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October 16, 2018

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Dress code idea for planned casino could get cold shoulder

Actor George Clooney has proposed the kind of casino that could be as welcome in Las Vegas as the casino thief he portrayed in the heist movie "Ocean's Eleven."

Clooney, who is investing millions of his own money in a $3 billion hotel and condo complex called Las Ramblas, has floated the idea of having a dress code in the casino similar to those enforced in many European casinos.

At 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, the proposed casino would be only a small piece of the largely residential complex, which would be built over the next several years with 300 hotel rooms, more than 1,300 condo-hotel units and more than 2,700 condominiums.

Las Ramblas is a cooperative development with Centra Properties of Las Vegas and Related Cos., which built the World Market Center near downtown and has also built mixed-use projects in New York and Florida. Further details of the project were announced Monday, including the involvement of Clooney and nightclub developers Rande and Scott Gerber.

"This project is not about the gaming, it's about the residential and the hotel," said Marty Burger, senior vice president of Related Cos. "It will be an upscale casino, an amenity so (guests) don't have to leave the site to gamble. But we're not going up against the Hard Rock. We're not trying to be a Bellagio or a Wynn."

Even the most luxurious of properties in Las Vegas allow visitors to walk about freely in shorts and T-shirts -- a freedom ensured by the fact that casinos generate profits based on volume rather than exclusivity. Formal dress codes were common in the early days of Las Vegas, where women often wore furs and men dressed in suits to go out. Those days are largely gone as Las Vegas tourists have increasingly dressed down in recent decades, mirroring society at large.

That the Las Ramblas developers are considering a European model -- a relatively small casino that encourages upscale dress -- has some observers scratching their heads.

"It doesn't make that much sense to me," said Jeff Voyles, a casino management instructor at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV. "I think they have hotel, condo and real estate guys giving them advice rather than gaming guys."

"You can't achieve the revenue you need (to make a casino profitable) by narrowing your focus," said Voyles, a casino executive at MGM Mirage. "Do you know how many millionaires are walking around Las Vegas wearing jeans and polo shirts? You cannot tell somebody who is 35 to 45 years old, very successful and makes a quarter of a million dollars per year that he has to wear a jacket."

Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at UNLV, said Las Vegas should welcome someone of Clooney's cachet. But the idea that people should dress up when they come into a casino "is not going to go over very well."

"Las Vegas is mass marketing to a mass audience," said Thompson, who has visited European casinos with dress codes. "If they want a small, niche casino that's fine but it's not going to make a lot of money."

High rollers might like gambling in high-limit rooms but they also want to be part of the action in a big casino, he added.

"They don't just want to crawl into a corner and gamble. They like to do the Strip things like see a show."

The dress code idea might not fly with regulators, a Gaming Control Board official said.

Jerry Markling, chief of the Gaming Control Board's enforcement division, said he believes enforcing a dress code would run afoul of a state law requiring that gambling be conducted in the public eye.

"That would be up to the board but as I read the statutes I don't think the board would allow it," Markling said. "I don't think it would be appropriate to decline people if they didn't have a proper shirt on."

The casino might be able to have a dress code in a private gaming salon, which are high-limit areas in a few casinos that can be converted from a public to a private space after notifying regulators, he said.

One board official has tested the public gambling rule by wearing jeans and entering high-limit rooms to see if he was still allowed inside.

Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno, said he doesn't think regulators would outlaw a casino dress code that doesn't otherwise discriminate against customers.

"As long as everybody has access once they show up in proper attire I don't think regulators would interfere," he said.

The challenge for the casino would be affluent customers "who don't want to dress up," said Eadington, who has served as a consultant to foreign casino companies.

On the other hand, "a lot of people don't like casinos because they don't like the Bermuda shorts and shirts crowd," he said.

Kenny Sullivan, a partner in Centra Properties, acknowledged that "a dress code isn't going to work in Las Vegas."

He said Clooney's idea would be more about ambience than enforcing a dress policy.

"We're trying to bring about some elegance to our project," said Sullivan, a Las Vegas native.

Sullivan also said the high-end casino wouldn't necessarily cater to high rollers.

"High rollers have their homes on the Strip," he said. "That's where they belong and the big casinos can afford to handle the wins and losses. When you have a smaller, more intimate casino like ours, that's not really something you can do."

The idea is to create a smaller space where affluent people feel more comfortable, Sullivan said.

"The clientele we're trying to build is looking for a more intimate space and doesn't want to be overwhelmed by the size of (a Strip) casino," he said.

Las Ramblas, named after a boulevard in Barcelona lined with cafes and other attractions, will offer retail outlets on the street level. The amount of retail is still under consideration but could total 250,000 to 500,000 square feet, Burger said.

Some Las Vegas visitors party at Strip casinos but end up staying at the Four Seasons hotel "because they want a five-star experience," Sullivan added. There's more than enough room for comparable accommodations, he said.

Simply offering a place to stay isn't enough to compete with the behemoths on the Strip, Voyles said.

Building a small casino on a property with 4,400-plus rooms "is creating a model where people are going to leave your property" and spend money elsewhere, he said. "They are not realizing the true potential of a casino."

Las Ramblas developers acknowledge that they are aiming for something different.

"We're trying to create a more upscale environment than exists in Las Vegas today," Burger said. "The casino won't just be a normal casino."

The partners are selecting two separate management companies to run the hotel and the casino. They wouldn't name the prospective applicants.

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