and we make a lot of stews. I remember my grandmother’s stews, with roast beef and potatoes and lots of vegetables. It was very simple food but just all about ingredients — fresh from the garden.

Who are people that you admire in the hospitality industry? I love Jean-Georges Vongericthen. He has amazing restaurants, and he creates so many different concepts. I really admire him for what he’s done. To create concepts that allow you to eat your own food around world — I think that’s amazing. To take care of just one restaurants its so difficult, but Jean-Georges handles so many — and every time I’ve been to one, I had a great experience. He’s very creative, and I love his philosophy of cooking.

What is your favorite restaurant of his? I really love Spice Market in New York. He also has Jean Georges in Shanghai. I love that as well. I think it’s the ambiance, the food, and everything.

What’s something that people don’t know about you? Well, I am a nice guy. I have a big heart. Most people think I’m crazy because I’m so passionate about my job. I know I scream sometimes, but I don’t bite. People will see my tattoos and think I’m a bad boy, but I’m a nice guy.

What’s on your radar right now? I’m trying to learn how to meditate. When I’m too upset about something and I need to calm down, I need to meditate. I’ll try to do a little more exercise like yoga or Pilates too. I need to take care of myself a little more.

What do you have in the horizon for 2009? They say it is my year. I am an Aries, and it’s the year of the Aries. I’m ready to take control of this year and see what the it is going to give me.

Let’s say I’m going to Lavo for dinner tonight; what should I order? I think you should have the pizza. It’s homemade dough with lobster, onions, truffle oil, and potato. I’m very proud of my pizza dough too. Pizza dough is all about the water, and in Las Vegas, the water is so bad. So I add minerals and create my own water, but it’s a secret. You should also get the sea bass and finish with the bread pudding. It’s sautéed like French toast.

What is your guiltiest pleasure? In-N-Out Burger. The Double Double.

Industry Insiders: Ivan Kane, Nightlife Thespian

Ivan Kane, the metteur en scène behind Ivan Kane’s Café Wa s French Bistro and Piano Lounge in Hollywood and Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce Nightclub and Burlesque at Mandalay Bay in Vegas, opens up on his idols, theater requirements, and the death of the velvet rope.

What do you do? I create. It’s what feeds my soul. I wear the hat of a businessman by default.

When you’re not running the show, where can you be found? Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle in New York City. Old school vibe. Dark leather. Comfortable booths. Whimsical murals. Dan Tana’s Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. East Coast vibe. Red checkered table cloths. Great veal Parmagiano. Joe Allen’s in New York. After-theater crowd. Great salad. Posters of Broadway shows that have failed line the walls.

Who do you admire in your industry? Sean MacPherson. On both coasts, he has great bars, restaurants, and hotels. From Swingers and Yamashiro to Waverly Inn, they have lasting qualities. He doesn’t try for flavor of the month. Also, Ivan Kane. Completely unique. Always different. Dares to think outside the box. Cares.

What’s been good in your industry lately? New places keep opening. The consumer has many choices, which is a good thing.

Name something you think is played out. Velvet ropes are passé. Community is what is needed and wanted.

What is something that people might not know about you? This should be obvious. I love theater. All of my venues are theatrical. I believe nightlife needs to be an experience.

What are you doing tonight? Rehearsing Cabaret with my 15-year-old son … he’s playing a lead in the play. Working, touching tables at Ivan Kane’s Café Wa s.

Las Vegas: Top 5 Places to Watch the Game

imageWhat good is knowing the odds if you’re not going to play ‘em?

1. Caesars Palace (Strip: Central) – If you can’t watch the Super Bowl in the stadium. Bets from $20 to $200,000 placed at this mecca of odds. 2. Mandalay Bay (Strip: South) – Vegas’ biggest sports book. Plush chairs, elaborate cocktails, NORAD-sized screens. Bonus: Poker room next door. 3. ESPN Zone (Strip: South) – Watch the game from a plush “Zone throne,” or get into it with virtual boxing and duckpin bowling.

4. Crazy Leroy’s Sports Book (Riviera) – Want to watch sports amongst grizzled, stat-loving veterans? They hang out at the Riviera’s recently renovated sports book. 5. Red Rock (Summerlin) – Vast space with Olympic pool-sized TV screens — easily seen from the velour club chairs or football-shaped bar.