The first hospitality job that John Unwin, CEO of The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, ever had was at The Olympic in Seattle, an establishment that serves as the social center of the city.
“The Olympic in Seattle is kind of what The Fairmont is to San Francisco and what the Copley Plaza is to Boston or The Plaza is to New York,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It was such a fascinating, interesting place; in a way it was like going to college again, except everyone wore nametags." Unwin started in the purchasing department at The Olympic and then moved into food and beverage as he became more entranced with the luxury hotel business. His career took him to other Fairmont hotels as well as to some enviable boutique environments, including as COO of Ian Schrager hotels, where he worked at the Mondrian and the Delano. He’s also worked with Westin Hotels & Resorts and Marriott International. Most recently, he was the general manager of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Along the way, he’s loved every step.
“I really enjoyed the social interaction, the fact that you have new customers coming in all the time, and that hotels encompass a lot of little businesses,” he says.
One might say that Unwin has brought that same down-home dynamic he found at The Olympic to The Cosmopolitan, even though the resort casino, at 2,995 rooms and with 180 different departments, is much, much larger in size.
The similarities lie in the fact that the local market in Las Vegas has adopted The Cosmopolitan as its own—guests come in for staycations to try out its restaurants and shops, to visit its art exhibits and to game in its 150,000-square-foot casino. The energy among its employees is also collegial, and though each staff member might not know others’ names (there are 5,000 in all), on exploring the hotel, one gets the feeling that they all know they’re all part of something unique.
|Wraparound Terrace Suites, with balconies the size of a typical Manhattan apartment, are The Cosmopolitan’s most sought-after rooms.|
That’s the similarity. The difference between The Cosmopolitan and The Olympic, is that The Cosmopolitan aims to deliver an experience to the guest that includes “just the right amount of wrong,” to quote the tagline Unwin and his team created for the fledgling resort in order to give it a sense of mystique and fun.
Indeed, The Cosmopolitan, still in its first year, seems to be the favored child of the jet-set crowd; its Marquee Nightclub, which hosted a party reportedly costing $25 million on New Year’s Eve, with guest performers such as Jay-Z, Coldplay, Beyonce, John Mayer and Kanye West, is always buzzing, as are its bars and restaurants and three hip pool areas.
Its lobby is a destination unto itself, with eight mirrored columns with LCD screens that enable art videos to be constantly streamed through, and a series of small, individual pods that serve as personal check-in locations. Then there's the three-story Chandelier lounge and bar, which encompasses 10,000 square feet of space adorned with 2 million glass beads. The lounge even has changing video images. Good to know: Interiors were designed by David Rockwell, who says that the idea behind The Cosmopolitan was “to redefine the total experience of Las Vegas, from arriving to eating to dancing to sleeping.”
|The Chandelier lounge and bar is adorned with 2 million glass beads.|
How did the new hotel, which sits adjacent to the luxurious Bellagio and next to CityCenter, whose hotels, Aria, Vdara and The Mandarin Oriental opened just a year earlier, make it so quickly at a time when Las Vegas is seeing its share of challenges?
Things didn’t look too good from the start. The resort, seven years ago, was meant to be a $3.9 billion extravaganza with a robot theme and plenty of condos to sell. The recession caused the initial owner to default; Deutsche Bank inherited it and made the best of it. They lured Unwin away from Caesars Palace, where he had had plenty of experience in creating luxury landscapes…think of the Octavius and Augustus towers, the Garden of the Gods pool scene and the Qua Baths and Spa, just to name a few. With Ian Schrager, he was COO of 12 hotels, all known for their chic nightlife and lifestyle themes.
The scene was set. Deutsche Bank needed someone to fill in the interiors of the resort they’d purchased for a reported $1 billion and Unwin was the man. The Cosmopolitan, which was still under construction, had had no branding or marketing initiatives, meaning Unwin had a blank canvas to work on. At the same time, he knew he had to move quickly to ramp up in a very competitive environment to secure a good position in the luxury tier of Las Vegas’ hotel market.
“And that’s been done,” he says. “There is still plenty of work to do, don’t get me wrong, but that was our mission and it created some really exciting opportunities in terms of trying to stand out in a sea of sameness.”
Indeed, over the first three months leading up to opening and in the four months that followed, The Cosmopolitan enjoyed more than 7 billion media impressions, which were overwhelmingly positive, says Unwin.
Driving much of the buzz were the “just the right amount of bad” TV commercials, which were cryptic but catchy, depicting pant-less bellmen; little white puppies, kittens and bunnies and attractive guests in lavish environments. The commercials went viral via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“The conclusions that people who watched the commercial drew about what The Cosmopolitan was going to be were just fascinating, because they so understood the spirit of what we were creating,” says Unwin. “It created a lot of interest and it brought a lot of people here.”
An eternally optimistic Unwin also believes there is more to The Cosmopolitan’s success. “Some of my colleagues around town don’t agree with this, but I think people are looking for a good story to come out of Las Vegas. There was also a lot of support for us because we were independent. We embodied that indie spirit; we were able to do things a bit differently, be a bit more nimble and a bit more responsive to what customers are looking for.”
We asked Unwin how he made his decisions to create the interior landscape that exists at the resort today. He feels that his job was easier because even though he’d been in Las Vegas for five years, he still very much considered himself an outsider.
“It was an advantage because I got to see what resonated with guests in other cities around the world,” he says, speaking of his past experiences. He and The Cosmopolitan marketing team made a chart with all the luxury properties in Las Vegas and where they stood in terms of positioning, ranging from purely themed resorts (such as Caesars) to those that were more design driven. The task was to find a part of the luxury market that was being underserved.
That underserved market turned out to be those looking for a resort that was design-driven, spirited and polished, but not pretentious. Hence, the aesthetic for The Cosmopolitan was born.
The process of fulfilling this positioning appealed to Unwin, who to date had run luxury hotels based on legacies that he had inherited.
“I have had the good fortune to be associated with and to operate some great brands in between. But I never got a chance to get at it from the beginning and take all those things that I learned from all those people. So I view this as an opportunity of a lifetime,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
The results? For its top-tier guests, The Cosmopolitan has a membership club: when members reach a certain level, they are invited to special events, such as a private tasting or a movie screening, that are not available to the general public.
“Access is one of the things I think people really like when they come to Las Vegas. And if you think back of the old Las Vegas, the way you got taken care of in the city was you had to know a guy to get into a place or to get you a deal or to get you the best table at a show. Our ability to execute against that is probably the most powerful thing we can do for our clients.”
Then there are the top suites, which include three-story bungalows with living quarters, a party deck and a cabana off the deck of the Marquee DayClub, a venue that serves up an adults-only, sexy party pool scene.
“You could get a three-story bungalow and have a little party outside on your terrace while you are looking over the Bellagio fountains on one side or out at the pool on the other side,” says Unwin.
Lanai Suites at two stories are smaller but, because of their loft style, are a favorite of Unwin’s. “They aren’t huge, they are maybe 1,000 square feet, but you have a loft bedroom upstairs and a two-story window that overlooks the Bamboo Pool,” he says, noting that these suites also have movie screens that come out of the ceiling, as well as their own plunge pools.
The Wraparound Terrace Suites, which have balconies the size of a typical Manhattan apartment, are the resort’s most sought-after rooms, and are best for large families or groups. They have in-suite washers and dryers as well as full kitchens. Most of the regular guest rooms are suites, many with private, furnished terraces. Rockwell’s intent here, he says, was to provide a chic, urban, luxury residence.
Then there is The Cosmopolitan’s Pool District, which provides three different experiences: Boulevard has a yacht-club vibe, Bamboo has a secluded and pampering intent, and the aforementioned Marquee DayClub pool is nothing less than party central.
Unwin chose to make the retail and dining establishments unique in that vendors didn’t already have a venue in Las Vegas. Dining includes Jaleo by Jose Andres for Spanish tapas, who also runs "e," at The Cosmopolitan, considered by some to be the most exclusive restaurant in Las Vegas. With just eight seats, it has a tasting menu of over a dozen dishes including a liquid nitrogen gin and tonic. Dining also includes Scarpetta, a modern Italian restaurant by Chef Scott Conant. In the heart of the restaurant area is the P3 Studio, an artist-in-residence program with rotating exhibits. Its intent is to make the dining area feel like a real neighborhood, in every sense of the word.
“All the restaurateurs belong to a neighborhood association. We try to do things that make the neighborhood better. We try to provide space there so that you can sit down in the public area. My inspiration for the retail neighborhood and the restaurant neighborhood was Elizabeth Street in New York, where you go into all these interesting boutiques but you could also get a Cuban coffee at that place on the corner, and you could sit on the bench there,” says Unwin.
Part of all this, hidden down a long hallway, is a pizza parlor designed to appear as if it’s on Eighth Avenue in New York City. His desire was to make it as funky as it could be, with subway tiles and just the basics.
“It was hard work because the construction and design team kept trying to make it nicer,” he says with a laugh. Because there is no signage for the place, it has garnered a bit of mystical charm, with guests finding out about it only through hearsay.
“It’s been a real success, and a big part of the idea and a big part of what appeals to the curious class is that you are always constantly exploring, and you are always finding interesting things around the next corner,” he says.
Who is this “curious class” that Unwin is speaking of? It is The Cosmopolitan’s core market, defined as a psychographic, rather than a demographic. The curious class, he explains, is a spirited group encompassing a rather large portion of the population domestically and internationally that is fond of traveling and interesting food, likes to explore and enjoys interesting hotel concepts. They tend to come from urban areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami.
“They perceive themselves to be broadminded, and they are looking for a new definition of luxury,” he says.
Creating the Team
To deliver all this, Unwin ensures that those who work for The Cosmopolitan understand how serious he is about his passion for this unique product. To instill a similar level of passion, Unwin went about creating a culture, for both staff and guests, that gave them a sense of belonging.
“So it is more than just a job. It’s about being a part of a community that’s bigger than your job or your department. I am in the middle of this three-legged stool that has customers or guests, staff and investors. You have to keep all those three things in balance all the time, or the stool won’t stand up.”
He engages staff from the get-go; when they apply for a job at the talent center, they see a brief video of him explaining The Cosmopolitan. If they pass muster, they see a longer video of him giving more information. By the time they’re on the floor, working, they know who Unwin is, and when they see him walking the floor himself, they tend to stop him and share their ideas and opinions with him. And he’s all for it.
“There is a lot of brain power when you have 5,000 people at work here, and our ability to get their thoughts and ideas and commitment beyond their specific job is really valuable,” he says. “The people who came to work here really appreciate the idea that they are part of an elite group.”
There’s no doubt that Unwin himself also appreciates where he is at this juncture in his career. “I love being with people, and I love the satisfaction that I get every day. You don’t have to wait for a year to see your successes and failures. You see them every day, and you see people grow and develop,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
“I have an opportunity here where I am enjoying myself the vast majority of the time, even when it’s really hard, which is not something everybody has.”