Thursday, Sept. 2, 1999 | 11:19 a.m.
Paris Las Vegas, the final Strip resort to open this millennium, was greeted Wednesday night by a packed but well-ordered mob numbering in the tens of thousands.
The $800 million Park Place Entertainment resort opened its doors a few minutes after 10 p.m. to a crowd packed along both sides of Las Vegas Boulevard, from Bellagio Drive to Flamingo Road, spilling over into the closed northbound lane of Las Vegas Boulevard. For 15 minutes, a mass of humanity poured into the new property, joining a crowd of 4,000 invited guests.
Those that rushed in with the public liked what they saw, but couldn't see much -- thousands packed every inch of the resort's floor space, turning foot traffic into a crawl. Every slot machine was taken, and it was difficult to find a seat even at the $100-minimum blackjack tables. Shortly before 11, the fire marshal ordered Paris to stop letting in people because the place was too crowded.
"We have never seen so many people in one place," said Ruth Davis of Puyallup, Wash., who was staying at Bally's. "It almost looked like New Year's Eve in Times Square. We're coming back tomorrow morning."
Those in the VIP crowd got a better view, having to share the resort with a comparatively paltry 4,000 invited guests. VIPs in attendance included casino mogul Donald Trump.
"To say it's phenomenal is an understatement," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. "I'd rather be here than in Paris itself. It makes me proud to be mayor of a city with such a wonderful attraction."
"It's gorgeous," said Congressman Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. "It has a truly warm and intimate feeling about it. It's hard to explain how magnificent it is unless you can see it for yourself."
"A magnificent and unique attraction to the skyline of Las Vegas," said gaming attorney Robert Faiss of Lionel, Sawyer & Collins. "Without exception, the people I've talked to give it rave reviews for its quality and character."
"Wow!" said former Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Bill Curran.
"I just spent a week bicycle riding through the south of France, and this is just like being there," said International Game Technology Chairman Charles Mathewson.
"I walked in and said, 'Fantastic!"' added Gov. Kenny Guinn.
An estimated 2,000 of the resort's 3,000 rooms were filled on opening night. Starting today, and through Labor Day weekend, Paris Las Vegas will be sold out.
For the past year, as the resort's exterior has gradually taken shape, its faithfully executed replicas of exquisite Parisian architectural landmarks beckoned invitingly, creating a sense of anticipation that built as opening night approached.
Opening ceremonies began at 9:42 p.m. -- 11 minutes behind schedule, thanks to a stubborn breeze -- as the lights on the real Eiffel Tower were extinguished by the great-grandson of its designer just as dawn broke on Paris. With a sudden concussion, fireworks shot into the sky, lighting the Paris landmark's new sister on Las Vegas Boulevard.
French actress Catherine Deneuve then threw a switch turning on the lights illuminating the Las Vegas tower.
While fireworks danced about the tower, the Bellagio's trademark fountain show was starting next door -- but, for perhaps the first time in its history, few people were paying any attention.
Like Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and the Venetian, the other new mega-resorts that have opened on the Strip in the past 11 months, Paris Las Vegas exemplifies a spiritually enriching trend in Las Vegas hotel-casino design that plays on the universal desire for excape from the mundane, workaday world, promising to whisk visitors away on a romantic escape.
"If you find yourself magically transported to France, we've done our job," said Paul Pusateri, president of the new hotel-casino and its sister resort, Bally's Las Vegas.
The effect begins with the exterior of the project, where intricately detailed re-creations of such icons as the Paris Opera House, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre attract the eye and stimulate the senses.
The faux Eiffel Tower rises 540 feet above the Strip, affording spectacular views from its observation tower near the top of the structure and the elegant French restaurant 11 stories above the ground.
The tower was built with the original plans for the Eiffel Tower, and even includes the same paint used on the authentic tower. Unfortunately, few got to see the view on opening night -- the fire marshal ordered the tower cleared shortly after 5 p.m., because of fireworks stored in the structure.
The feeling continues with the exquisitely designed interior, whose capacious ceilings and airy lines of sight go a step beyond the well-received inside of New York-New York, the three-year-old city-themed property that generated the highest initial returns on investment of any new Strip hotel-casino in the past two decades.
"The interior of Paris Las Vegas is much more focused on authenticity of design," Pusateri said. "We've incorporated some wonderful historical landmarks in a way that will set a new standard."
Among them is a replica of the Rue de la Paix shopping district, complete with its cobblestone streets and quaint cafes, restaurants and retail shops, one of which is La Boulangerie. This working French bakery supplies the resort's fresh-baked breadstuffs to other Paris restaurants, delivered throughout the day by a costumed bicycle rider fluent in French.
Nearby is Le Village Buffet, which offers re-creations of a town village and homes from the different provinces of France, each with classic cuisine from those regions in a menu that changes every eight days.
The resort also features Parisian-themed lounges such as the lushly decorated Napoleon's Retreat and the bistro-styled Le Cabaret, both offering live entertainment. The passage to Paris' convention facilities incorporates a replica of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors.
The attention to detail throughout the resort isn't due just to Paris Las Vegas' heartfelt homage to the original designers of some of the world's most-recognized landmarks, but also to the insistence by French authorities on quality. The licensing agreement that allows Paris Las Vegas to replicate the Eiffel Tower is an example.
"We had to use the exact same paint and duplicate the lighting of the original," Pusateri says.
Whether deserved or not, the Parisian reputation for rudeness to tourists hasn't been so faithfully duplicated, a tribute to the training the resort's employees received in the months leading up to the debut.
The employees appeared to have the crowd well under control as entertainers walked along the barricades, treating waiting patrons to French music while teaching the crowd the French equivalent of "Good Evening."
Inside, Arthur Goldberg said the event was anti-climactic for him. Goldberg is chief executive of Park Place Entertainment, the Las Vegas company that owns Paris Las Vegas.
"I've been walking around here for four days now, and it's hard to turn it over to the people it belongs to now," Goldberg said. "It's going to become a landmark."
The first group sprinted toward the doors, ignoring the pleas of security to slow down. But despite the fact that literally thousands of people were packed into a mob outside the doors, there didn't appear to be any shoving or crowd-related injuries.
As the river of people flowed by him, Michel Ducamp, the executive vice president of hotel operations, happily puffed on a celebratory cigar.
"We were expecting 20,000, 30,000," Ducamp said. "The crowd was very cooperative, very understanding.
"We spent a lot of time going to the openings of other properties. We wanted to ensure the safety, security and health of our visitors. That's the most important thing."
Hundreds of patient, courteous resort employees helped ease the opening-night crush, which filled every table game, slot machine and bar and lounge seat in the casino. Lines quickly formed at a bank of Megabucks machines, packed with superstitious slot players hoping to emulate the luck of a gambler who hit a big jackpot at the debut of the Mirage 10 years ago.
"If I had to pick one thing that will distinguish this property, it would be the employees," said Goldberg.
An hour before the first invited guests entered, Pusateri gathered hundreds of workers together for a last-minute pep talk, telling them opening night would be one they'd remember for the rest of their lives.
Pusateri knows his job didn't end with the official unveiling of a well-designed property. His 13 years with Four Seasons Resorts, including stints as general manager of the luxury hotel chain's San Francisco and Beverly Hills operations, gave him an appreciation for the benefits of customer service.
While that's difficult to deliver on a project the size and scope of Paris Las Vegas, "The opportunity to do something a little bit different in this town is truly exciting," Pusateri says.
"We wanted to scale things down and offer a personal approach to our customers. The challenge is to interpret that, to do in a 3,000-room hotel what we can do in a 300-room property," he says.
The personal approach for hotel guests begins with check-in, he says.
"We've broken all front-desk tradition in Las Vegas by establishing separate check-in areas with just two stations each, separated by ornate wrought-iron gates. Employees will come out from behind the counters to escort customers and provide them with true personal service.
"We look at the operations from a customer's eyes," he said. "For example, there won't be any ropes or stanchions, because if you have those, you're advertising you have waiting lines."
The goal is to build customer retention, Pusateri said. "They'll try every property, but they'll come back to the one offering the best price-value relationship."
"You put all this together and you have one hell of an equation for success," said Pusateri.
However, such ambitious plans create new challenges, including hiring the 4,200 people needed to staff the resort.
"We had to develop a work force that accepts the culture we need to implement our vision -- to treat others the way you'd want to be treated. It began with hiring and training the right employees and continues with execution and consistency," he said.
"The excitement of doing all that on a project of this size and scope is tremendous," Pusateri said.
So, too, is the challenge of meeting the financial projections expected by executives of Park Place Entertainment, as well as investors who've grown accustomed to the capital appreciation Goldberg has traditionally delivered to stockholders.
Like other Goldberg executives, Pusateri adopts a cautious approach when he talks about cash-flow projections for Paris, pegging them at $120 million for the first full year of operations. "But that's an incremental increase from Bally's Las Vegas, which should show a slight cash-flow decline," he says.
Jason Ader, senior managing director of Bear Stearns & Co., agrees with the Paris Las Vegas projection and maintains an "attractive" rating on Park Place stock.
Calling it "a rare construction project for the desert city, as it will open on time and within budget," Ader says the new property should generate the highest annual return on capital invested -- 14 to 16 percent -- of any of the four resorts that have opened since last October.
"Paris is an exciting and amenity-rich property that was a bargain to develop by Las Vegas standards," Ader said. "It also should help further the surge in visitation that was created following the openings of Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and the Venetian."
Some analysts expect the adjacent Bally's cash flow to approach $100 million annually due to its linkage with Paris Las Vegas, while others expect some cannibalization of Bally's business as regular customers clamor to see the new property.
A few also believe Paris Las Vegas will exceed the $120 million incremental increase Pusateri projects, citing the first-year performance of New York-New York, which posted $130 million of cash flow in 1997 with 900 fewer rooms than Paris. New York-New York's number fell to an estimated $100 million in 1998.
With estimates for Paris' cash flow ranging from $120 million to as high as $160 million, the projections would translate to a return on the project's $800 million cost of 15 to 20 percent. While a bit lower than historical returns for the most successful new Las Vegas resort investments, such numbers would exceed the initial returns of Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and Venetian, the other three mega-resorts that have opened within the past year.
Pusateri, who oversees both Bally's and Paris, notes that the two hotel-casinos share reservation and switchboard services and other operations, which will help to control costs. The properties also give Park Place Entertainment 5,700 rooms at the southeast corner of Flamingo Avenue and the Strip, a"critical mass" that analysts expect will benefit the combined operation.
"We can capitalize on the Bally's brand name, which is very well known, and combine it with Paris, which will be a 'must-see' resort," Pusateri said. And it's not just tourists expressing interest in the resort.
Paris Las Vegas' ballrooms and salons, coupled with those of Bally's, give the complex 315,000 square feet of meeting space, any or all of which can be booked through a single sales department.
With Paris Las Vegas now open for business, there are three resorts left to debut in the current and largest-ever wave of Las Vegas hotel-casino construction. The $1.3 billion, 2,567-room Aladdin-Desert Passage resort on the Strip just south of Paris Las Vegas is scheduled to open next spring, the 496-room Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas project in Henderson is expected to open by year's end and locals oriented Suncoast opens in Summerlin in Fall 2000.
The Venetian and the Resort at Summerlin, also part of the current wave, underwent "soft" openings with some attractions still unfinished.
That fact wasn't lost on Goldberg.
"It was brought in on budget and, more importantly, on time," Goldberg said. "We're not going to have three grand openings."