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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IN LAS VEGAS, AN AFFORDABLE
HOTEL FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS


BY CHRIS BARNETT

October 21, 2004 -- Las Vegas bound? Here are a few frightening facts that will pain and drain a conventioneer or business traveler.

Las Vegas has 130,000 hotel rooms. The MGM Grand alone has 5,034 rooms under one roof--and almost all are a 15-minute walk to the hotel's conference center or meeting rooms. On purpose. The long trek snakes through crowded casinos teeming with temptation and past a gauntlet of flashy, pricey restaurants and all-too-familiar fast-food stands. Leave your reading glasses or a file in your room and it can take 30 minutes or more to fetch them, splash some water on your face and get back to your meeting.

Need to check your E-mail and didn't bring your laptop or Blackberry? The mammoth, glitzy casino hotels usually charge $25 a day for in-room high speed Internet access or 85 cents a minute to use a computer in the business center. The centers--usually little more than a room with a couple of PCs--are jammed with guests trying to mail home their loot so they can go out and hit the flashy shopping malls again. Good luck trying to duplicate the Power Point presentation you have to make in the next half hour.

Traffic is bumper-to-bumper 24/7 on the Strip today--and try to find a photocopy machine in a Strip hotel. There is nine million square feet of meeting space in Las Vegas, equal to 187 football fields. Plus, 24,500 conventions and conferences a year are held here, even on scorching 120-degree summer days. Unless your meeting rents its own office machines, you'll have to wait in line and pay heavily for the privilege.

It wasn't always like this. Las Vegas once had human-sized Strip hotels with three basic themes--western cowboy, Sinatra Oceans 11 cool or James Bond sophisticated. Revelers wore suits and ties, maybe even a tux, or stylish sheaths just to walk into a casino. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, the town morphed into a Disney World in the desert. It became gridlocked with motor homes filled with families decked out in tee shirts and shorts. They flooded into the new 3,000-to-6,000-room resorts. Hotels and the prices they charge have been soaring ever since.

Today, conventioneers are passionately courted because they spend and gamble, but solo business travelers have largely been ignored. The only real industry here is keeping visitors glued to the gaming tables and slots--especially the slots, where Lady Luck can be adjusted with a screwdriver.

That thankfully began changing in the late 1990s when Four Seasons opened a 424-room hotel that looks, feels, sounds and smells like a real hotel for business and discerning travelers. One big reason: no casino, not a slot machine in sight. It also quickly earned a coveted AAA five-diamond rating. And for action seekers, the Four Seasons is attached to the Mandalay Bay Hotel; walk through a door and you're in their casino. Unfortunately, room rates range from $250 to $350 a night since you're paying for the Four Seasons pedigree. Other familiar business-travel names--JW Marriott, Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton--all have Las Vegas properties, but they're 30 miles out of town at a man-made lake.

But I've found a better deal, maybe the best in town for a businessperson who feels lost, frustrated and ripped off at the mega-sized gambling temples with beds. Last year, the old Maxim Hotel got a $75 million "extreme makeover" and emerged as the Westin Casuarina Hotel and Spa, the first hotel in town wooing individual and small groups of business travelers. It may be 825 rooms big, but it seemed like no more than 100 rooms to me.

Imagine, in a Las Vegas hotel, every employee smiling at you, saying "Hello!" Or being greeted at a reception "module"--no front desk--with a "Welcome to Westin. How was your trip?" Or free valet parking that delivers your car in five or ten minutes.

The Westin Casurarina reminds me of Las Vegas circa 1959, complete with the earthy Southwestern décor popular in that era. There's a small casino in the lobby, big overstuffed leather chairs to plop down into and floor lamps to read by. A Starbucks for decent coffee. One restaurant with exceptionally hospitable waiters and waitresses. A $13 breakfast buffet that will carry you through the day--and you're not rushed so they can turn the table.

This may sound like hooey, but walk into the Westin Casuarina after a long, hot day around town and you actually feel like you're coming home. The parking kid even remembered me from the night before and made some small talk. One reason: The Westin Casuarina is owned by William Young, a hotelier, not a casino guy. Young owns 60-plus Marriott Hotels nationwide, making him the chain's largest individual owner.

But the real surprise is in the room. Each one is outfitted with the Westin Heavenly Bed and it's even more heavenly when you can get it at $80 to $100 a night. Frankly, I always thought the Heavenly Bed was pure hype, a figment of some press agent's imagination, until I crawled between the crisp, expensive sheets and cuddled up with five pillows.

In a town where hotel rooms are either gargantuan and gaudy or small and antiseptic, Westin's standard accommodations stand out. Each has a coffeemaker with lots of envelopes of Starbucks and exotic teas. That's unusual because Strip hotels don't want you lingering in your room in the morning. Each Westin room also offers a big workspace, flat-screen TV, an adjustable, twin-headed shower and hot water that gets hot fast.

Downstairs, just off the reception area, is a business center with three Hewlett-Packard PCs, three laptop stations, a laser printer, a copier, a fax machine and all sorts of office and courier-mail supplies. And everything is free except for outgoing faxes. (Westin charges $10 for 24-hour in-room Internet access.)

The Westin Casuarina has plenty of converts and fans. Jim Hobby, an accounting manager with a large Texas homebuilding firm, was working on a software installation in Las Vegas and staying elsewhere for $99 a night. "My boss, a big fan of Westin, called and said, 'You're nuts if you don't come over here and get a heavenly bed.' " Hobby, who's "in residence" for a six-week stretch, said he happily switched and he's been paying between $79 and $115 a night, depending on demand. When he first arrived, he remembers, "I called up my wife and said, 'Holy cow, you're not going to believe this bed.' "

Another Casuarina regular, Brandon Worrell, a no-nonsense technology type who works for a Seattle-based data-storage and server-consulting firm, switched to Westin after staying at the Venetian, Caesars Palace and the Mirage. "I love it at the Westin because it's comfortable, small and I don't have to waste time walking forever just to get around the hotel."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.