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What’s new for luxury Las Vegas?

March 25, 2010

(Original version of a feature for TTG Luxury spring 2010 edition)

A spotlight shines on Frank Sinatra’s Oscar guarding the entrance to the eponymous restaurant in Encore. It sits alongside nostalgic sepia photos of Ol’ Blue Eyes with Vegas hotel king Steve Wynn opening the Golden Nugget in the 60s. It’s one of the few traces of that bygone era: in a town that lives for the thrill of the new, tearing down rather than preserving the past, there’s little left from those heady days of gangsters, gamblers and good time girls.

Sinatra's Oscar, Encore

That’s not to say Sin City has gone all sedate. On my visit it was Superbowl weekend, and an estimated 200,000 football fans hit town to party hard – even though the match itself was being played in Miami.

The focus is shifting away from the traditional gloriously tacky casino resort towards a more discerning experience. Emblematic of this is the just-opened $8.4 billion CityCenter, its gleaming glass towers dominating the Strip. With its green credentials, chic non-gaming Vdara and Mandarin Oriental hotels and $40 million of public art installations, the development points the way to a new concept in Vegas.

LVCVA vice-president John Bischoff says: “In recent years non-gaming revenue has exceeded gaming revenue for the first time in Vegas’s history. We don’t incorporate gaming into any part of our marketing strategy because we don’t need to tell people what they already know.”

Insiders point to the opening of Steve Wynn’s Bellagio in 1998 as a “turning point” for the luxury scene, setting new standards for cuisine, design and service. Two years later he sold his Mirage group of properties to MGM, which formed the giant MGM Mirage group that dominates the Strip.

Wynn’s next move was to buy the old Desert Inn and tear it down, laying the foundations for his triumphant return – the Wynn, which opened in 2005. Sister property Encore, opened in 2008 refines further his concept of a purely luxury resort with no theme and a lesser focus on gaming. Luxuriant flora and bucolic motifs abound, and natural Nevada sunshine floods through skylights and French windows even into the relatively small casino floor – breaking a 50-year taboo that neither daylight nor clocks should distract the gamblers from pumping cash into the town’s arteries.

Glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly in the Bellagio lobby

The UK is important to Las Vegas. After US neighbours Canada and Mexico, it’s the biggest overseas market. Key as usual is direct airlift. British Airways has given the destination a boost by launching a daily direct service from Heathrow in October last year. Virgin Atlantic, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary of a direct flight from Gatwick, then upped its game by completing a major revamp on its Gatwick Clubhouse at the end of last year, with Cowshed spa salon offering free express treatments, a la carte champagne brunch menu and youngsters’ area with Wii-Fit and Guitar Hero.

UK luxury agents are seeing a shift in demand. “When in the past it was gambling, I’ve noticed lately more clients are asking me to book shows, Grand Canyon trips and VIP entrance to the various night clubs,” says Select World Travel chairman Kent Milne. “A big plus is the BA flight departing from Heathrow. It will help build business to this area especially when combining a two-centre to Phoenix, Denver and the likes.”

Skyloft at MGM Grand

Jeff Eisenhart, MGM Mirage’s vice-president of leisure sales, says 2010 has seen an increase in advance international bookings. “It’s the shift in the non-gaming attractions that has been so significant,” he says. “World travellers coming to Las Vegas are seeking a well-rounded luxury experience that features great chefs, exhilarating nightlife, varied and wonderful entertainment, spas, shopping and more. They will find the casino if that’s what appeals, but they are making decisions based on far more than the gaming itself.”

There’s no denying Vegas is going through hard times. Its massive MICE sector is struggling, room rates can be low and major development projects are stalled. But the destination exudes a characteristic brassy optimism. The stars still flock in their private jets, mega shows are still opening, the limos are a block long and the champagne flows. Ol’ Blue Eyes might not recognise the place, but he’d certainly feel right at home.

For where to stay, eat, drink, shop, party, meet and more, see the feature in TTG Luxury

See my Flickr gallery of the Las Vegas trip here

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Travel reports – your call

March 19, 2010

Oh blimey, what a disgrace this blog page is. I haven’t written anything on it for an awfully long while. I was writing after almost every trip, but since my last entry there’s been rather too many to write them all up.

Anyway, there’s no point unless someones going to read them. So, how about I list everywhere I’ve been since last June, and if anyone wants to know about a destination, ask and I’ll write about it?

Paris Las Vegas and Bellagio's fountains

Cape Town, Lisbon, Oman (Muscat), Macau, Valencia/Alicante region, Las Vegas

Here’s pics and a feature from the TTG-hosted Macau fam trip: ttglive.com/macaufam

Here’s some pics of my ttgluxury trip/holiday to Cape Town

Fine dining in Guernsey

June 18, 2009

Guernsey, understandably, is somewhat of a hub for offshore banking and many of the major finance houses have offices on the channel island. It’s fair to say most days will find business travellers flying to and from the mainland. The two main airlines are Flybe and Aurigny.com

Islanders boast there’s enough restaurants to dine in a different one every day of the year. Well, I didn’t count them, but here’s a particular highlight: Christophe's

We visited Guernsey’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Christophe.

Its large terraces make the most of its position: at the top of Fermain Bay near St Peter Port, with lofty, panoramic sea views.

We had the Gourmand menu, which according with chef/proprietor Christophe Vincent’s seasonal philosophy changes every three months. Each course is paired with a wine – the wine depends on whether you choose the £60 or £85 per-head option.

Our first course of foie gras ballotine with fig compote paired perfectly a sweet aromatic glass of Grand Cru Classe Sauternes. The foie gras and compote actually went better with bread and butter than the accompanying piece of crispy gingerbread, which made a slightly too-sweet combination.

This was followed by an asparagus and morel risotto: creamy rice, rich fragrant stock and intense mushrooms. Again it was complemented the by grassy bouquet of the New Zealand wine Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007. The rack of lamb was perfectly pink and tasty with a glossy translucent jus, though I wasn’t sure about the drops of mint oil – for me it conjured up aromatherapy rather than dinner.

In French style, cheese was served before dessert. The loaded trolley bore an excellent range of pungently mature Guernsey, French and Spanish choices, served with a wonderfully deep and complex 2006 Kalleske JMK fortified Shiraz from South Australia’s Barossa Valley.

A distinctive palate-cleanser bridged the gap between cheese and pudding: an orange sorbet with olive oil and salt, which somehow evoked a refreshing summer salad.

Yet another unusual and delicious vino was served with pudding: Elysium Black Muscat from California’s Quady Winery accompanied an artfully deconstructed “Rhubarb and Custard”.

christophe-restaurant.co.uk
Fermain bay, St Peter Port, Guernsey

Where to do business in Budapest?

April 22, 2009
View of Parliament from Castle Hill on the Buda side

View of Parliament from Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube

I’m just back from a trip to Hungary‘s capital Budapest, checking out hotels for ttgluxury. I visited several fine hotels in the city, different in style but they all had things in common: they’re all finding the current climate a challenge, and consequently offering excellent rates and deals. And, they all to varying degrees have business traffic as a significant part of revenue.

Budapest is a 2.5 hour flight from the UK. We flew with national carrier Malev from Gatwick (from £87.70 inc taxes, business class £341.70 ). Business class gets you the Aviance lounge at Gatwick and the comfortable Malev lounge at Budapest airport, with bar, nice snacks and free Wifi − plus friendly, attentive service onboard and rather palatable Hungarian bubbly.

The city is actually two – Buda and Pest, joined by name but split by the mighty river Danube, on its 2,850km route from Germany to the Black Sea.

Budapest is a dazzling showcase of architectural styles, from Baroque to Bauhaus via Arts Nouveau and Deco. Some buildings are meticulously restored, others crumbling and pocked with bullet holes from the 1956 uprising.

Museum of Fine Arts

Museum of Fine Arts

There’s plenty to keep delegates entertained when not working: river cruises, traditional thermal spas, countless world-class museums, a busy year-round cultural programme, great walks and cycle rides and buzzing night life. Find out more here

InterContinental

InterContinental

With its brand-new executive Club lounge facilities and vast conference floor with multiple layout options, the 400-room InterContinental is the obvious choice for corporates. The 1960s block is no architectural gem but is in a beautiful spot right on the banks of the Danube in the heart of the city with wonderful views.

Another modern five-star option is the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, with state-of-the art conference facilities and separate reception for 450 delegates. When I visited, a gleaming S-class Mercedes stood centre-stage in the lobby, to demonstrate how the hotel can incorporate promotional events such as car launches.

There’s also the stunningly palatial Boscolo New York Palace, and for smaller events (80 capacity theatre-style) the Bauhaus-style boutique Andrassy Hotel. The Andrassy’s location among most of the city’s embassies and close to several corporate headquarters ensures a steady flow of business traffic.

For exclusive and memorable events, the landmark, exquisitely restored Art Nouveau Four Seasons Gresham Palace says business traffic makes a small but significant portion of its revenue.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Counting the costs of G20

April 1, 2009

What is the carbon footprint of the G20 summit? Of this, a fascinating factor is what the CO2 levels of president Obama’s London visit are: that 747 (Airforce One), his 500-strong retinue, all the preceding support flights bringing battalions of SUVs, helicopters and of course ‘the Beast’ – the 3.5 tonne bomb-proof Cadillac limo.

Surprisingly none of the eco-warriors seem to be publishing calculations on this – anyone know?

Please share this info with us!

And another factor – how much is G20 costing? Figures being tossed around are in the region of £20 million. Ironic that at a time when the business travel and meetings and events sectors are thoroughly debating cutting down and video conferencing options, the big daddy of all meetings is being staged. I guess budgeting considerations are different when the global taxpayer is footing the bill…

Two nights in Bangkok: Weerasak and the wine angels

March 10, 2009

OK, let me explain the title: Weerasak refers to Weerasak Kowsurat, chairman of Tourism Authority of Thailand board of directors. I met him during a recent press trip to Bangkok. We were on the 55th floor of the Centara Grand hotel, where the Red Sky bar and restaurant boast stunning views over the multi-hued neon cityscape. redskybar

Weerasak told me he’s optimistic about visitors to Thailand in 2009, despite the setbacks of global recession and last year’s airport protests. He says he expects 14 million visitors during 2009 – including plenty of Brits.

“We understand British visitors, and we know they value the genuine friendliness and care that is the core of Thai hospitality. And a key factor is the value for money Thailand offers – we know how important this is during these times.”

He also pointed out that the Skytrain extension to the airport would be open on August 12.

This should be a welcome improvement to travelling into the city, as traffic is appalling.

wineangel21The Centara adjoins the Bangkok Convention Centre and on the 22nd floor you can walk straight from hotel to the vast multi-space auditoria which can merge to host a maximum of 6,000 delegates theatre style.

Also impressive is Lifestyle on the 26th floor, with spa, decent sized gym, panoramic pool with bar and gardens, plus two tennis courts.

Which brings us to the wine angels – abseiling up and down the spectacular glass two-story wine cellar at The Red Sky bar and restaurant on Fifty Five, to pluck fine vintages from the upper shelves.

Check out luxury travel news & views at ttgluxury.com

Make your meeting a gastronomic event

February 1, 2009

A good spot to meet up for business and pleasure: Le Pont de la Tour, in the lively Shad Thames area, with views of Tower Bridge and over the river to the City. pont-de-la-tour

 

Just visited for lunch and to meet up with head chef  Lee Bennett – a Yorkshire lad with a stellar CV, which includes lengthly stints in Paris and at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants in London and Dubai.

 

The food was memorable and delicious – more of that later. First the business: meetings can be hosted in the atmospheric brick-vaulted wine cellar – private in the evenings when it’s not serving as the wine shop; and the Salon Prive, which can hold up to 22 and features a laptop-compatible wide plasma screen. They can arrange menus from simpler table d’hote lunches to multi-course tasting menu feasts.

 

We sampled a mouth-watering range from the a la carte: we started with a quirky seafood platter − frothy lobster bisque with a hint of Pernod served in an espresso cup, fresh raw scallop briefly marinated in tangy citrus juice, a three-layer chilli prawn cocktail topped with watercress mousse, oyster en gelee, native potted crab with dill butter…

 

Then a mid-course of John Dory in a rich saffron squid broth, followed by some meltingly tender lamb shoulder with haricot beans in a rich jus, creamy risotto topped with oxtail… there were two of us sharing this by the way − before accusations of ‘fat bastard’ start flying…

 

Well OK, there was pudding as well: forced rhubarb with bavarois cream topped with strawberry ‘cloud’ and fragrant Rosemary shortbread,  an aromatic basil and mint ice cream… Yes we were pretty stuffed.

 

The restaurant has had a clean, crisp revamp and shed some of its pompous old-school Parisienne image, with less eye-watering prices – though as it’s still an iconic London venue and couldn’t be described as cheap.  

 

Definitely worth considering as a distinctive place to do business, just a river crossing away from the tumult of the City.

02 Greenwich: from white elephant to regeneration hub

January 25, 2009

The 02, formerly known, loved and hated as the Millenium Dome: it was a Tory white elephant inherited by Labour who waded in with similar hubris and incompetence to get it sorted by December 31, 1999.  Nine years later and it seems to be the epicentre and symbol of regeneration and development in south-east London.

By the way this is just an excuse to feature the rather appalling video below, which is an experiment: I am reviewing a Flip Ultra camcorder for ttgbusiness, and wanted to see how easy it is to shoot something, upload it and  add it to my blog.

Anway, it worked pretty well, although I don’t think Danny Boyle will be losing any sleep.

The Dome was born on a toxic wasteland next to the southside of the Blackwall Tunnel, and grew up to be the first billion-pound tent, a monstrous joke at the taxpayers’ expense (though actually it was mainly Lottery money). One of New Labour’s first major embarassements, who can forget a boot-faced Queen enduring a ghastly new year’s eve, dragooned into singing Auld Lang Syne with Tony Blair?

Since being removed from the clutches of blundering politicians, it’s become a highly credible major entertainment venue.

There’s been some headline-grabbing shows here, from the Rolling Stones to Prince, as well as art exhibitions such as Tutenkhamun, and it’s one of the main Olympics venues. It should also be high on the radar for the MICE industry.

And there’s so much construction going on around the 02 it could soon be blocked from the east London skyline.

Heathrow expansion: Tories throw spanner in the works

January 15, 2009

Heathrow: First it was celebrities buying plots of land on the third runway site (see below).

But  the Tories are throwing a bigger spanner in the works: they vow to pull the plug on the project if they get into government – this was said categorically by shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. heathrow-silhouette

Surely this must be a bigger threat than the likes of Emma Thomson and Zac Goldsmith buying parcels of land in fields near the Sipson – the village earmarked for bulldozing to make way for the runway.

I expect most political pundits would say all bets are off at the moment as to who would win the next election and when that will be. But they’d probably say the Tories have a fair chance of winning.

This raises a whole bunch of interesting questions for the project. What will happen to the massive amount of commercial contracts signed off by then if the projects already underway?

Participating companies would presumably already invested millions. Is this going to put firms off bidding?

What if compulsory purchase orders for the site have already been completed?

And does this mean they will give stronger support to a new estuary airport? – as proposed by London Mayor Boris Johnson

Answers below please. UK Plc needs to know!

Heathrow: how cunning is Operation Baldrick?

January 13, 2009

The press are busy today adding a showbiz splash of celebrity names to the Heathrow airport expansion furore – a much-needed dash of colour to the Hounslow concrete grey of this story.

Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson and comedian Alistair McGowan are among those buying up land which will be needed by BAA for the third runway. They’re adding their clout to a plan of action by Greenpeace.

The idea is that completing compulsory purchase orders on all these tiny plots of land, with their disparate owners around the world will be a Herculean task for the government. airport3

It’s kind of cunning I suppose, but also rather depressing – rather than changing the path of global CO2 emissions and climate change, it just means the Heathrow expansion will take longer and be more expensive.

Meanwhile, in the fraught intervening years, Heathrow and its surrounding environs will just carry on being increasingly polluted, congested, dysfunctional and miserable. Great.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Why not just build another bloody airport!? Instead of tinkering around with this 70-year-old edifice that was originally conceived in the Jurassic era of air travel. Like those many other countries, which have a more creative, forward thinking, can-do attitude towards air travel.