During the boom years of the last decade and a half, probably no city benefited more from the financial good times than Las Vegas. Up and down the Strip and the rest of sprawling Sin City, hotels and casinos competed to be more opulent than their competitors, and Las Vegas became the place where every star chef had to have his name in lights.
F&B departments found that not only were they no longer the neglected little brother of rooms and gaming tables, but they were also getting the attention and budgets they had previously begged for. Gone were the days of dubious free buffet offerings, and in their place was world-class cuisine that could actually turn a profit. But as the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and even the most highly esteemed and profitable restaurants were not impervious to the flagging economy that has troubled foodservice operations in the rest of the country and around the world.
The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, part of the MGM Mirage group, boasts a collection of fine dining restaurants to rival any hotel in Las Vegas or the world, as evidenced by the slew of James Beard awards, Michelin Stars, Mobil Stars, AAA Diamonds, and Wine Spectator awards it has garnered. The chefs’ names are familiar— Michael Mina, Carlos Buscaglia, Joël Robuchon, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio—and many of them, with a prescience that helps explain their tremendous success, began preparing to modify their menus and concepts before much of the country realized the world economy was softening. In a city that lives by gambling, MGM Grand’s restaurateurs and F&B department were not going to take chances.
Alexandre Gaudelet, MGM Grand VP of F&B, worked with the high-profile outlets during those uncertain days and stepped up to the F&B helm last September. “Across the property and across the city, spending habits had changed,” he says. “Fine dining revenues were down 15 percent. Occupancy was down two to three percent, and average daily room rates had fallen 20 percent.”
In 2008, Gaudelet identified the potential for disaster for all of the food outlets and consequently the entire hotel. In the midst of the uncertainty, two of his fine dining outlets had already begun transforming their restaurants to meet the changing needs of their clientele.
Nobhill, Chef Michael Mina’s venerable establishment, opened to become MGM Grand’s crown jewel of dining in 2001. At that time, the award-winning restaurant was at the top of the city’s food chain, but as the subsequent flood of star chefs saturated the Las Vegas scene and the economy tanked, Nobhill “started positioning [itself] a little differently,” says VP of Operations for Michael Mina, Patric Yumul. Nobhill began concentrating on moving more people through the restaurant to compensate for the slight decline in check average. With that experience in mind, Yumul says Mina was eager to revitalize his venue, so he transformed it into Nobhill Tavern, with a more casual atmosphere and more approachable menu.
The first step in the changeover was to make the dining room less formal. White tablecloths were removed and replaced with leather placemats, and white bone china was replaced with more casual tableware. Brighter colors were chosen for the décor and staff uniforms, and a contemporary jukebox selection replaced the jazz soundtrack that previously filled the room. At the front of the restaurant, a lounge area was added to bring energy to the restaurant with a cocktail crowd.
Beyond décor, the menu opened up to a wider range of offerings. “We have the same integrity of product, and our pricing remained the same,” says Yumul, but guests could now order bangers and mash, fish and chips, sliders, other small plates, and “Mina’s interpretation of modern American tavern fare,” along with the pricier items.
Mina’s team actively marketed the menu to a customer database collected from its seventeen outlets and by MGM Grand’s own sales force to increase the flow of guests and to encourage repeat business. Gaudelet utilized other information distribution channels, such as concierges, local partners, call centers, and Internet social networks to amplify the marketing effort.
Mina’s willingness to trend toward more moderate fare proved to be more than a stabilizing measure. While the average check has declined from $135 to a still-substantial $85 to $90, covers have shot up by 70 percent. The magic of those numbers means that revenues have actually climbed by up to 30 percent. The profits promise a quick return on investment for the costs of redecorating and transforming the outlet.
Elsewhere in the hotel, the only Michelin Three- Star, AAA Five-Diamond, Mobil Five-Star chef in Las Vegas was revising the business plan for his eponymous restaurant. Joël Robuchon,“The Chef of the Century” (as he has been called by the Gault Millau Guide), was preparing to broaden access to his world-renowned cuisine as well. His plan was as simple as lowering the entry price to dine at his namesake restaurant and offering more intermediate choices.
“Joël came to us with his concern about [the slowing economy], and he introduced changes that he had already made at his Monte Carlo restaurant,” says Gaudelet. “He said, ‘This is what we are doing around the world.’ We did not reduce prices, the level of service, or the quality of the food; we changed the way people could order our menu. You can’t have Joël Robuchon and cut corners.” And, in fact, MGM Grand added value by offering courtesy limousine service to and from the restaurant.
Emmanuel Cornet, general manager at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, was interim GM at Joël Robuchon during the transition. “A lot of it comes down to Mr. Robuchon always keeping in touch with his restaurants…he actually takes what he hears from guests and uses it. Mr. Robuchon saw that our menu wasn’t matching what our clientele was looking for,” Cornet says.
Primarily, he refers to the former minimum price of $265 for the six-course dinner, $385 for the sixteen-course degustation menu, and $500 for the six-course truffle dinner. To lower the threshold for guests, Robuchon decided to offer an $89 two-course menu, which includes a complimentary caviar amuse-bouche, choices of house-made bread from a trolley, one main course, one dessert, and choices from a selection of 20 mignardises. He also added courses to intermediate menus for $115, $149, and $195, so that diners could find their own cost comfort level.
Additionally, guests have more menu items from which to choose for each course. “To me, the sixteen-course menu is still a great value,” says Cornet, and it is still offered. There is no longer a truffle menu, but guests can add truffles to individual dishes for a single charge. Menus with fewer courses mean that the service time is shorter, and servers can actually turn tables and have more than one seating per night.
The MGM Grand sales force again worked to get the word out about the new menu format and complimentary limousine service. The results have been “overwhelming,” with guests eager to try Robuchon’s food without the daunting prices. Covers haven risen by 50 percent, while the average check has decreased to around $400. Again, the trade-off worked, producing an increase in revenues of about 25 percent. Rather than scaling back, the restaurant has been able to improve its wine list from an Award of Excellence to a Grand Award from Wine Spectator in 2009.
While the adjustments made by the restaurants themselves deserve the bulk of the credit for keeping the outlets viable, MGM Grand’s marketing, public relations, and sales forces were instrumental in channeling business to them. MGM Grand has an eight-employee onsite sales team that concentrates on the promotion of F&B outlets and reports to both the hotel and the restaurants. Marketing of F&B includes in-house promotions with collateral materials placed in guest rooms, advertising inserts that accompany tickets to all MGM Grand shows, and spots on the in-room television channel for guests.
Digital information has become important in the dissemination of promotional news, with the sales force taking advantage of hotel and city websites, appending notices to guest confirmation and pre-arrival emails, broadcasting email messages to the hotel database, and using the popularity of Facebook and Twitter to draw attention to F&B campaigns. Time-honored marketing strategies also have a place, such as building relationships with concierges around town, placing stories with various media, and working cooperatively with sister hotels across the MGM Mirage brand.
Gaudelet sees the continued success of the MGM Grand stable of restaurants as the result of the proactive efforts of its individual restaurateurs and the hotel’s aggressive marketing campaign. The quick response to sales indicators by the restaurants let them stay ahead of the game when the brunt of the downturn hit, and the marketing and sales force enabled them to find new clientele to shore up their businesses.
“Through the recession, we have been able to keep every single restaurant on property,” says Gaudelet. And with the new life breathed into them by the concerted effort to save them, MGM Grand’s restaurants may have come out even stronger.Denny Lewis is a six-year HOTEL F&B veteran and professional freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachussetts.
MGM Mirage and Infinity World Development Corp. partnered to create the development of hotels, residences, restaurants, retail, and gaming on 67 acres between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo. Currently, Aria Resort and Casino, Vdara Hotel and Spa, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Crystals retail and entertainment district are in full swing, with more residences, restaurants, and the Harmon Hotel still to come.
Masayoshi Takayama, Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Sirio Maccioni, Jean-Philippe Maury, and Shawn McClain (nominated for a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award) have opened restaurants in Aria, instantly making it a world-class dining destination. In the nearby Mandarin Oriental, three-star Michelin Chef Pierre Gagniare has opened his first U.S. restaurant, Twist. At Vdara, Las Vegas veteran Martin Heierling of Sensi fame has opened Silk Road. At Crystals, Todd English and Wolfgang Puck have opened new venues among the retail shops. These fine dining new kids on the block in the new destination on the block will be fighting for market share against established outlets in a city that has seen occupancy and revenues soften.
Christina Clifton, VP of F&B at Aria, oversees 17 restaurants and room service operations in the 4,004-room property. While final numbers are not made available for the hotels, Clifton says business and guest surveys have been “very positive,” especially considering the youth of the development and the economic climate.
“We opened with the pricing we had in mind, and we haven’t reduced it—we don’t need to,” she says, adding that mid-week remains “a little soft” in the restaurants and rooms, but she sees business picking up. “People are still trying to find us…[and in] Crystals, not all of the shops are open yet. When they are, I think we’ll see a different pattern.”
With the enormous weight of culinary talent at CityCenter, it may have created for itself a self-sustaining food scene. —DL