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April 17, 2014

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Westin opens in Vegas

The newest hotel-casino to open in Las Vegas claimed several other firsts when it checked in its first guests Thursday afternoon.

The Westin Casuarina Hotel & Spa, with 825 rooms, is the first Westin hotel franchise to feature a casino. It is also the first Westin brand in Nevada for hotel franchise Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., one of the world's largest hotel companies. Starwood is re-entering the market after it sold off the famed Caesars Palace and Desert Inn casinos several years ago, saying it wanted out of the gaming business.

The 20,000 square-foot casino, located at the main entrance to the property, was expected to open this afternoon.

Located at 160 E. Flamingo Road, the Westin is a stone's throw from the heart of the Strip.

It won't necessarily rely on gawking tourists to fill up either the hotel or casino.

The Westin is counting on Starwood's "Starpoints" frequent customer loyalty program -- 3 million members strong -- to funnel business to the property and satisfy demand among customers who haven't been able to spend their points in Las Vegas until now.

The Westin's small casino faces an uphill battle in attracting customers from the lavish attractions on the Strip as well as competition from bargain, off-Strip properties that have a strong hold on their customers, said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor gambler newsletter.

"You're just not going to get people coming off the Strip to check it out," he said.

The nearby Tuscany Suites and Casino Resort, with its similarly upscale and business clientele, hasn't been able to attract the kinds of crowds in its casino that nearby locals' properties do, for example, Curtis said. Still, the casino has done a decent job offering enticements such as good odds and appealing games, he said.

Westin's "wild card" is comedian David Brenner, who has signed a one-year contract to perform in the Westin's 200-seat showroom, Curtis said.

Brenner, who made his name on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," appeals to the kind of "moneyed (people) in their late 30s and 40s" who might find a smaller venue appealing, he said.

The casino, featuring 400 slot machines and 10 table games, will primarily be marketed as an amenity for guests rather than a hangout for locals, property representatives have said.

Westin General Manager Tom Hagreen was out of the office Thursday and could not be reached for comment. Other representatives also could not be reached by press time.

Managers at nearby hotels say the Westin will continue to improve a neighborhood that has undergone one of the most dramatic revitalizations in Las Vegas.

"It elevates the whole area," said Ike Karaer, general manager of the Clarion Hotel and Suites on Flamingo Road and just east of the Westin. Having an upscale property nearby helps hotel rates in the neighborhood, he said.

The Clarion opened in 1990 and became one of the first in what would become a cluster of non-gaming hotels that have sprouted nearby.

The hotels say they have developed a successful niche catering to corporate travelers during the week and tourists on the weekend -- customers who often prefer not staying at a casino.

"It's kind of the best of both worlds. We've got the (Las Vegas) Convention Center, the airport and the Strip nearby," said

Adam Dougherty is general manger of Candlewood Suites, a corporate-owned hotel on Paradise Road just north of Flamingo. About 80 percent of business comes from corporate travelers who may stay an average of 15 days and "actually come to Las Vegas to work," he said.

Suites have individual entrances so travelers don't have to hike far to their rooms, which also have dual phone lines.

Customers at Clarion "love not having to fight through the crowds" or wait in line to check in -- both hallmarks of the megaresorts, he said.

Even the nearby Tuscany Suites and Casino Resort -- perhaps the closest hotel-casino to resemble the Westin in terms of clientele and size -- welcomes the competition.

"It's good to have another high-quality property that's considered to be an off-Strip property," said Edward Brown, the Tuscany's director of operations. "People want alternatives to being on the Strip."

Business is healthy and growing at the Tuscany, though it has not yet reached its full potential because it has only recently begun to ramp up marketing efforts for both the hotel and casino, Brown said. "It needed to grow. We're enjoying the longest soft opening in history," he said.

The 716-room hotel opened in 2002, followed by a January opening for the 60,000 square-foot casino. The entire 37,000 square-foot meeting area -- larger than the Westin's 10,000 square-foot meeting and banquet facilities -- opened in April.

The Las Vegas-franchise is owned by Cincinnati-area hotel chain Columbia Sussex Corp., which purchased the former Maxim hotel-casino in 2002 for about $38 million and gutted the building to redevelop it as a Westin franchise. The company had initially advertised a September opening and ended up paying for accommodations at other Las Vegas hotels for a few customers who had already booked trips. The $90 million remodeling project -- initiated because imploding the building would have taken longer -- was trickier than expected and delayed the opening, company officials said.

The Maxim opened in 1979 and struggled financially throughout its history, falling into and out of bankruptcy. A dispute involving the hotel owner in 1999 led to a brief closure of the Maxim, which reopened without its casino and suffered heavy losses. It became a neighborhood eyesore after closing in August 2001.

Rising land prices will continue to drive other major projects like the Westin to sites off the Strip, said Greg Borgel, a land use consultant for casino and hotel developers in Las Vegas.

"I think we're going to see a number of significant upgrades for that area in upcoming years," he said. "It's close the Strip, it's zoned correctly and the Strip is filling up."

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