Losing Your Shirt, but Not in the Casino
UNDER an oppressive desert sun, 1,500 revelers squeeze in and around a complex of pools at the Palms resort, showing off their dance moves and late-summer tans. The hotel’s weekly bacchanal, Ditch Fridays, is in full flare.
The sloshed and the giddy sled on plastic saucers down an artificial hill, created with 25 tons of snow, then drop into chest-high heated water. D.J.’s spin a blend of rock and hip-hop, and cabanas overflow with pretty people in designer swim trunks and bikinis. A glass-bottom pool, which serves as the ceiling of an outdoor bar, echoes swingy decadence, 1970s-style.
“It feels like spring break,” says Heather Fordham, a trainer from Texas visiting here with 20 girlfriends. “The only difference is that we’re all in our 30s and we need more time to recover from our hangovers.”
Along the Las Vegas Strip, new-breed pools have dovetailed with nightclubs to become a magnet for attracting customers to casinos. Growing from simple hotel amenities to small resorts after steroidal makeovers — a $35 million expansion at the Palms — many have their own entrances, bottle service and admission policies enforced by doormen at a velvet rope.
To justify the investments, properties strive to outdo one another by conjuring flashy approximations of Gen X joie de vivre.
Some of the hotels manufacture sex appeal by wooing local strippers with free cabanas. Ordinary guests at elite pools are provided with free goodies like ice-cold towels, frozen fruit kebabs and sunblock.
Mandalay Bay has a full-blown gambling den overlooking its wave pool ($100-minimum blackjack tables afford a view of topless sunbathers in a discreet section called Moorea Beach). Wynn Las Vegas has a poolside menu from the kitchen of one of its restaurants, Tableau.
And at Tao Beach, a spinoff of Tao Nightclub, in the Venetian, employees resolve problems that are easily endured.
“We have guys who walk around with water tanks on their sides,” says a Tao owner, Richard Wolf, “and their job is to spritz guests so nobody gets too hot.”
Mr. Wolf instructs his door staff to maintain a two-to-one ratio of women to men.
“There are girls who clean people’s sunglasses and then there’s our mood director,” Mr. Wolf says. “He makes sure that groups of guys and groups of girls get introduced to each other all day long.”
Happening pool scenes have proved to be a profitable gambit for Las Vegas casinos. Usually managed by the same entities responsible for filling stylish dance floors around town, the pools lure big players and keep customers in-house.
“Casinos are turning swimming pools into clubs and leveraging what had been underutilized assets,” says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
And the pools’ what-happens-here-stays-here atmosphere also puts players in a casino-friendly frame of mind, says Anthony Curtis, president of lasvegasadvisor.com, which tracks local action.
“Just like the nightclubs, pool parties get guests loose and ready to gamble,” Mr. Curtis says. “It’s midday and they’re already in a full-on, damn-the-torpedoes Vegas mood. It’s what the casinos want, but it’s also what the people want.”
In 1941, the El Rancho, the first Las Vegas hotel passed by tourists driving in from Southern California, placed its pool facing the street. Coming upon it from the desert, Mr. Schwartz says, “The idea was that you’d be drawn by the refreshing pool and would check in at the El Rancho rather than proceeding downtown — in your non-air-conditioned car — to where most of the casinos were.”
Fifty-one years later, the Rio hotel and casino started the city’s first modern pool party. But the enterprise was elevated to its current state by Chad Pallas, who made a name in Las Vegas by overseeing a nightspot called Baby’s at the Hard Rock.
After a while, however, management decided that Baby’s had cooled. Suddenly, Mr. Pallas needed to justify his paycheck. He envisioned Rehab, a Sunday afternoon party at the pool. That was in 2004, and Las Vegas daylife has not been the same.
According to Mr. Pallas, Rehab grosses around $6 million a summer.
“Before Rehab, the pool was generating $15,000 on a Sunday,” he says. “Now we have cabanas going for $2,000 to $5,000 per day, and 40 people were on the waiting list today. Plus there’s the bottle service, a private waitress, a special wristband.”
If that’s not enough, showoffs at Rehab have developed a custom that they call making it rain. “They drop $100 bills from the cabanas up above,” Mr. Pallas says, “and watch the crowd down below go crazy. We have a guy come in every Sunday on his private jet. He stays for the day and makes it rain.”
Rainmaking aside, how expensive can it get for high-end customers seeking a raucous Sunday afternoon? Randy Lund, a C.P.A. who works as a branch manager for mortgage broker Meridias Capital, has been going to Rehab since Day 1. He says he spends more than $100,000 a year on cabanas, food and alcohol for him and his guests. Yet as much as Rehab is about recreation for Mr. Lund, it is also about business.
“I bring Realtors and clients and they love it at Rehab,” says Mr. Lund, trim, shirtless and wearing board shorts. “I met a guy here who was a friend of a friend, I invited him to hang out with us in my cabana, and I bought him a few drinks. He turned out to be a multimillionaire who owns shopping centers and a jet. Now he’s a mentor to me, and we’re in the process of developing our own shopping center here in Vegas.”
But these kinds of free-spending customers are tough to lure. And in Las Vegas’s highly competitive atmosphere, everyone tries to outdo everybody else.
The D.J. StoneRokk spinning for the Ditch Fridays party at the Palms pool.
In recent years the Mirage, Wynn Las Vegas, Caesars Palace and Mandalay Bay have introduced what they call European sunbathing. It takes place in sequestered pools, often requires an additional admission, and men always pay more than women (as much as $50 a day, and with day beds or cabanas, costs can easily reach $1,000 for an afternoon). The policy is part capitalism and part crowd control. As one pool manager says, during the busy Cinco de Mayo weekend, “I turned away $15,000 worth of business because we didn’t want too many guys in here.”
At the Mirage, the top-optional pool club is known as Bare. There, one weekend afternoon, the N.B.A. star Devon George hung out with friends in an elevated V.I.P. area with its private, glass-walled pool while, on a nearby lounge, a half-dozen out-of-town girlfriends debate doffing their tops.
One of them casually takes the plunge, and others follow. The lone holdout, Libby Chansky, of Santa Cruz, Calif., who is here on vacation, suddenly finds herself in what resembles a female rugby scrum. She emerges topless. Looking slightly abashed, she says she hasn’t had any work done so told her friends that she didn’t want to remove her top. Pointing to the ringleader, she says, “But my friend whipped it off anyway.”
As potential visitors are endlessly told, being a little naughty is part of Sin City’s allure, and Las Vegas’s pool scene works hard to feed into that.
“Las Vegas is about creating experiences that people cannot have at home,” says Scott Sibella, president of the Mirage and the force behind Bare. “You see the girl next door here and know that she would not go topless at home.”
Toplessness may be the latest tactic in the Las Vegas pool wars, but not for all. Palms and Rehab have never gone that way (“I like having something left to the imagination,” says Mr. Pallas); Tao Beach did it for a while before retreating.
The manager of a rival pool maintains that Tao’s new modesty stems from the fact that it stays open after dark as part of Tao Nightclub and that it was hard to persuade guests to cover up after sunset. “The way it was going, they would have had to change their designation to topless bar,” says the competitor.
Mr. Wolf explains it differently: “We ultimately decided that it would be better, in terms of being a classy, fun, hip beach-club, to not be topless. It was a hard decision but it was a good decision.”
Whatever the case, it apparently has not hurt business. As Sunday evening encroaches, Rehab winds down and the party kicks up at Tao Beach. A drummer from “Stomp” plays on top of a D.J.’s beats, and a trumpeter roams among the Buddhas meant to imbue an exotic air. A bride-to-be in a monokini rubs lotion into a muscle-boy’s biceps, and Mr. Wolf marvels over a man with the Tao logo tattooed on his stomach.
For the people behind this pool-club-cum-disco, it all adds up to profits. But, looking around, even among the fabulousness, a pall sets upon Mr. Wolf’s face. What’s wrong?
“I’m noticing that as it gets later on Sunday, the crowd shifts,” he says. “It seems that we have more guys and fewer girls. And, to be honest, it concerns me.”
Then he bucks up and declares, “But, don’t worry, I’m going to fix it.”
Many of the following require guests to be 21 or older.
TAO BEACH (Venetian) Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to sunset; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Free Sunday to Friday, with a selective door policy; $20 Saturday, but free for local women and hotel guests. (702) 388-8588.
BARE (Mirage) Daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. $10 for women, $30 for men Monday to Thursday; $20 for women, $40 for men Friday to Sunday. Selective door policy, including hotel guests. (702) 791-7442.
DITCH FRIDAYS (Palms) Friday, noon to 7 p.m. $20, but local women and hotel guests free. (702) 938-9999.
REHAB (Hard Rock) Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. $20 for women, $30 for men. Free for hotel guests, through express line. Otherwise, the wait can exceed two hours. (702) 693-5555.
VENUS POOL CLUB (Caesars Palace) Daily 9 a.m. to sundown. $20 for women, $30 for men. (702) 650-5944.