Strip Mining: How Las Vegas Became the New Nightclub Capital of the World —Radar

Later that night, at Tryst, in the Wynn Hotel, girls from all over the country have congregated in the circular mirrored bathroom. They’re dressed up but not dressed well—sporting tight-fitting shiny shirts, candy-colored dresses of the not-to-be-worn-while-emerging-from-limos variety, Lucite heels, and too much makeup. For the most part, they look older than they are. Amy, a redhead and first-time visitor, just flew in from Indianapolis; last week in Miami she met a nice guy, and they impulsively decided to rendezvous in Vegas for their first date. Zanah, an olive-skinned twentysomething bank employee from Michigan, is pissed about the cover charge. Although a friendly group of Lebanese gentlemen have been buying her drinks all night, her husband (whom she somehow failed to mention to them) had to fork out more than $100 to gain admittance. Still, when asked to name her favorite club, she doesn’t hesitate. “Tryst!” she says, then adds: “They’re all amazing. Every single one of them. It’s Vegas!”

Back in the ’90s, amid the growth of casino gambling on riverboats and Indian reservations, the city experienced an identity crisis. In a bid to compete with Disneyland and other amusement parks, Vegas recast itself as a family destination and adopted the wishy-washy slogan, “It’s anything and everything!” Hotels added kiddie attractions and stroller bays. Treasure Island built a full-size replica of a pirate ship, manned by buff buccaneers crossing swords with the British navy. But after an initial wave of hype, the new kid-friendly approach quickly went bust. Turns out the tots weren’t exactly thrilled to be locked in their hotel rooms while Mom and Dad wagered their college tuitions. And kids loitering in casinos, in addition to being illegal (and earning casinos hefty fines), totally stomped on the buzz.

So within a few years, Vegas returned to its roots, adopting a new line—the appealingly sleazy come-on, “What happens here stays here,” and turning its longtime rap as the capital of debauchery and excess into a selling proposition. (Treasure Island, for instance, has been suggestively rechristened T.I., and having apparently defeated the British navy, those buff pirates have dispensed with their frilly shirts to take on a platoon of sexy “sirens.”)

But the biggest change by far has been the exploding club scene. In the past few years, while New Yorkers were busy pondering the asymmetrical haircuts of über-hip promoters the MisShapes, and Angelenos were scouring the website of party photographer Cobrasnake for incriminating snaps of their officemates, Vegas, a town formerly known for its discount buffets, AARP-approved lounge acts, and the comedic stylings of Rita Rudner, became the nightlife capital of the country, maybe the world. If that tiger hadn’t gone after Roy Horn, he and Siegfried would still be on the New Vegas’s endangered species list.

Instead of hitting the craps tables or Elvira, Mistress of the Dark digital slot machines, a new breed of tourist now flocks to the city to hear DJs like Felix da Housecat and Paul Oakenfold, or to drop $400 for a bottle of Grey Goose (mixers included). At the Palms, the hotel made famous by MTV’s The Real World, guests pay $750 apiece for an “all access weekend pass,” which entitles the bearer to limitless drinks at the casino’s four venues. (Alas, the pass doesn’t include the exclusive Memorial Day weekend party held in the hotel’s $40,000-per-night Hugh Hefner Sky Villa. For that, admission runs to $3,000.) Meanwhile, at Tao, customers engage the services of tuxedo-clad nightclub butlers sporting white gloves, who stand tableside, pour drinks, light cigarettes, and walk the ladies to the bathroom, politely clearing a path. In the morning, guests are still whooping it up at Tao’s poolside bashes, many of which are bikini-top optional.

Vegas’s ostentatious new nightspots—and dayspots—aren’t cozy little boîtes either, but gargantuan party meccas that, like everything in Vegas, are bigger, glitzier, and considerably more expensive than their counterparts in other cities. “You don’t see a $20 million nightclub anywhere in the world, and we have 10 of them,” brags Steve Davidovichi, a tall, gaunt Brooklynite who made his name in Vegas more than 17 years ago when he opened Club Rio in the Rio Hotel. He now runs Pure (co-owned by Celine Dion, Andre Agassi, and Shaquille O’Neal), among other properties. He’s sitting outside the entrance to his club, just beyond the Pussycat Dolls casino, surrounded by dealers dressed in the burlesque troupe’s signature look: striped leggings, corsets, and biker caps. “These are all magnificent places,” he continues. “If you took any one of the top-rated clubs in town and put it in Chicago, New York, or L.A., that would be the best and most beautiful place there.”

As befits a town that trades on first impressions, the decor is typically over-the-top. Tryst features a roaring 94-foot waterfall and alligator-skin booths. Guests at Tao find themselves surrounded by Buddhas—one stands 20 feet tall in the restaurant—their serene smiles offering an odd counterpoint to the action on the dance floor, which often includes two half-naked female performers taking a rose bath in an elevated clawfoot tub. Jet, owned by Andrew Sasson—known as Lizzie Grubman’s ex-boyfriend the night she mowed down a crowd outside his Southampton hotspot Conscience Point—features a grid of 68 mammoth video screens, while Moon, in the Palms, offers a mechanized roof that peels aside to reveal the night sky. Pure, a 40,000-square-foot venue in Caesars Palace, boasts perhaps the greatest spectacle of all: a raised Plexiglas platform where a handful of featured celebrities—many of whom are paid handsomely to be there—are on display like glamorous zoo animals.

In 2006, Las Vegas’s non-gaming revenue surpassed casino revenues 52.5 to 47.5 percent. Tao took in $50 million last year. Pure reaped $2.1 million on a single night, New Year’s Eve—even though the evening’s hostess, Britney Spears (who reportedly earned six fig-ures for her appearance), either passed out or dozed off, depending on whom you ask, before “Auld Lang Syne.” But despite a few growing pains, everyone expects the gold rush to continue unabated.

Which is why hotel owners are furiously doubling down, opening new clubs at a frenzied pace. This year alone has seen the opening of Bare, a European-style topless pool club at the Mirage; Lucky Strike, a nightclub-cum-bowling alley with bottle service in the Rio Hotel; and the aforementioned Tao Beach, which is converted at night into an out-door annex toTao proper. In September, the Pure Management Group is opening a 25,000-square-foot outpost of the L.A. club LAX at the Luxor (DJ Adam Goldstein, former Nicole Richie paramour and stomach-staplee, is a partner), with seven VIP lofts. Right next door, Davidovichi is opening Noir, an exclusive 16-table vintage-themed lounge at which, he has promised, “even the ice cubes are gonna be different.” And then there’s a bistro co-owned by celeb partners Nick Lachey, Nicky Hilton, and Wilmer Valderrama. Meanwhile, Tepperberg, Strauss, and their partners Marc Packer and Richard Wolf are looking to open a $12 mil-lion restaurant and ultra lounge in the Venetian’s planned addition, the Palazzo, along with a Moroccan-themed casino lounge. And Cy Waits, 31, who runs Tryst with his identical twin brother, Jesse, and club hon-cho Victor Drai, says the team is gearing up to open another club in the second Wynn property, Encore. At four times the size of Tryst’s 12,000 square feet, the yet unnamed new spot “is going to blow every club out of the water,” Cy claims. Meanwhile, Pacha, an international superclub chain, is said to be “exploring” its options, and Crobar is also circling the Strip, looking for a spot to land.

Amid all this activity, it was only a matter of time before Amy Sacco made an appearance. Sacco, the 39-year-old queen of New York nightlife, has teamed up with the Morgans Hotel Group to plan and oversee four new venues at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. When she tried to export her New York hotspot Bungalow 8 to London last year, the results were said to be less than spectacular. But Vegas is a much friendlier environment for nightlife. As other cities are making it more difficult for nightlife entrepreneurs to operate, refusing liquor licenses and enforcing strict noise ordinances, club owners in Vegas never have to worry about meddlesome neighborhood boards or priggish mayors. Indeed, Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, recently reelected with 84 percent of the vote, is a former criminal defense attorney who represented mob accountant Meyer Lansky, among others, and infamously told a fourth-grade class that one of his hobbies was “drinking”—not all that surprising considering he is a spokesperson for Bombay Sapphire.

While he does display an occasional moralistic streak—once recom-mending, for instance, that kids caught spray-painting graffiti have their thumbs cut off on national television—he’s also courted the defunct (and graffiti-covered) New York rock club CBGB to reopen in Vegas, an idea that beautifully highlights the town’s astonishing knack for re-making just about anything in its own image (discussions are ongo-ing). With his encouragement, three retro dives—the Beauty Bar, the Griffin, and the Downtown Cocktail Room—have opened in the last two years, and recently, the City of Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency gave $40,000 to the owners of the made-in-New York roadhouse-style bar Hogs & Heifers so they could buy a neon sign.

“Mayor Goodman wants to support and promote,” says Michael Morton of the Palms, whose father, Arnie, founded the Morton’s Steakhouse chain, and whose brother, Peter, jump-started the current nightlife boom in Vegas when he opened the Hard Rock (he recently sold it to the Morgans Hotel Group). “I mean, in any other city you’re a nuisance. You’re a nuisance to the neighbors, you’re a nuisance to the government. Here, it’s ‘What can we do for you?’ ”

img-gen12For seasoned nightlife entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded in other towns, Las Vegas holds an added allure: Every night here is amateur night. Instead of catering to a fickle band of jaded regulars, clubs in Las Vegas rely on a constant turnaround of middle-American and foreign customers. With guest capacities in the thousands, there’s no premium placed on exclusivity, no courting of Page Six with tips and celebrity sightings, no need to maintain a hip cachet. Everyone gets in, as long as they pay the cover. “You’re dealing with a very transient customer for two days, two or three times a year,” says Strauss, who looks like a pretty boy villain from a John Hughes movie sitting poolside at Tao beach. “They’re coming from all over the country—a truly diverse crowd. And we have a 4,000-room hotel supporting us.”

Better yet, unlike the wan hipsters who populate clubs on the coasts, tourists come to Vegas prepared to spend money, so much so that get-ting a bargain sometimes leaves them feeling like they’re missing out on the fun. “People come to Vegas to blow their wad, you know?” says Cy Waits of Tryst. “Literally, they save their money all year, and they come to Vegas to have as much fun as they can.” Sometimes that fun can seem painfully lacking in sophistication. When someone buys a $1,700 bottle of Cristal at Tryst, Waits says, staff members come out holding fistfuls of sparklers like waitresses at a hokey ice cream joint, while the DJ cues up the theme song from Apocalypse Now.

On one recent night at the club, two men had a competition to see who could burn through more cash. They spent $200,000 between the two of them.

On one recent night at the club, two men had a competition to see who could burn through more cash. They spent $200,000 between the two of them, Waits says with a smile.

That spirit is on bold display at “Discreet in the Suite,” the much-hyped one-off event otherwise known as “the $3,000 party.” The ex-traordinary cover charge is for men; women get in for free, as long as they survive a rigorous screening process (the online application asks would-be guests to explain why they should attend and invites them to link to their MySpace pages). The party takes place atop the Palms, in the 10,000-square-foot, two-story Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, which features an infamous cantilevered mini-pool suspended some 34 stories in the air.

“We just want to treat it like a Diner’s Club for millionaires,” pro-moter Oliver Jacobs is explaining as we stand in the center of the crowded main room, which began filling up around 2 a.m. after a slow start. A cofounder of the hip-hop networking site, he’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, accented by some bling around his neck, and he speaks with a skater’s laid-back lilt. “What we’re trying to do is get a bunch of young professionals together who are all on the same page about business, and have a place where they can come to Vegas and congregate, instead of a club where you can’t really talk.”

Right about then Tone Loc pops up onstage and begins rapping along to a backing track from “Funky Cold Medina” at full volume.

“With this atmosphere, you’re able to really talk about what you do and what he does,” Jacobs continues over the din.

Jeremy Barnett, the CEO of the event company behind the party, ambles over and glares at my tape recorder. I ask him about the screen-ing process for women and he cocks an eyebrow. “It’s simple,” he barks. “They’re hot, or not.”

We’re interrupted by a commotion over by the pool. Greg “Shock G” Jacobs of Digital Underground has taken the plunge fully clothed and is having some kind of fit, splashing everyone who happens to be standing nearby.

Outside on the terrace, Bruce Buffer of Ultimate Fight Night fame is chatting with a guy named Steve who claims he was behind the “What Happens Here …” ad campaign. (Neither paid to get in.) Steve, who didn’t want his full name used, helpfully explains why people are willing to spend so much. “As soon as you land, you have a different kind of relationship with money,” he notes. “You’re spending in different ways than you would at home. I sell that every day.”

Later, I speak with an attendee, Joe Hughes, a 40-year-old general de-veloper and builder from Portland, Oregon, who is one of the few guys who will admit to paying the full cover. (Actually, he received a $500 discount by getting his ticket early.) Overall, he seems pleased. It’s a good deal, he says, compared with the hassle of a crowded Vegas nightclub, where the minute you drain your bottle of booze you can be kicked out of your booth. In this case, he can bring along his pre-screened female friends for free and is promised a VIP cabana poolside the next day, gratis. “It made mathematical sense,” he says. The allure of rubbing shoulders with celebrities was another bonus. “Tone Loc was there. I’d probably never have the opportunity to meet people like this. The celebrities were just like real people at this event.” Plus, he reasons, the high price tag en-sures he’ll be among peers. “I’m a successful person, and anyone who has $2,500 to spare is going to come from a successful background.”

It’s not all networking, of course. Peering into a darkened room just off the pool, I’m startled to find some male guests getting what certainly looks like their money’s worth out of the evening.

In the end, though, Discreet in the Suite winds up significantly in the hole, causing Barnett to scuttle a follow-up event planned for Labor Day. Maybe the cover was just too high. Or Tone Loc isn’t the draw he once was. In any case, the promoter will try his luck again on New Year’s Eve.

This is Vegas, after all, and despite the risks, the potential upside is just too great to pass up. The overwhelming consensus among Vegas’s nightlife impresarios is that there’s plenty more money to be made. “I don’t know anybody who’s going out of business,” says Michael Morton. “You do have to be a bit smarter than you probably needed to be three years ago. It’s gotten so much more competitive, but those three letters you hear about in other cities—O.O.B., Out of Business— you don’t hear about much here.”

Jason Strauss points out that he originally moved to town with plans to stay for three months. That was two years ago. “We had no idea how big it was going to be,” he says.

And it seems he may be stuck in the desert for a while. “We think Vegas is nowhere near its potential yet,” says Tepperberg. “There’s defi-nitely room for new places to open without hurting the existing places. The market is blowing up. There are more and more flights to Vegas, more and more hotels being built. There’s no slowdown in sight.”

All pictures by Alex Tehrani.