Published May/Jun 2005

For more and more visitors,
Shopping always pays off in Las Vegas.
By John Handley

ith an eruption of fire, smoke, sound, and fury, the Lost City of Atlantis rises from an enormous fountain.

People crowd around the spectacle in the Great Roman Hall at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The epic show, featuring action figures that seem to come to life, climaxes with Atlantis sinking back into a watery grave.

One of the most popular free shows in town, the Atlantis saga is staged every hour at the Forum Shops at Caesars, the huge indoor mall inside the hotel-casino.

But this is no ordinary mall. There’s nothing like it back home.

It transports visitors back to ancient Rome. Shoppers walk cobblestone streets, dotted with classical statues and ornate fountains. Wide piazzas are edged with sidewalk cafes. The two animated shows and an aquarium make this as much a tourist attraction as a shopping venue.

In recent years, shopping has emerged as the hot new game in town. It’s not a gamble; the dollars visitors plunk down for shopping always pay off. As part of its strategy to stay No. 1 in the competition with other legalized gambling locations across the country, Las Vegas has raised the retail ante to the level of fantasy.

Big bucks shopping

Cheap souvenirs always have been big sellers here. What’s new is big bucks, high-end shopping.

“Las Vegas is a serious retail contender with Fifth Avenue in New York and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All the luxury brands are here now,” says Maureen Crampton, director of marketing for the Forum Shops at Caesars.

Previously, shopping was not held in such high regard.

“Bugsy” Siegel, one of the town’s infamous pioneers, would be shocked at today’s shopping trend. The gangster who opened the Flamingo casino in 1946 saw the golden potential of gambling. But shopping? That’s sissy stuff. And owners of the casino-hotels thought that shopping would take time and money away from gambling, the real cash cow.

The numbers reflect the evolution of Vegas from a mainly gambling town to a more well-rounded vacation destination. According to Wynn Resorts, gambling used to pull in 80 percent of the profits. Now that’s down to 40 percent, with shopping, shows and dining surging in popularity.

Never leave the resort

Caesars Palace led the way in the shopping surge with the opening in 1992 of the Forum Shops. The gamble paid off. Luring 40,000 to 50,000 visitors a day, the Forum Shops claim annual sales of $1,400 per square foot.

A $139 million Forum Shops expansion debuted in 2004, adding 57 shops, a spiral escalator and a new grand entrance on Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as the Strip. There are 160 stores at the Forum.

The success at Caesars spurred the creation of more high-end retail at new casino-hotels.

The fantasy of a different era arose at the Venetian, which opened in 1999. The grandeur and romance of Venice is suggested by the replica of the famed Campanile di San Marco bell tower rising above the Strip and a canal thronged with gondola traffic.

Cross a bridge and follow the gondolas inside to the Grand Canal Shoppes. Stores line the quarter-mile-long canal where gondoliers dressed in red-striped shirts and boater straw hats break into song, serenading their passengers.

Shoppers stroll stone walkways in the 500,000-square-foot upscale mall that leads to St. Mark’s Square with a 70-foot-high ceiling that resembles the Venetian sky.

From Venice to Paris is just a short walk in Vegas.

The Eiffel Tower is hard to miss. This half-size replica of the original has three of its legs inside the casino of the Paris resort. Shoppers head for a Parisian street scene fashioned after the Rue de la Paix. Be sure to stop at one of the restaurants for a crêpe.

A shopping adventure in a different land awaits you inside the Aladdin hotel-casino at Desert Passage. These 140 shops suggest a North African bazaar from the 1920s or ’30s. At the mall’s Merchant’s Harbor, a simulated thunder and lightning storm is staged every half hour.

Across the street from the Aladdin is the Bellagio, the AAA five-diamond resort hotel set on an Italian lake. At night, its waters shoot high into the air to the sound of music, another spectacular free show.

But if you’re looking for a bargain, skip Bellagio. Its shopping arcade, Via Bellagio, features the pricey merchandise found at such boutiques as Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Hermès and Tiffany & Co. For instance at Fred Leighton, the favorite jeweler of Hollywood stars, take home a sapphire and diamond ring for only $600,000.

At the other end of the scale, Bellagio key chains go for $3 to $5, according to Andrew Hagopian, vice president of retail operations at Bellagio. He contends that anything with a hotel logo sells briskly in Vegas.

“Shopping was just an adjunct to gaming 10 to 15 years ago. Now this is a shopping destination with some of the finest merchandise in the world. Some people come here specifically to shop,” says Hagopian.

What lies ahead

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports that the average shopper spends about $139 per trip, considerably more than the total for shows and sightseeing. Obviously, high-rollers spend much more than that.

“The importance of shopping is increasing. Some polls show Las Vegas second only to New York as a shopping destination,” says Kevin Bagger, director of research for the authority. He adds that 63 percent of the more than 37 million annual visitors are shoppers.

Confidence in the future strength of shopping was shown by Fashion Show mall, which has just completed a $1 billion expansion. A major feature of the costly facelift is The Cloud, a steel canopy that hovers over the plaza in front of the mall. Longer than a football field, it provides shade during the day and serves as a projection screen at night. Four other giant screens in front of the mall show events inside, including live fashion shows.

The largest retail shopping destination on the Strip, it is anchored by seven department stores: Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Robinson’s-May, Nord-strom and Bloomingdale’s Home. Plus, there are 250 shops.

Despite its new, glitzy exterior, Fashion Show wants to set itself apart from the rest of the Strip.

“The mall is an antidote to the casinos. It’s open and airy with plenty of natural light. These are real stores for real people,” according to one mall official.

Across the street from Fashion Show is the newest and most expensive ($2.4 billion) resort ever built here. Wynn’s Las Vegas–the latest creation of Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who built the Mirage, Treasure Island, and the Bellagio–is scheduled to open April 28.

The eye-catching feature of Wynn’s Las Vegas is a 16-story “mountain” on the Strip. His theory is that people will want to know what’s on the other side of the mountain.

In addition to the casino and 50-story hotel, the resort will offer a new retail wrinkle-a Ferrari and Maserati auto showroom inside the resort.

Driving away your winnings could become a new Las Vegas tradition.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

Above: : Outlet shopping near Las Vegas is available in Primm, Nev.

Below: The expanded Fashion Show mall on the strip. Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority photos

Before You Go
For more information, contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at (877) VISITLV (847-4858) or online at www.vegasfreedom.com. Click on the shopping link and download a passport coupon that can be presented at several retail destinations, including Fashion Show Mall, the Forum Shops at Caesars and Desert Passage. Outlet malls also are on the list.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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