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October 20, 2014

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Former Maxim emerging as ‘heavenly’ Westin hotel

The name "casino" doesn't appear in the official name of the Westin Casuarina Hotel & Spa, Las Vegas' newest resort property.

Such is the changing face of Las Vegas, where gambling is now an afterthought for many visitors who blow into town for conventions, shopping sprees or a spa weekend in the desert.

A major transformation is under way at the former Maxim Hotel, once an eyesore blocks from the Strip on Flamingo Road, that is undergoing renovations costing more than two times what was paid for the property. Owners unveiled a new marquee Thursday and gave onlookers their first glimpse inside the soon-to-be Westin, which opens in September with 825 rooms and a 20,000-square-foot casino.

"It's as though what was there never existed," said Mayor Oscar Goodman, who stood near the orange and cream facade that has replaced the discolored glass exterior of the former 1970s hotspot.

The tour coincided with Nevada Gaming Commission approval Thursday of Wimar Tahoe Corp. as the manager of the Westin's casino, called Casuarina Casino. Wimar Tahoe also operates the Horizon Casino Resort in Lake Tahoe, which is roughly twice as large as the Westin casino. Columbia Sussex Corp., affiliated with Wimar, owns the entire property and will manage the hotel.

Columbia Sussex, based in Fort Mitchell, Ky., bought the property for about $38 million last fall. The privately held company owns and manages nearly 60 hotel franchises under several major brands, including Westin, Sheraton and Marriott.

The Westin Casuarina would mark the first Westin resort nationwide to feature a casino. It is also the first Westin in Nevada.

Instead of showgirls and slot machines, the unveiling featured women in angel costumes sitting atop a bed. The Westin "angels" were on hand to promote the "Heavenly Bed," a bedroom concept for which the chain is known.

Casino resorts have rushed to create plush suites that command high rates, a change from years past when rooms were just a place to crash for the night after gambling in the casino all day.

Still, Westin may be the only hotel brand that has trademarked and designed its own bed that can also be bought from a catalogue. The Heavenly Bed features a Simmons mattress, high-thread-count cotton sheets, five pillows and a duvet. Brazilian cotton bathrobes also will be available for guests. Beds may not seem a sexy commodity in Las Vegas. But they've been a jackpot so far for Westin parent Starwood Resorts & Hotels Worldwide Inc.

Travelers have suffered long enough with "lumpy pillows" and "thin sheets," said Paul Scott, vice president of Westin's North America Division.

Starwood, which acquired Westin Hotels chain in 1998, decided early on that the bedrooms needed attention, he said.

Rates went up with the introduction of the beds, and guests "wanted to take them home with them," he said. Catalogue sales of the beds are expected to reach $1 million this year, he added.

Rooms will have a minimalist, modern look, with suede window shades, chrome touches and perks such as Starbucks coffee and Internet access. "The style is approachable," Scott said. "We call it 'modern luxury."' The change from Old Vegas to cool modern will perhaps be most dramatic in the casino. The Maxim, which opened in 1977, was known for its lowered-floor casino pit and glittery lights that gave it the look of a disco club.

The Casuarina Casino, with 360 slot machines and about 10 table games, is similar in size to the old Maxim casino. But the floor has been raised and the ceiling opened up. Guests also won't find a heavily-themed look or even a light, tropical or Mediterranean feel popular with other Vegas casinos. The property also will feature 15,000 square feet of meeting space, a 3,600 square-foot ballroom and multi-function meeting rooms.

The property also will feature a restaurant, room service, Starbucks coffee shop, gym and swimming pool. Comedian David Brenner has signed a one-year contract to perform nightly in the hotel lounge.

The casino's look will be "casual elegant," said Jeanie Rose, a credit cage manager at the Horizon casino and the Casuarina Casino's director of casino operations.

Moreover, Westin won't be heavily marketing to local gamblers like other off-Strip properties. The casino will primarily be marketed "through the front desk" as an amenity to hotel guests, said Bill Yung III, president of Columbia Sussex Corp. Guests will get a slot card and will be able to win Starwood points as well as gifts from the gift shop, he said.

Starwood's "Starpoints" frequent hotel customer program -- three million members strong -- will help funnel business to the property, executives say.

Columbia Sussex decided to gut the building to the core rather than implode it and build anew to shorten the timetable for the opening. But the $90 million remodeling project has been a challenge because of the alleged shoddy quality of the original building.

"There was no rebar in the walls," Yung said after his casino license approval by Nevada regulators earlier this month. "This is the worst building I've ever seen in my life."

The company doesn't have any regrets about the remodeling effort, general manager Tom Hagreen said Thursday.

"We're beyond that," he said of the construction challenges.

Only a few top managers have been hired to staff the Westin so far. A job fair this week yielded roughly 2,600 applicants for what will ultimately be a staff of 300. Hiring for the rest of the property will occur over the next couple of weeks, Hagreen said.

The Westin Casuarina takes its name from a tree that is native to the Cayman Islands, where Columbia Sussex runs another Westin hotel. The hotel company expects to expand its offering of Westin hotels, though no plans with Starwood are underway yet in Nevada, said Tim Bouley, regional vice president of Columbia Sussex.

Columbia Sussex is in the process of buying a casino in Vicksburg, Miss., from Harrah's Entertainment Inc. as well as the River Palms Resort Casino in Laughlin.

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