|By Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 25, 2005 - A FIFTH TOWER AND A REFRESHED LOOK PUT CAESARS PALACE BACK ON PAR: Caesars Palace marks both its 39th anniversary and the opening of the fifth hotel tower in its nearly four-decade history next month. The significance of those twin milestones is that the legendary casino resort can claim to be the oldest new resort on the Las Vegas Strip.
The debut of the Augustus Tower, with 949 rooms, all of them suite-size with high-tech touches, marks the essential completion of a five-year extreme makeover of the Palace that makes it competitive with the super-luxury properties built far more recently, such as the Bellagio, the Venetian, and the Wynn Las Vegas.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that Caesars Palace -- in danger of becoming a seriously dated property in the 1990s -- has undergone its transformation, as hotel president Mark Juliano points out, "without using dynamite." Several of the current top hotels on the Strip were possible only after former landmarks were laid waste -- the Bellagio stands on the site of the Dunes, the Venetian replaced the Sands, and the Wynn Las Vegas rose from the rubble of the Desert Inn.
"It was a deliberate decision not to implode," said Juliano. "For one, it would have meant $80 million to $100 million a year in lost revenue at that time, along with displacing thousands of employees.
"But more importantly, and we really can't fully explain it, but this place has a distinct personality. There is a charm in its bricks and mortar. It has a very familial feel to it for the people who work here and for the people who keep visiting it. To take it down would have been like tearing down some great little Italian restaurant in South Philly and replacing it with a T.G.I. Friday's."
The full-blown renovation of Caesars Palace that began in 2000 was the logical extension of major additions and enhancements that actually began in the prior decade. The 1990s saw the building of the first phases of the Forum Shops, the upscale mall that introduced shopping as part of the casino resort experience; the construction of the Palace Tower, the first new rooms at Caesars in two decades; and an extensive face-lift of the hotel's elegant swimming-pool area.
Since the turn of the millennium, though, the oldest hotel tower's facade was stripped and redone to match newer buildings; a new 4,100-seat theater, the Colosseum, was built to house headliners Celine Dion and Elton John; an outdoor plaza was added at the property's southern edge; and the already successful Forum Shops added a third phase.
In recent years, Caesars Palace also recruited a handful of celebrity chefs for which Vegas has become famous.
Bradley Ogden opened a namesake restaurant at Caesars in 2003, his first outside the San Francisco area, and a year later, Bobby Flay introduced the southwestern Mesa Grill at the resort, his first venture outside New York.
A touch of dining ultra-exclusivity coming to the Augustus Tower will be an intimate 75-seat restaurant by Michelin three-star chef Guy Savoy. It will be Savoy's first dining room in the United States.
For those who like keeping their meal tabs to less than $50 a couple, a far less exclusive but pleasant dining surprise is Viale, the restaurant in the Roman Plaza on the northwest corner of the Strip and Flamingo Avenue, which features tasty Italian fare at reasonable prices.
A critical facet of Caesars Palace's evolution is that those steering it have been mindful of preserving recognizable icons that people who have been there in years past -- or those who have merely seen the place in movies and on TV -- have found uniquely identifying.
The original fountains out front that Evel Knievel unsuccessfully tried to jump and Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman drove around in Rain Man are still there. The oval Palace Casino that Robert Redford rode through on horseback in The Electric Horseman is brighter but still familiar. The statue of Caesar Augustus placed at the front door by resort creator Jay Sarno in 1966 still welcomes visitors. Also remaining is Cleopatra's Barge cocktail lounge with the generously endowed figurehead of the Egyptian queen hovering above passersby.
Caesars has only recently joined the hot Vegas nightclub scene with PURE, which has an outdoor patio Strip view, and the adjacent Pussycat Lounge. And the casino has been late in jumping on the poker bandwagon -- a poker room is expected in March.
"We're slow sometimes," Juliano said, "but when we do something, we do it right. With poker, for instance, we wanted to make sure this thing had legs."
Along with the Augustus Tower, a new hotel registration area will be unveiled, and it is imperially dramatic, with mosaic-tiled floors and centerpiece statuary. Also on the way is a new spa.
While the renewal at Caesars Palace puts it on a level with the other luxury heavy hitters on the Strip, its inventory of 3,340 rooms of varying vintages also means that it has a range of pricing that travelers won't find at some other luxury properties. The ceilings are lower and hallways narrower in the older, updated Caesars towers, but rates are in the $150-a-night range. And repeat visitors often receive mailings offering rates of less than $100 for off-peak times. And visitors taking advantage of the budget rates have access to the resort's first-rate amenities, such as the impressive pools and convenient access to world-class shopping.
"You can analyze this business way too much," Juliano said. "When you get right down to it, it's still about dealing an honest game, offering good food, providing a safe, clean place to sleep, and giving guests terrific service."
Even with a 21st-century update, for many visitors, Caesars Palace remains the Vegas old-school standard.
Bill Ordine: firstname.lastname@example.org
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