The upscaling of Las Vegas received a nod Friday, when travel club AAA released its 2008 list of Five-Diamond Award winners.
The addition of The Venetian, a first-time Five-Diamond winner, takes Nevada's number of award winners to nine -- five hotels and four restaurants. That tally means Las Vegas is fast entering a league of its own in luxury hospitality.
Only New York, with six Five-Diamond winners, bested Las Vegas' hotel count. On the food-and-beverage side, just Chicago, with seven Five-Diamond winners, surpassed Las Vegas' award numbers. Las Vegas' nine establishments overall ties New York's total.
The 2008 Five-Diamond
roster is a far cry from eight years ago, when the city had no winners. The city didn't join the Five-Diamond pantheon until the 2000 list, when the Four Seasons made the first of nine consecutive appearances.
Michael Geeser, a spokesman for AAA, said Las Vegas' meteoric rise within the Five-Diamond world is a response to the evolving tastes of tourists.
"Las Vegas has answered the demands of the consumer," Geeser said. "Years ago, consumers wanted the cheap buffets and shrimp cocktails that Las Vegas had become known for. In the last decade, consumers have reshaped their appetites toward fine dining and more refined settings."
Meriting Five Diamonds requires an unrelenting emphasis on detail.
AAA's 65 full-time evaluators tour the country, assessing hotels based on exteriors, public areas, guest rooms, amenities and bathrooms, and vetting restaurants for food, service, decor and ambience. The evaluators visited nearly 60,000 establishments in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, and gave Five-Diamond status to just 160 operations.
Las Vegas' marketwide achievement is especially impressive because of the size of some of the city's winners, Geeser said. Bellagio has 3,900 rooms, The Venetian has 4,000 rooms and Wynn Las Vegas has 2,700 rooms. Many of the Five-Diamond winners in other cities have room counts below 1,000, and AAA officials say it's tough to maintain consistently excellent service within properties that have thousands of rooms.
"To achieve this for our team members and guests is spectacular," said Rob Goldstein, president of The Venetian and its under-construction sister resort, the Palazzo. "We're humbled by it. The real stars are the line people who face the customers every day -- the housekeeping staff, the front desk, the concierges, this is where the award really shines."
Randy Morton, president and chief operating officer of Bellagio, said the resort has been committed to fine dining since it opened in 1998. He also credited the awards to resort and restaurant workers.
"Picasso and Le Cirque, in my opinion, nine years later are still two of the top restaurants not only in Las Vegas but in the world," he said. "In the quality of food, service, amenities, detail, we're striving every day to achieve this Five-Diamond status. To be recognized by AAA over and over and year after year is a credit and a compliment to our employees. At the end of the day, it's really all about the employees."
And Alex Stratta, executive chef at Alex, said the award means a lot to his employees.
"It's a great feeling for everybody on the staff," Stratta said. "It gives everybody a jolt in the arm, which is always really great for motivating people."
The criteria for achieving such status are fairly straightforward; for example, Stratta was denied one top award when he had Renoir at The Mirage because there wasn't a restroom inside the restaurant.
"When we designed this restaurant, we really made sure we had all of our criteria covered," he said. "We had all of the food and service standards up to par. We designed with the bar in mind and the service bar and all the things that really help facilitate the service. It's a huge commitment that Mr. Wynn and the hotel has made to us. There's a big commitment staffing, and you name it."
Las Vegas could have more AAA diamonds in its future, given the amount of upscale development happening on the Strip, Geeser said. MGM Mirage's CityCenter, Boyd Gaming Corp.'s Echelon, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas and the Palazzo will bring high-end mega- resorts and boutique hotels to the Strip in coming years.
The amount of development could make Las Vegas the No. 1 Five-Diamond destination in the world, Geeser said.
At least one resort operator admits he's already eyeing that prize.
"It's certainly our goal to achieve Five Diamonds at Palazzo," said Goldstein of the hotel-casino, which is scheduled to open in December. "We hope to keep The Venetian at that level as well, and have 7,000 keys under one Five-Diamond roof."