Observed

Recently Hard Rock International announced it will rebrand the Mirage Hotel & Casino in 2025. MGM Resorts will hand over operations to Hard Rock for $1 billion and change. In cash, of course, because Vegas.

And so, an icon of the Las Vegas Strip will be reshaped and rebranded. Steve Wynn’s visionary hotel changed how America thought about and interacted with Las Vegas. The tide of hotels afterward … Treasure Island, The Bellagio, The Luxor, and on and on … created a wholly new user experience up and down the Strip (and way beyond).

As marketing tools, the volcanoes, pirate ships, and operatic fountains of the Wynn Era were designed to stop pedestrian traffic and lure visitors via street spectacle. These were, in essence, billboards.

Photo: iStock

Design thinking was firmly geared towards outer appearances. Interiors had on-brand flourishes but were pretty standard in their revenue-maximizing layouts: distinctive art installation in the lobby, plush carpets, leather sofas in the sportsbooks, an outer ring of vaguely-upscale restaurants, and clear access to slots, ATMs, and theaters.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Three-plus decades after The Mirage opened, our collective sense of what makes a satisfying user experience is changing, and that change can be hard for the gaming industry to see because it’s made a lot of money offering the same products and services for decades. The same faux-exclusive clubs, the same Cirque du Soleil shows, the same upscale mini-mall stores from the 1990s.

A few years ago, Roger Thomas’ ideas about “playground design” in casino resorts took off. His model prioritized intimacy over strict rules about walkways and table placement. The theory was if you feel like you’re in a special place, you’ll take more risks and be more open to paying for indulgences.

Vegas ran with that theory, but the idea of what makes a playground has been changing in subtle ways. Prop-heavy street theater is out. Interiors are in. Come inside. See and spend within our walled garden.

What to make of this gaze inward? Is Vegas capturing the right “UX” of the moment, or just going through the motions? Is the architectural and experiential design of the town still, what’s the word … fun?

More Walkability and Millennial Vibes

Circa is the first new resort built downtown since 1980, and aims to capitalize on the increasing Brooklynization of Fremont Street. You can walk out the front door and in 5 minutes arrive at a resurgent, redeveloped part of town with great bars and restaurants. No taxi lines, no hassle.

Both the interior and exterior feel way sleeker than all the neighboring hotels. Inside is all clean lines, craft cocktails, and shot glasses of nostalgia. Like Hollywood, Vegas loves visual cues to summon the past, like the 25-foot-tall neon cowgirl Vegas Vickie, icon of Fremont Street’s seedier era. She is perhaps most representative of the turn inward. A work designed for the outside, now inside adjacent to the bar. Completely out-of-scale and totally Instagrammable.

Circa’s showpiece is the rooftop Stadium Swim. Six massive pools, two expensive spas, capacity for 4,000 people. Looming above all the pleasure-seekers is an Orwellian 143×40-foot LED screen. Sports bar meets pool-party megachurch. designed to keep you there for as long as possible with a steady stream of beverages, snacks, and add-ons. No random tourists here, and no visibility from the street.

Circa is a mini-city within the mini-city of downtown. Following the urban migration patterns of millennials and Gen Z, it’s a neighborhood with everything you need within 10 minutes and zero transportation friction.

Enduring Nostalgia

Maybe more than any other major American city, Vegas looks backward, promising a rose-tinted Viewfinder of simple vices and personal freedoms. 

The signage and branding callbacks trip through time, sometimes summoning a scruffy “Fear and Loathing” 1970s Vegas. Divey and slightly dangerous, with Joe Pesci lurking about. But the design choices mainly reference 1950s and 1960s “old” Vegas. Old Vegas promises no rules and cheap drinks, VIP service and Dean Martin. Big rooms and long nights. And the design just looks great.

Photo: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Circa’s glittery logo ring-a-ding-ding 1957 cursive. Reborn bar Starboard Tack’s 1965 marina script. The interlocking 1970 bronze “S” of the new Sahara. The imported 1948 Miami deco of the upcoming Fontainebleau Hotel.

Plus, there’s the signscape that’s hung on from the original eras, being bought up piece by piece by investors to repackage. Nostalgia is an increasing part of the expected visual experience in Vegas, and it’s everywhere: wedding chapels, steakhouses, museums, smaller motels. The onslaught of the past is the point. Urban design as time machine.

Photo: The Neon Museum

Smaller Scale

Las Vegas, like America, occasionally struggles with the idea that larger does not equal better. “Boutique” is a word moving cautiously into land-developer speak in Nevada.

And with good reason. Vegas is more expensive than it was a generation ago. Show tickets, spa days, and Michelin-starred restaurants are part of the expected experience and they are pricey. That amount of vacation investment now means Vegas has to compete with other entertainment meccas for dollars.

There is a diminishing appetite for bloated, one-size-fits-all properties where the lines are long, the pools are crowded, the rooms are cookie-cutter, and leaving the property takes 20 minutes. Architectural design has to change too, which means a rethink of the UX. The Wynn-era hotels now feel old, crowded, and not particularly special.

Photo: Dream Hotel Group

The under-construction Dream Hotel is a sign of things to come. At 530 rooms, it is minuscule by traditional Vegas room counts (The MGM Grand has 6,852 rooms). It’s relatively isolated, on the Strip, and close to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. 

It’s pitched as an oasis. Millennial-friendly, family-neutral, attainable luxury via credit card points, classy not trashy. All lustrous glass and radiused corners. The architects at DLR Group describe it thusly:

Design solutions inspired by the native cactus and landforms give the architectural fenestration its unique appearance. Undulating lines trace the hotel tower and add a sophisticated texture that plays with the desert sun.

Indeed. The shape of the building conveys something new. Air, daylight, ease, refinement, chill, discovery, dreams … the marketing playbook for this hotel could’ve been written by a pandemic-era therapist.

Digital and Cultural Shifts

Hotel website design can feel monolithic — the same soft fades, clear water, soaring towers, beautiful people. The mission is clear. Sell the hotel experience, reserve your room today. The monolith predictably skips over diversity in favor of a glossy sameness.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see brands like The Sahara prominently call out to the LGBTQIA+ community on the site (and in the hotel itself). Is it marketing based on demographic research? Yes. And, it’s a welcome relief to see a major business rethink how it presents itself in a sea of marketing focused on mainly white, straight audiences.

The ground is shifting in other ways. Circa raised eyebrows when it committed to a 21-and-over policy for entry, as did its venerable neighbor The El Cortez (a true original and home of the 25-cent poker chip). That alters the family/no-family ratio, influencing everything from floor layout to beverage offerings to noise pollution.

Vegas hotels are also moving towards app-based solutions to help ease pain points. Pain point number one? The check-in process. Resorts World visitors can use the Hilton Honors app to check in and out, make reservations, and function as your room key. The app collects a ton of behavioral data for the hotel, naturally. But hey, bonus points!

The Cosmopolitan is diving into artificial intelligence via the Rose digital concierge chatbot. Rose is an interesting example of aural design, often described as “sassy.” Guests can funnel a lot of customer service requests — extra pillows, restaurant reservations, skipped lines, etc. — through the bot. It won’t be long before all the major properties clone it.

Rethinking Tastes and Personalization

“What is Vegas” makes for steady philosophical work, and the city rebrands come fast and furious, from family-friendly paradise to “what happens here” posturing and back again.

However, consumer tastes have changed dramatically over the last 10 years, and food is a good example of where casinos need to go. Celebrity-branded steakhouses have cooled, though the reliance on VC-backed NY or LA restaurants is still strong. Off-strip, Vegas is now a food capital; why not bring in branches from the famous local scene in Chinatown?

Or, look at the new Legends Bay Casino in Reno-Sparks, which will dump the fusty old buffet for a bright new food truck hall with local music. Superfrico in The Cosmopolitan, billing itself as Italian American Psychedelic, is a collection of 8 different spaces offering a sort of “night circus” vibe, as well as a secret Ski Lodge bar.

Current thinking around personalized experiences invariably circles back to apps or digital tools that help you buy more stuff and play more games. True personalization has to offer more.

Since personalized experiences are at a premium, why haven’t hotel companies embraced a Disney/Westworld approach, bringing back some classic theme hotel thinking with a holistic twist? A single property could host 8 or 9 boutique hotels appealing to different, but adjacent, interests like: 

  • An art hotel with outposts of major museums. 
  • A rustic lodge theme with outdoor activities and Patagonia-esque retail. 
  • A hotel centered around the idea of a rolling music festival, with multiple small venues and clubs and acts going on all the time. 
  • A Zen hotel dedicated to chill vibes, yoga poses, and minimal raging out.
  • A car-centered concept for gearheads, with motorsport options and inspired decor.
  • A pet-friendly (yet elegant?) complex with next-level activities, daycare, puppy spa, and dog run/beer garden.
Photo: Yosemite Hotel via iStock

On the surface, these ideas are too niche to appeal to investors who want scale (and are reluctant to go all in on an idea they see as high-concept, or way too narrow). However, as an easily-rebrandable part of a compound, they make more sense. 

And they offer guests a fun way to elevate their particular interests and dip a toe into others. A fantasy version of what they love, with plenty of partnership and branding opportunities for the hotel. What’s more Vegas than that?

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