March 27, 2010

An Aria for Aria—
Is a Fat Lady Singing for City Center?

Last week, I stayed at Aria at the new City Center for the first time, and also attended a conference at Vdara, another City Center hotel.  Vdara certainly has its own distinct personality, very much in keeping with its "spa" mentality; think "quiet plus flowers".  Vdara might be a good place to stay if you go to Vegas with your wife who wants to avoid the typical casino atmosphere.  It's easy to get from Vdara to Bellagio, but remarkably inconvenient to travel between Aria and Vdara.  There is a tram, but I prefer to walk, and one thing the City Center layout does is strongly discourage walking anywhere.

The Aria rooms were nice, smaller than Bellagio, about on a par with Wynn for size and decor.  Aria aims for and mostly hits the same level of quality as the other five-star resorts on the Strip (Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio).  Although the room is fully automated from a central control panel by the bed, you can't check out from your room.  The check out lines were long, but Aria did have people posted in the lobby to take down email addresses for guests who wanted to check out without reviewing their bill.  I took this option, but the email of my bill did not show up in the promised 30 minutes, nor at all even six days later.  Kind of an annoying glitch for a hotel aiming for "elite" status.

I played several sessions at the Aria poker room in my past two trips this month, as well as a few sessions during mid-December right after the room opened.  On my recent trips, the crowds have predictably thinned as the novelty has worn off.  Instead of 'round the clock games, the room was dark most mornings with cash games starting between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.  The daily tourneys at 1:00 and 7:00 pm were fairly well attended (30-40 runners seemed typical), and offer good structures for the $100+$20 buy-in.  But by late afternoon, there are usually at least five 1/3 NLHE (increasing in the evenings), with a couple of 2/5 NLHE games also running most evenings.  There seemed to be regular 4/8 LHE and 4/8 Omaha8 games, along with occasional 9/18 Omaha8, 9/18 LHE, and 2/5 PLO games.  The room is offering double hourly comps (triple during early morning hours) until June 1.  Overall, the poker room is one bright spot in the Aria experiment.

I did enjoy playing at the Aria poker room.  Management still seems to be going the extra mile to keep players happy, opening new games quickly, advertising for players for games with interest lists, and generally being attentive and friendly.  The dealers are a mixed bag, with several entertaining and highly competent dealers, and a handful who give the attitude they would rather be elsewhere.  I posted one particularly vexing experience at All Vegas Poker, but I'll repost it here as well:

Overall I like the [Aria poker] room, but I had one terrible dealer experience around 3:30 or 4:00 am. A female dealer was having a very animated and lengthy conversation with a player at the table who was also a dealer and at least a casual friend. I get AK in EP, raise, and get called by the button and also her buddy in the big blind. Flop is Ace high with a couple os small suited cards. Buddy checks, and I take some chips and begin cutting them next to the rail as I debated the amount of the raise. Next thing I know, dealer says, "checks around" and begins to burn and turn. I immediately say, "wait, I haven't acted." Dealer says, " you checked" and makes a gesture with all five fingers in a claw shape tapping the table. Now, my only hand on the table always had chips, was by the rail, and never tapped anything. I said, "I was cutting chips." Dealer's buddy piped up, "that was an obvious check," but other guy in the hand said he didn't know, and nobody else at table saw a check. Buddy pipes up again, "you checked" and dealer backed her buddy. I was as furious as I can remember being at a poker table, but I knew it was pointless to ask for a floor. The turn was an offsuit Jack, I bet it in a very deliberate manner, and took down the pot.

In 7+ years of playing live poker in casinos, I've never failed to tip a dealer (except by accident). I tipped on this hand as well, but it was the first time I had to think about it.
Although I very much liked Aria and Vdara from a design and "vibe" perspective, I'm not certain the City Center concept will ultimately prove successful. Back in mid-December, just after Aria opened, the casino was fairly busy while the poker room was hopping at all hours, despite being a typically slow pre-holiday week on the Strip as a whole. But in my two recent visits in March, the casino was notably less busy than other Strip properties. For example, mid-week, Bellagio seemed busy, but they were offering some $10 minimum tables in the pits. Bally's and Planet Hollywood were also very busy. Aria had all $25 minimum tables, and few gamblers. The Aria sportsbook was dead in early March, and moderately busy for the opening rounds of the NCAA tourney, but it was a ghost town compared to the crowds at Mirage, Caesars Palace, Bally's, and Bellagio.  Crystals, the upscale mall in City Center, has been desolate every time I've walked through.

I think a big part of the problem is that the City Center design is not conducive to walk-by traffic from the Strip.  City Center seems designed to be a self-contained resort, where the flies get caught in the web and don't leave until they are sucked dry.  As noted above, it is remarkably inconvenient to get into the complex while walking the Strip, and even more inconvenient to leave on foot.  But a major attraction of the Strip is the ability to walk from casino to casino.  Tourists like to be able to walk from Bellagio to Caesars to Mirage, or from TI to Venetian to Wynn, or from Bally's to Paris to Planet Hollywood.  Tourists do not like to be tied to only one casino for entertainment, no matter how ritzy that casino might be.  Just think of the typical Vegas day—lay by the pool at your hotel, shopping at Caesars Forum Shops or Fashion Mall, drinks at one casino, dinner at another resort, show at still another resort, and drinks/gambling/poker at yet another casino.  The City Center simply makes that experience inconvenient.  Plus, with less "walk-by" traffic, the casino seems less "fun" for those who do walk in, making it less likely they'll stay.

I stayed at Aria on an email offer sent to MGM-Mirage players card holders.  I'm about as low a level players club member as you'll find, and I got a rate of $109/night as an "introduction to Aria".  Fair enough, they want to get people in the doors the first few months.  But a couple of days ago, I got another offer for the summer busy season, still at $109/night.  Now, I'm not complaining, I like a good deal.  But I'm not getting comparable offers for Bellagio, which is also an "elite" MGM-Mirage property right next door.  I'm certainly not getting similar offers from Venetian, Wynn, or Caesars Palace, purportedly Aria's competition.  I can only surmise Aria is having trouble attracting hotel customers while the other elite properties are pretty much in a "business as usual" mode. 

Maybe City Center's business will pick up with more marketing (I've seen a lot of online ads for Aria recently) and the approach of the busy tourist season.  Maybe Aria's target audience is already satisfied with the other elite casinos on the Strip and sees no need to make the switch to Aria.  Maybe it's a matter of bad timing, opening an upper-class casino in the midst of an economic downturn.  All I know is that, with billions in financing to pay back, Aria is going to need something more to keep the circling vultures at bay.  In fact, I suspect Aria needs what every aria needs:

More cowbell.


  1. Good review. I guess time will tell if the whole Center City concept is flawed ornot.

  2. On my walkthrough at the beginning of March, it was extremely evident, Aria was definitely trying to keep their floor busy. Now granted the day I was was a Monday, but on the floor they had 6-8 $5 tables, which I'm sure was not planned during the design. They had enough players for about 3 or 4 if you condensed them.

    Have to agree with you in regards to walking to it too, by far one of the worst resorts ever for that. After all the negative press on the 'new' Aladdin and how difficult it was for parking, walking to get in, there's been extremely little said about how difficult Aria is, at least in the standard news.

    I didn't think the walk from Vdara to Aria was that bad, but it definitely wasn't designed to be conducive to travelling between those buildings. And to get to Aria from the strip is horrible, I much prefer walking through Bellagio into Vdara, and then taking the quick walk outside from Vdara to Aria.

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