John Unwin understood that there was some risk when he decided last year to leave Caesars Palace after five years to take control of a half-finished, multibillion-dollar resort project that many in Las Vegas thought would never be completed.
That project, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, had been acquired by Deutsche Bank AG for $1 billion in 2008 after its original owner, Bruce Eichner, defaulted on his construction loans.
With Caesars Palace, Unwin, 52, served as general manager where his position was secure and his daily routine included overseeing the property's casino and hotel operations.
But with The Cosmopolitan, Unwin was presented with the opportunity to use his 30 years of industry experience to build a luxury hotel-casino with amenities not found anywhere else in Las Vegas.
"I've been preparing for this opportunity my whole career," Unwin said in a recent interview with the Review-Journal. "Most of us (here) see this as an opportunity of a lifetime, and we are treating it that way."
His experience also includes management positions with Fairmont Resort Hotels and Ian Schrager hotels such as the Mondrian and Delano.
He is also confident the $3.9 billion hotel-casino will achieve its goal of setting a new standard for local resorts, while earning a decent return on the investment Deutsche Bank made to complete the project.
Unwin said The Cosmopolitan's rooms, restaurants, pools and membership program separate his resort from others. The Cosmopolitan's rewards program is called Identity, which recognizes a guest's total spending at the hotel, not just spending on gaming.
The Cosmopolitan opens Dec. 15 with 5,000 employees and 2,000 rooms completed with another 995 opening in the summer of 2011. The resort's room prices range from $135 to $300 a night depending on the room's location.
Unwin declined to discuss the future of condominiums on the 8.7-acre property or comment on those original buyers who passed on a settlement in April, saying the issue remains "in litigation."
Review-Journal: How can you compete in a market where room capacity outstrips demand?
Unwin: We are trying to create new trips to Las Vegas. There are two types of visitors to Las Vegas. First is the group that comes to Las Vegas on a regular basis and is looking for something new, while the other is a group of travelers who have checked it out and check it off their list because they believe there is nothing there for me. I believe the product we've created and the experience we'll offer will attract both crowds to The Cosmopolitan. Our property is design-driven and less theme-oriented than other properties along the Strip.
Review-Journal: What makes the Cosmopolitan unique?
Unwin: We are unique because we built a high-end hotel that's not pretentious. I learned a lot from working at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and for Ian Schrager in New York about luxury boutique hotels. I also learned a lot about what people want from working at Caesars Palace. I still consider myself to be an outsider in Las Vegas, which is not a bad thing. This is a type of hotel you'll find in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris or London. It's what makes us different. We are bringing a new and appealing approach. All of our retailers are new to the market. We have 3,000 rooms, 14 restaurants and 150,000 square feet of casino space, and we do it on 8.7 acres, which makes for a more intimate footprint. This is your fantasy New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo high-rise apartment that lets you engage with the Strip.
Review-Journal: Are you marketing the Cosmopolitan to locals?
Unwin: We expect locals to shop here and eat at our restaurants. We know they'll find that with what we offer they can come spend an enjoyable evening at The Cosmopolitan. We are also creating events locals will want to attend. I would also like to see chefs from all over town come in at the end of the evening and have a drink or something to eat here; that would be a sign of a successful place.
Review-Journal: Has Deutsche Bank established any financial goals for The Cosmopolitan?
Unwin: First let me say, they have been unbelievable to work with. They have given us plenty of support and money to finish the property. Yes, they have financial expectations for the property, but I'm not going to tell you what they are.
Review-Journal: Why create a new rewards program that is different than what other resorts offer their guests?
Unwin: Because we are not saddled with the legacy systems that the other properties are, which makes it difficult for them to change. I believe it gives us a competitive advantage. Our program recognizes a guest's total spending and not just a gaming membership program. There are a lot of people who travel to Las Vegas who don't participate because they believe they don't gamble enough. It's very important to recognize what they spend in the hotel, the spa and restaurants. It creates a valuable relationship with our quests. This business is all about relationships.
Review-Journal: When will you roll out the Identity program?
Unwin: We'll kick it off before we open. The mechanisms are all in place for guests to sign up on our website. We'll begin to market the program right before we open. These cards were designed to be permanent and can be used as room keys and membership cards while you're here.
Review-Journal: You have built three distinct pools as you describe it. Why develop it that way?
Unwin: It about this idea of exploring something interesting around the next corner. There are three distinct pool experiences on our property. The Boulevard Pool sits about 100 feet above the Strip and includes a terrace stage for events. It can hold 2,500 to 3,000 people for concerts. The Bamboo pool is more private, while the Day Club Pool is a lounge pool during the day and an extension of our Marquee Nightclub.
Review-Journal: What is you work schedule?
Unwin: It's funny; I'm working all the time. I've been preparing for this my whole career. There is so much to do and we aren't open yet. It won't slow down after we open, because we are in a 24/7 kind of business. We are all working hard and loving it. Most of us see this as an opportunity of a lifetime and we are treating it that way.
Review-Journal: What was your first job in the gaming industry?
Unwin: It was when I joined Caesars Palace in 2004. I was running a hotel company that had about 15 hotels. I wanted to learn another aspect of the hotel business. I got into the business because I enjoyed interacting with our guests and employees, not just spending my entire day in the executive offices.
Review-Journal: What is your expectation for an economic recovery for the Strip?
Unwin: I think we are heading in that direction. We have seen recent growth in the numbers released by McCarran Airport along with increases in group and room rate averages. Convention business is growing. I'm the eternal optimist. I think we are priced right and you can't beat the experience of Las Vegas. Las Vegas took a beating in the press, but at the end of the day we are headed in the right direction. I just don't know how quick the rebound will be.
Review-Journal: You have just overseen the completion of a $3.9 billion hotel-casino. Any words of advice?
Unwin: Developing a point of view, building a world-class team including: development and construction, restaurant and retail partners, a senior management team and a successful distribution partner. It is not for the faint of heart.
Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at csieroty@reviewjournal. com or 702-477-3893.