Las Vegas has become a dining mecca, but where’s the marketing?

With no promotion to speak of, yet another nongaming industry gets ignored

A view of the Las Vegas Strip from atop the Stratosphere. The Strip is home to more than 50 world-class restaurants by some of the country’s most well-known celebrity chefs, making it a mecca for fine dining.

Five Nights, Five Restaurants

A packed Strip of five-star restaurants makes wining and dining visiting clients a piece of (Top Chef-worthy) cake. Facing five foodie visitors in five nights? There’s no reason for a repeat performance. Here’s the dish on five incredible spots where both the menu and ambiance were built to impress.

SW Steakhouse

A-list carnivore fans such as Tom Cruise and David Beckham hit SW for melt-in-your-mouth steaks, a sophisticated wine list and killer sides, like the famed creamed corn. Sit outside—Steve Wynn’s fanciful light and puppet show over the lake fill in any awkward silences with a new client. (Wynn Las Vegas; 702.770.3325; www.wynnlasvegas.com)

Jaleo

Save world-renowned Chef José Andrés’ masterpiece for a fun-loving bunch—its location at the sizzlin’ Cosmopolitan will perk up any work trip. His tapas are perfect for sharing and breaking the ice; try an electic mix of signature Spanish food, as his menu ranges from delicious standards jamón Ibérico to his out-of-the-box cod empanadas with honey. But the paella is king. (The Cosmopolitan; 702.698.7950; www.jaleo.com)

Michael Mina

Strolling into Michael Mina after a walk under Bellagio’s famous Dale Chihuly glass ceiling and through its dazzling conservatory (the restaurant is located straight through the gardens) will impress any guest or client before the first course has even been ordered. Ask the restaurant’s master sommelier for wine pairings with Mina’s legendary seafood and seasonal entrees, with Japanese and French influences. (Bellagio; 702.693.7223; www.bellagio.com)

Mix

Alain Ducasse’s culinary confection sits atop 64 stories high at TheHotel. If the view (ask for a table outside), 24-foot chandelier and 15,000 blown glass spheres don’t win the hearts of your visiting clients, crack open the menu. Ducasse’s unforgettable American and French dishes, such as duck foie gras and a farmer’s market cookpot, will certainly do the trick. (THEhotel; 702.632.9500; www.mandalaybay.com)

Carnevino

Mario Batali’s meat lover’s heaven boasts the oldest dry-aged steaks in the country. Start with a round of old-school couture cocktails at the bar with the hotspot’s stellar bartender, then hit the ground running with appetizers such as house-made pastrami or beef carpaccio before moving on to those famous steaks. Hungry yet? (The Palazzo; 702.789.4141; www.carnevino.com)

—Abby Tegnelia

2011 Vegas Uncork'd: Masters' Series Dinners at Caesars

The 2011 Vegas Uncork'd Masters' Series Dinners at Caesars Palace on May 5, 2011, with Francois Payard, Bradley Ogden, Guy Savoy, Mathieu Chartron and Rao's. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas does food better than any place on Earth. It’s now out in the open.

From a simple shrimp cocktail to a banquet for thousands, our hospitality industry is legendary. That legend has grown during the past two decades to include scores of the world’s greatest restaurants. An argument can be made that because of the breadth and depth of our culinary offerings, we are, alongside New York, the greatest restaurant city on the planet. If any other city in the world had our concentration of great restaurants and chefs, everyone from the captains of industry to ordinary citizens would be shouting about it from rooftops. As it is, despite all of this world-class quality, much of the known food-centric universe who could and should be beating a path to our delicious door never hear about it. They don’t hear about it because, in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, Las Vegas’ marketing machines have failed to keep pace with the extraordinary changes that have occurred ever since Wolfgang Puck took the bold step of opening Spago in the Forum Shops in December 1992. But the fact is, no place in the world has such a unique food and beverage product to sell, and nowhere sells so much of it against such a stunning backdrop.

You name it, we’ve got it: More master sommeliers than New York, more great steakhouses anywhere but the Big Apple and more extraordinary French chefs anywhere but Paris. Do London, Chicago, San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles have two Joël Robuchon restaurants plus a Guy Savoy plus Alain Ducasse plus a Pierre Gagnaire outlet? Nope. Does anywhere but here have a concentration of 50—50!—world-class eateries along a two-mile stretch of road? Not even close. How many cities can boast the best of Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse? None. But outside of food professionals, writers and intrepid foodies, precious few seem to know the depth and scope of what’s going on along Las Vegas Boulevard. Even the hotels, both individually and collectively, seem behind the croissant curve when it comes to crowing about the phenomenon that has taken the food world by storm.

As cataclysmic as Spago’s opening proved to be, it took a few years for its seismic effects to be felt. Shortly thereafter, in 1994, the MGM Grand moved our epicurean needle forward, when it brought Mark Miller (Coyote Café), Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter on board. But it was only when Steve Wynn opened the Bellagio in 1998 that the gastronomic ground shook under the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder. That’s the moment that Las Vegas really became a major player on the world’s best restaurants stage, and everyone started paying attention. The September 1999 Wine Spectator (a bible for serious foodies) devoted more than 70 pages to analyzing our city’s restaurant scene, with multiple articles declaring “Las Vegas Raises the Stakes” and “The New Mecca for Fine Dining.” It stated unequivocally that this was a place no gourmet could afford to ignore and had to take seriously. And take us seriously they did. Le Cirque, Circo, Picasso, Prime, Aqua and Olives shortly became synonymous with a town previously associated with cheap shrimp, prime rib and late-night buffets. The wine lists were declared some of the best in the world (they still are) and the food every bit the equal of any metropolis in America. That was then. It’s even better now.

Within a matter of months, every chef and restaurateur was beating a path to Las Vegas’ door. In rapid succession, the Venetian and Mandalay Bay opened —sporting such chef superstars as both Kellers (Hubert and Thomas)—and then, every hotel knew it had to up its restaurant celebrity chef game. And up their games they did. Caesars brought Bradley Ogden on board and his restaurant won a Best New Restaurant James Beard Award, and, in short order, the MGM Grand and Caesars Palace inked deals with Joël Robuchon (declared the Chef of the Century in France) and Parisian superstar Guy Savoy, respectively. Raising the stakes, indeed. In many ways though, 13 years after Bellagio’s opening and six years since France’s greatest decided to plant their flags in our humble burg, Las Vegas is still getting used to the idea that this is anything more than a head ’em up and move ’em into a show, a bar or a gambling pit kind of town. It’s almost as if our gargantuan restaurant success and ever-growing culinary credibility has taken even the hotels and marketers by surprise. But in an economic climate with so few positives, in an economically desperate city, the fact that we have the best chefs in the world working here is nothing to be shy about. Nothing.

Las Vegas Conventions and Visitors Authority Vice President Cathy Tull couldn’t agree more. “Las Vegas has come a long way,” she says the minute we start to talk. “It has the greatest concentration of master chefs and master sommeliers in the world. Vegas needs to start making history with its culinary scene.” So why isn’t there more marketing focused on these facts? “We get more bang for the buck if we talk about other things as well.”

Such would seem the inherent contradiction of the Las Vegas marketing message. Yes, we have an international gem in our midst with our unparalleled dining scene, but we’re content just to point it out to our target audience as an amenity, not unlike listing the shops in a shopping mall. The difference being, of course, you can buy Prada almost anywhere, crazy circuses are everywhere, but eating in two Robuchon restaurants, then Guy Savoy’s or Pierre Gagnaire’s or even a string of world-class buffets if that’s your thing, is something you can only do in Las Vegas.

Has anyone in any of the hotels ever suggested to Tull that the LVCVA should do an advertising campaign focusing solely on food, or complained that they don’t do enough to promote our culinary scene? “No,” is her emphatic reply. “Restaurants aren’t the sole focus of a singular advertising campaign, other than Uncork’d.”

Here’s the problem with Uncork’d: It’s only one weekend a year, and Vegas’ unique dining scene seems to be treated like just another high-end amenity. And in some people’s eyes, the growing legend of Uncork’d is becoming both a blessing and a curse.

“The whole celebrity chef thing is becoming less and less of an interest to people because a certain type of foodie knows they can come one time a year and see everybody,” says Langdon/Flynn partner Ken Langdon. Langdon is a former public relations director for Caesars Palace who has offices in Las Vegas and Chicago. “People say, ‘I’m not going to come in January because the big-name chefs won’t be there until May when Uncork’d is held.’ Mr. and Mrs. Kansas City want to see the celebrity chefs, even if the more sophisticated foodies know the food is just as good even if they’re not there.”

The Bobby Flays and Emeril Lagasses of the world may be becoming less important to the overall success of our city’s restaurant scene, but they’re the underpinnings of Vegas Uncork’d, the five-year-old extravaganza showcasing the best restaurants in town for four days every May.

“Vegas Uncork’d was designed to attract a skeptical, über-foodie audience,” says the former executive director of the event, Rob O’Keefe. “ ‘Build it and they will come’ wasn’t a very good long-term strategy for our fine dining scene. Even with the investment in amazing culinary offerings, there was a lucrative segment unwilling to buy in. Vegas Uncork’d was based on ‘market it and they will come’—provide a provocative reason to visit. And each year some 65 percent of the guests report they wouldn’t have come to Las Vegas if not for the event.”

The event, co-sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine as well as the LVCVA and partnering properties, has grown every year, even showing an 18 percent growth in 2009, when everything in town seemed headed toward permanent depression. According to O’Keefe, that’s because Uncork’d appeals to the more affluent tourist, exactly the market all the properties seek to attract—and one that’s decidedly more recession-proof than Mr. and Mrs. Kansas City.

“People will pay to travel to pursue their culinary passions,” O’Keefe says. “Research has shown that people will do many things while on a Vegas vacation. In the case of food, the question ‘will people travel long distances for exceptional dining?’ was answered in the affirmative by Vegas Uncork’d. But it’s not just dining, it’s the fine dining experience. The event brings together an unsurpassed combination of high-access epicurean experiences with the most renowned chefs in the world, in intimate settings against a culinary wonderland and backdrop, Las Vegas. A combination not available anywhere else on Earth.”

Speaking of research, food appears to be the low-hanging fruit that rarely gets picked by the bean counters. The LVCVA shows a single statistic about food in its yearly report that seeks to break down, in minute detail, every other aspect of what visitors do right down to the number of slot machines they play. According to its 2010 visitor survey, the average visitor spent $256 on food during their visit, as opposed to $122 on shopping. If you want to know how many hours someone spent gambling on how many different games or how many casinos they visited, those figures are at your fingertips. On where those tourist dollars go when it comes to food, the report is silent. Equally amazing, in a town awash with booze and the profits it brings, it keeps no statistics on liquor consumption. Comfortingly though, the same report solemnly declares between 99.8 and 100 percent of visitors eat when they come to Las Vegas. Good to know.

Yes, everybody eats. And everyone knows Vegas is a world culinary capital, containing, according to James Beard Award-winning Chef Bradley Ogden, “The top 100 restaurants in the country within a two-mile radius,” right? Wrong. Gary Ozaki a retired financial executive from Portland, and one of those über-foodies O’Keefe referred to, comes to Las Vegas multiple times a year.When asked if we do a good job in the Pacific Northwest of advertising ourselves as a culinary capital, his response is: “Not at all. When I tell friends I’m coming to Las Vegas to eat, they assume I mean at the buffets or steakhouses.” Ouch.

“When it comes to marketing ourselves as a dining destination, we’re still finding our way,” says Aria Food and Beverage Vice President Christina Clifton. “Food has evolved from being a primary amenity to being a great one,” she said.

She agrees when I suggest perhaps we’ve come too far too fast, and the marketers haven’t been able to keep up. Quoting Bill McBeath, she said: “Las Vegas is the longest-running party in the world. There are so many choices here both to eat at and to advertise—almost too many options. We’re a relatively young property and we’re trying out a bunch of things to see what takes hold.”

Aria has one of the strongest restaurant lineups in town, but when you consider Clifton’s words, the conundrums are obvious. What’s a property to do? Highlight a single, world renowned chef such as Julian Serrano or Shawn McClain, or hit customers with its blitzkrieg of choices? Clifton thinks it would be helpful if the LVCVA included more restaurant information when it gets the Vegas marketing message out, and one celebrity chef, Michael Mina—operator since 1998 of his eponymous restaurant in the Bellagio—agrees.

“There’s no such thing as too much promotion for a restaurant,” he flatly states. “Too much goes on here at once. If American Fish (his highly regarded restaurant in Aria) had opened in any other city in America, over the course of a year it might face competition from one or two other places of similar quality. When we opened, so did 12 other great restaurants—on the same day! I almost feel sorry for you critics having to cover so much. Almost.”

From what the pros are saying, you’d think Las Vegas is the poor little rich girl suffering from a surfeit of superior eats, at least when it comes to creating an identity for itself for what makes it unique in the food world. Looming in the background, as always, is the competitiveness between properties—casinos that have rarely played well together in this gold-lined sandbox. O’Keefe, along with many of the casino executives interviewed for this article, thinks Uncork’d has worked well to solve that problem—creating an atmosphere where everyone recognizes a rising tide raises all boats. But opinions vary as to how best to capitalize on this wealth of gastronomic riches for the other 51 weeks of the year.

“You see more ads for "Lion King" locally and nationally than you do for our restaurants,” says one well-known chef. For the record, approximately two-thirds of all visitors attend some kind of show when they’re here, and one-third of that group attends a large-scale or production show.

“The gears aren’t meshed,” says Tom Kaplan, senior managing partner for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group. “We’ve spent 20 years building something that no one in the world has or will have in our lifetimes. We have the credibility and the infrastructure; now we need a unified voice.” Langdon continues: “One weekend a year won’t cut it. There needs to be a traveling road show of our great chefs, both the famous ones and the ones working in famous restaurants, going to the major feeder markets, along with a concerted, 12-month-a-year print ad campaign in major magazines.”

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Use a fraction of the LVCVA’s $27.1 million yearly advertising budget to define our identity as something more than Sin City for naughty conventioneers, brimming with showgirls no one under 50 has the slightest interest in, and remind the world that we have something no other city does: A coterie of restaurants the world flocks to precisely because we’re the best in the world at serving first-class food in a variety of stunning settings, in an amazingly compact space. Yet, according to Tull: “No hotel has ever suggested we do a food-focused ad campaign concentrating on our collection of restaurants.” She’s quick to add, however, that “We do promote our restaurant scene through Uncork’d and bundle it with other ads that run in our feeder markets.” All of which sounds a bit like preaching to the converted.

Caesars Palace probably has the most aggressive food and beverage program going on the Strip right now and is soon bringing French chef extraordinaire Michel Richard, New York’s Old Homestead steakhouse, Nobu (in both hotel and restaurant form) and Gordon Ramsay. Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner sees a lot of room for promotional improvement.

“Food is one of three or four things that now drives people to Vegas. Where on Earth can you find so much culinary talent? The breadth and quality of what we have here is an incredible draw—there’s no question that we need to market it more locally, nationally and internationally. Also, our food asset needs to find its way into the print advertising the city does.”

Cosmopolitan President John Unwin, an über-foodie in his own right, agrees. “There needs to be a top-down commitment. Food and beverage executives will always push for more promotion, but it’s the decision makers who need to recognize what a spectacular product has evolved here in the last decade.” Unwin goes on to say how everyone he met on a recent business trip to the East Coast who had heard about the Cosmopolitan, knew about it because of its killer lineup of outstanding eateries—all beautifully bunched on the third floor of his au courant hotel, far away from the casino floor.

When the Bellagio opened in 1998, I called its lineup a “murderers row” of restaurants. It was sui generis at the time. No one hotel on Earth had ever seen such a collection of chefs, designs, wine and food like it brought forth under one (huge) roof. Today, we have eight hotels who can boast a lineup that can go toe to toe with it. Even better, what it inspired was a sense of gourmet one-upsmanship that continues to this day—to the sweet and savory benefit of every visitor from a buffet hound to the fussy gastronome. This ongoing culinary competition has left us with, according to O’Keefe, “A major opportunity to not only bring more people here, but more affluent visitors who spend more while they’re here.” With a standing inventory of so many high-end hotel rooms, it only makes sense to put wealthier heads in those beds and round out Las Vegas’ customer base before the whole town slides into "Jersey Shore" purgatory.

Back in 1999, skeptics wondered if our restaurant culture had legs. From Wine Spectator: “Uncertainty is built into the restaurant business, and nowhere greater than in this town, with no history and no real concern for anything other than the bottom line.” When those words were written, the future of our booming dining scene was in doubt. These days, there’s no doubt we’re one of the true epicenters of the epicurean universe. Once marketing professionals wake up and smell the coffee, and promote the town as such, Las Vegas will truly start creating a culinary history it can call its own.As a community, we need to embrace our restaurant culture and be proud of it. Clifton says, “Las Vegas has already become Restaurant City USA, we just need to get the message out.”

Amen, brother.

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  1. Didn't you hear? there is a recession on, fine dinning is out.

  2. The economy is an issue, however, it all breaks down to sales and marketing. The casinos have been spoiled with the "build it and they will come" up to 2008 then they needed to work for their profits. There is so much to offer here besided the gaming, including the food. As the casinos moved to the summer pool parties to entice the younger audience they found that the gaming take was down and this age group was not spending. A number of the marketing gurus hired by the properties, in my opinion, are not qualified or innovative enough to focus on all opportunities. It is a reaction instead of being pro-active.

    Case in point: Look what is happening with the Race and Sports books. William Hill goes on a shopping spree, Cantor breaks into the picture and NOW the remaining owned books are scrambling. The books had previously been just a spot on the gaming floor. Now it is important. Once again, reactionary management and marketing.

    The marketing departments should be re-evaluating the markets and opportunties at all times, be innovative, re-invent themselves and be a little outside the box. Bringing back the baby boomers should be a priority.

    Our business is an industry with a target audience of everyone. Everything a guest would need is here. Adapt and modify everyday and focus on where there are marketing opportunities.

  3. I agree that the dining is one of the thinge we look forward to on our Las Vegas trips, but the best dining I have found is not inside the casino's overcrowded. overpriced restaurants. I really couldn't care less about some "big name" chef preparing a skmpy meal with a little sause garnish on the plate and charging $60 or more for it.
    We go off strip to the many great local restaurants like Siena Italian, Lindo Michgoan (Mexican), Memphis barbecue, etc. All very reasonable and excellent food and service. (No, I am not affiliated wuth any of them, other than as a customer). We have enjoyed Toby Keith's oan B.B. Kings on the strip, but avoid the high priced traos elsewhere on the strip,