Walking into the Aria Resort & Casino, in the new $8.5 billion CityCenter complex in Las Vegas, is not like walking into any other casino-based resort in the city. Even at 150,000 square feet, Aria's casino does not dominate. You don’t even see it at first. What stands out is design, art, architecture, the fact that this place is really interesting.
If you’re checking in at the Sky Suites (some of the 568 suites out of 4,004 total guest rooms), you enter down a hallway along a wall with tall silver slivers curving in and out like waves. Are they meant to remind you of the waterfall you’ve just seen next to the porte-cochére on your way in? Is this one of the art installations you’ve heard about here? Is it made of recycled materials, as so many things in the hotel are? In some ways, asking those kinds of questions represents the essence of the property: It’s full of cool stuff to look at and discover—not just things that clink and whirr and occasionally spit out winnings.
You can get a guide and map to the art collection, which is well worth doing, but the guide doesn’t say anything about what I started calling the “Nine Faces of Christopher Walken”—nine large and disparately distorted black-and-white photographs of the actor who has made a career out of playing creepy characters and being totally cool at the same time. They hang along one wall of the casino. (Google his name and the resort name: People are having online conversations about this! The consensus: The photos were taken by artist and director Julian Schnabel and are on loan from a private collection.)
If you check in at the main desk, you can look past the desk attendant to a wall of glass and through it to a stand of trees and a Henry Moore sculpture, “Reclining Connected Forms.” Or look above the desk at the 122-foot-long undulating ripple of reclaimed silver, sculpted by artist Maya Lin to mimic the flow of the Colorado River.
There are Andy Warhol prints by Aria’s Sky Suites elevators; an original Robert Rauschenberg painting, “Lucky Dream,” in the lobby of neighboring new CityCenter hotel the Vdara Resort & Spa; plus ceramics, an LED installation, and an enormous, colorful sculpture by Nancy Rubins made of 157 mostly salvaged canoes outside Vdara.
After the art, what stands out at Aria is service. The tone of my entire experience at the five-week-old property was set on the evening of my arrival, as I searched for the shuttle bus that would take me to an off-site dinner. Before I could even ask the question, Brian Benowitz, vice president of table games, noticed my uncertainty and offered to help. He walked me down one side of the casino and up the other, cheerfully, until we found my bus. I thanked him, took his business card, and asked, “Who can I tell about this?” He laughed, “Just tell me.” Well, I’m telling all of our readers, too! (I had other occasions to ask for directions, and each interaction was as pleasant as the first.)
So let’s get to the details for meetings. Aria Resort & Casino offers 20 check-in windows to accommodate your attendees—or, book a VIP lounge for private check-in. The resort’s 300,000 square feet of meeting space is on three levels next to a 40-foot-high wall of glass that looks out onto a garden, the pool, and the mountains beyond. The garden ventures inside as well, with a “living wall” along the first floor that has grass growing out from it in small tufts. (Attendees will be tempted to reach out and touch it as they glide past on the escalator. There’s a lot of playfulness with texture throughout the resort. If there isn’t a sign—and sometimes there is—touch away!)
Three ballrooms ranging from 38,000 to 52,000 square feet have full theatrical stages and two of them can be opened up for traffic to flow from one to the other. A fourth, 20,000-square-foot ballroom is divisible into four rooms. The first floor offers 11 breakouts, the second offers 12; the third offers 13 breakout rooms. The space accommodates events for up to 5,000 guests.
Gail Fitzgerald, vice president of hotel sales and marketing, who came to the property from Bellagio Resort, says a lot of effort went into designing the meeting space using the experience of other Las Vegas properties. Technology is “plug and play,” with CityCenter having installed the largest fiberoptic network in a commercial application, according to Bill McBeath, president and chief operating officer, MGM Mirage, owner of CityCenter. “We have unlimited capacity for future technology,” he said.
In-room technology is cutting edge as well, from the curtains that automatically open the first time a guest enters her room to the TV-based controls for everything from lights to temperature. A switch beside the bed labeled “Goodnight” automatically shuts off the TV, closes the curtains, turns off the lights, and switches on the “privacy” light outside the room.
Also cutting edge for a casino resort is Aria’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Placement of air ducts at floor level are part of the resort’s effort to keep the air clean in the casino, the only place in the resort where smoking is allowed (except for a walkway along one side of the casino, which, to get the certification, Aria is required to keep smoke-free). The ventilation system carries smoke skyward as it cools the casino, or so the theory goes. I can honestly say I didn’t smell smoke when walking through the casino; on the other hand, it was clearly not at capacity and therefore not really being put to the test.
Aria has 10 bars and lounges and 16 dining options, including seven restaurants affiliated with celebrity chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Julian Serrano. Aria’s own 1,840-seat theater features the newest show from Cirque du Soleil, “Viva Elvis.” And the 80,000-square-foot spa includes a full fitness center.
Joining Aria Resort & Casino in the CityCenter complex is the 1,495-room, non-gaming Vdara Resort & Spa; the 392-room Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas; the residential Veer Towers; the 400-room Harmon hotel, opening later this year; and Crystals, a luxury-brand-only shopping center whose crazy angles, dead ends, and seemingly misaligned floors are apparently meant to remind one of a crystal formation and whose tenants (Prada, Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Tiffany & Co., and more) are due to be in place by the end of 2010.