Thursday, June 14, 2007 | 8:03 a.m.
After a day of gambling, Christian Bello found refuge.
He spent a soothing evening surrounded by hushed conversations at a rooftop lounge at the off-Strip Platinum hotel. He was barely distracted by George Clooney pulling off a casino heist in an outdoor screening of "Ocean's 11."
Other guests, sitting around fire pits near an indoor-outdoor pool, munched on Parmesan-rosemary popcorn and lobster chorizo tacos, admiring the glow of the Strip less than two blocks away. The hottest action here was the Hot Tamale, a movie theater-inspired cocktail with cinnamon schnapps and pepper sauce. Everything else was decidedly more mellow.
There were none of the Strip's usual trappings - lingerie-clad party girls, chain smokers, flair bartenders and gamblers watched by stiff-limbed casino workers.
That was just the kind of action Bello, a 32-year-old Los Angeles orthopedic implant supplier and veteran of late nights in Strip casinos, now wants to avoid. "This is where I'm staying from now on," he said. "I've been telling everyone about this place."
Applause for a hotel that cuts against the normal Vegas grain is just the kind of response Chicago builder Michael Peterson hoped for when he started construction on the slot-free, smoke-free 255-room condo-hotel in 2004.
Peterson, who has built about half a dozen condo-hotels in his 27-year career, didn't stumble across this niche by accident.
The concept of selling upscale condos that rent for much of the year had already been established in bigger markets such as Chicago and Miami. In Las Vegas, it was an unproven business strategy.
Luckily, Peterson placed his bet just before a wave of condo speculation in Las Vegas drove up construction and land costs, pricing most noncasino, off-Strip developers out of the market. Skeptics predicted the newcomer, who dared stray from the casino-based formula that had worked for so long, would fail in Las Vegas. Building a customer list from scratch for an independent, nongaming hotel with an unknown brand, they said, couldn't be done.
Peterson was undaunted. In 2003 he purchased the land at Flamingo Road and Koval Lane, tore down a low-end motel and pre-sold the Platinum's condos in less than two months the next year.
"I knew there was a market for this" based on the premise that customers in Las Vegas appreciate some of the same offerings as people in Chicago, he said.
Rather than mimicking the typical off-Strip hotels that push economy over luxury, Peterson paid particular attention to design and amenities, offering 910-square-foot rooms featuring separate bedrooms, multiple plasma-screen TVs, double whirlpool tubs and full kitchens with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Balconies with seating for four, also nonsmoking, are standard. The rooms are now going for less than $200 a night.
The 17-story property, which sits on less than 2 acres, also offers a lobby lounge, spa, high-end restaurant and rooftop terrace that can be rented for parties and other events. Last year Peterson sold his interest in the Platinum, for a profit, to Marcus Corp., a public company based in Milwaukee that refurbishes and manages hotels.
The Platinum and the Renaissance Las Vegas, another nongaming hotel that has attracted a following as an off-Strip hangout, promote themselves as a relaxed alternative for those weary of casinos, crowds, smoke and long walks. Other customers include those who want to avoid being stuck in motel cocktail lounges or uninviting airport hotels.
The Platinum and the Renaissance, a 548-room property that opened next to the Las Vegas Convention Center in December 2004, started slow but are now running an occupancy rate between 80 percent and 90 percent. Both are trading on the growing popularity of their high-end restaurants.
"People associate Las Vegas with casinos - that's our identity," Renaissance General Manager Tom Xavier said. "But there's another group of people who desire the energy and enthusiasm of the Strip, but don't necessarily want to stay there when they're here."
While other hotels salt their pools with tanned models and their nightclubs with celebrities, the Platinum is targeting bohemian chic, with classic and independent films, wine tastings and art showings.
"This is not Rehab," said Alex Shelton, the Platinum's executive director of sales and marketing, referring to the raucous, alcohol-soaked pool parties hosted by the Hard Rock Hotel. "People want a sanctuary. They want to be able to go to a nice restaurant and not fight traffic through the property."