An inside look at Aria in Las Vegas

Las Vegas makes for an exceptional hospitality case study. It’s a town where better can only mean bigger — more glitz, more glamour, more shops, more thrills, newer technology, a setting where any building under a 1,000 rooms is laughable and every hotel casino needs a highly disciplined army to keep going.

Adding to this 99-ring circus is the fact that any new development requires hundreds of millions invested before a single shovel jabs into hard, parched earth. And money down of this quantity doesn’t exactly mix well with a worldwide recession and housing market collapse for which Las Vegas was an epicenter.

Yet there was a mirage in this desert of failed construction projects that hit Nevada in and around 2007-2010 … and I’m not referring to the casino The Mirage — a very successful property, I might add. Rather, it’s one of the latest sister properties under the MGM Resorts International banner — Aria at CityCenter. While I recently stayed at the property for the first time, Executive Director of Guest Services Shannon McCallum was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about her perspective on Aria’s operations. 

Larry Mogelonsky: When CityCenter opened in 2009, what was the initial strategy to differentiate this complex from other properties in Las Vegas, and what was the plan to differentiate it within the CityCenter complex?

Shannon McCallum: With Aria as its centerpiece, CityCenter was designed as a complete resort destination with sophisticated hotels, unique restaurant offerings, dynamic entertainment, exciting nightlife, spectacular architecture and an unprecedented public art collection.

Aria, specifically, has refined and redefined the Las Vegas Strip, combining the AAA Five Diamond hotel experience with a remarkable collection of dining and entertainment venues and an unparalleled luxury retail destination at the adjacent Shops at Crystals.

Crystals is home to more high-end flagship boutiques than any other shopping center in the country including the largest Louis Vuitton in North America as well as unique-to-market retailers including Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Nanette Lepore, Tom Ford, Lanvin, Mikimoto and Versace.

Our other distinct Las Vegas hotel experience, the all-suite Vdara, appeals to guests who love the energy and excitement of Las Vegas but choose to enjoy it within a non-gaming, smoke-free environment. Ideally located between Bellagio and Aria, Vdara guests have access to all of the city’s finest amenities.

And of course, we are home to Mandarin Oriental, a brand recognized as one of the preeminent hospitality brands.

LM: The opening happened to come amidst the nadir of the recent economic downturn. How did you adapt the initial plan to weather the storm?

SM: When the CityCenter vision was formed, it could have been considered “the best of times,” but by the time it opened, it was essentially “the worst of times.” There were many uncertain days leading up to the opening of CityCenter. Among the many developments underway in Las Vegas at the time, it was the only one that made it to the finish line — and, we opened on schedule!

However, opening on time and with a limited budget brought difficult decisions. For example, we had to evaluate and adjust our hiring start dates and training timelines. We didn’t have as much time to get our team ready as other hotels may have had in the past, but the decision to open on time and within the adjusted budget was a much better option than not opening at all.

LM: MGM Resorts International is by far one of the biggest players in the Las Vegas hospitality space. What level of cooperation exists between CityCenter and other mutually owned properties?

SM: All of our Las Vegas sister properties work closely together on a variety of levels. This includes Aria, Vdara, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor and Excalibur. Our teams share best practices with each other, from operations techniques to employee communications. While we each have our own hotels to operate, we want to ensure all of our brands are successful; collaboration and communication are critical. 

Having such a diverse collection of resorts also benefits the guests in many ways. Two years ago, we launched M life, our loyalty program that allows guests to earn and redeem rewards across all MGM Resorts properties nationwide. Additionally, we benefit from MGM Resorts’ corporate infrastructure, which provides us access to advanced technology infrastructure and marketing expertise as well as other corporate support.

LM: What do you feel is at the core of the Aria experience?

SM: Service and attention are at the core of the Aria experience. We are home to two AAA Five Diamond Awards — one for Aria and one for Aria Sky Suites. We were recently awarded the prestigious Forbes Five-Star for Sky Suites as well. Achieving and maintaining this caliber of service is critical, and our team goes out of its way to provide every guest with a memorable experience at every turn. These accolades are a true testament to the team members who provide impeccable service and attention to detail.

LM: What do you do to develop your relationships with past, present and future guests to heighten loyalty?

SM: We reach out prior to their stay to provide information and offer assistance with dinner reservations, entertainment options and special room needs. Our goal is to get to know our guests and make their experience as individualized as possible. If we find out that our guests are celebrating a special occasion, we take steps to ensure they are recognized. Anticipating the needs of our guests, whether they are new or returning, is very important.

Additionally, our employees are empowered to make decisions in the moment to ensure they are able to react and respond to guests needs. Our M life loyalty program is also a big driver of guest loyalty. Guests are encouraged to stay within the MGM Resorts family and enjoy benefits as a result of their time with us.

LM: CityCenter is one of the most modern complexes on The Strip. What features does Aria incorporate that embrace new technologies as well as new methods of interaction between staff and guests?

SM: Unrivaled in-room technology allows our guests to control the air temperature, lights, curtains, television and many other features from a tablet at their bedside or from the television screen. The system has a personalized arrival statement upon the guest’s first entry that turns on the lights and opens up the drapes to provide spectacular views of the mountains or The Strip. Upon departure, our guests can conveniently check out via a simple text message, email or their in-room TV. Additionally, our RFID Chip room keys will not demagnetize when they come in contact with a phone or other electronic device.

LM: What’s the plan for City Center over the next five years?

SM: The next five years look bright for CityCenter and Las Vegas overall. Year after year we have seen hotel occupancy and convention bookings grow steadily; the forecast is positive. The retail occupancy in The Shops at Crystals is almost at capacity, and many of the stores are the flagship venues for their respective brands.

As any hotel does, we’ve made changes with restaurant concepts where we have identified a shift in trends. We have a wonderful partnership with Chef Masa Takayama and recently introduced his new teppan concept Tetsu, which is quickly proving to be very popular. Shawn McClain, who created the acclaimed Sage, will introduce FIVE50, his new pizza concept, later this spring. We’ve also built new partnerships such as Javier’s, which opened last fall.

With our longtime partner Cirque du Soleil, we recently launched Zarkana, and it has been extremely well received by our guests. 

We are all looking forward to the opening of our new Wedding Chapel. The 60-seat chapel will provide a beautiful, modern venue for our brides and grooms, and we will also introduce a selection of additional wedding locations throughout the resort. 

LM: Where do you feel Las Vegas in general is headed in the near future, and how will CityCenter adapt and progress?

SM: Guest visitation to Las Vegas is up year-over-year, and in 2012, we surpassed the record number of visitors previously set in 2007. This increase of traffic to Las Vegas is encouraging for all of our properties, and we look forward to creating memorable experiences that bring guests back again and again.

As the economy rebounds, we continue to see increased meeting and convention bookings, which is an integral part of our business at Aria. We are forecasting a continued increase in international leisure travelers in the next five to 10 years. Lastly, we continue to keep abreast of changing trends and make additional alterations should the market indicate a need.