In the process of building luxury hotels around the world, Steve Wynn created a powerful brand that now holds sway in urban planning.
No piece of popular marketing jargon seems to be so desirable these days as the personal brand. Few, of course, have delineated theirs quite as clearly as Steve Wynn, whose name, in his own curvilinear handwriting, has become a lodestar on the Las Vegas Strip. The same can be said about his name on the swooping side of Wynn Macau. And when Wynn Palace opens this year on the Cotai Strip followed by Wynn Boston Harbor in Everett, Massachusetts, they will bear the same recognizable name. Wynn himself hatches resort- and even city-altering plans the way other people write grocery lists. So perhaps it is not a surprise that when I ask him about the Wynn brand, he is indifferent to the idea. What he’s doing, he insists, is what he’s always been doing—albeit on a grander scale.
By the time Wynn got his start after having graduated from college, he’d experienced the glamour of Las Vegas and Miami, he explains. “I came away from those experiences, when my father died, having inherited a bingo operation next to a concrete-block tobacco warehouse in southern Maryland. I have the Fontainebleau in my head, and the only thing I’ve got going for me is the bingo. So I’m hustling to get the bingo going so I can go to greener pastures and be a developer. The casinos have allowed me to spend more money on fancy destination hotels than I ever thought would be possible. And then I had the great luck and privilege to do it during the golden age of Las Vegas.”
In fact, the Wynn ethos was born decades before he built the Mirage in 1989, which, at a cost of $630 million, was the most expensive hotel built to date—and credited with changing the Las Vegas landscape. “The building of a brand was a side effect of a simple observation I made when I was younger,” he says. “I never wanted to be in a business where you were selling price, because the only place to go is down. Instead, I opted to sell experience. And when you’re selling experience, price is irrelevant as long as you keep the promise.”
Wynn Las Vegas (above) opened in 2005, Wynn Macau in 2006, and Encore in 2008.
As owner of the Golden Nugget in the 1970s, he says, “I made it a four-star place. I was ill-suited to [Downtown’s] Fremont Street, so I tried to remake Fremont Street to suit me.” As a result, on his watch the Golden Nugget made more money than the other Fremont Street casino hotels combined. Fast-forward to the 1990s, and the Mirage gave hoteliers permission to spend, Wynn says. “Instead of building little $150 million hotels, they could spend north of half a billion, and everybody started doing it.”
After opening the Bellagio in 1998, Wynn’s name may have become synonymous with luxury to hotel cognoscenti, but he was reticent to put it on the side of a building once the time came to name his new property prior to its 2005 opening. “It seemed egocentric,” he recalls; besides, he wanted to name the hotel after a famous Picasso painting he owned, Le Rêve (“The Dream”). He enlisted advertising guru Peter Arnell, who polled Vegas regulars for weeks and came up with this pronouncement, Wynn says. “‘My answer to you, Steve, is that you can call it “Le Rêve,” but you’d damn well better say it’s the guy who built the Mirage and Bellagio and it means “The Dream.” And for my money, that’s too much information.’”
But Wynn didn’t solidify the decision until he’d made calls to Barry Diller, Donald Trump, and Steven Spielberg to ask their professional opinions. Characteristically for Diller, Wynn laughs, the media mogul responded, “‘Why are you asking me a stupid question like this? I don’t know what the “Le Rêve” idea was about in the first place. Call the place the Wynn and stop screwing around with this “Le Rêve” business.’” Wynn perfectly intones Trump’s voice to recall the second conversation. “‘I’ll tell you one thing. Everybody in New York is talking about your new hotel. They know you’re calling it “Le Rêve” because you’ve got the painting, but they know it’s you. So you might as well call it Wynn—you’re gonna get the flak anyway.’ I said, ‘Okay, thanks, Don,’ and called Spielberg.”
The third call sealed the deal for Wynn. “‘If you told Katie [Kate Capshaw, Spielberg’s wife] and me we were going to a new hotel in Las Vegas called “Le Rêve,” we’d need more information. If you told us we’re going to Steve Wynn’s new hotel, we don’t need more information. Why are you having trouble with your surname? It’s not Lipschitz or Spielberg. And what about the double entendre of Wynn? Your name’s not “Lose.”’”
The spewing volcano in front of the Mirage began an era of showmanship along the Las Vegas Strip.
Putting his name on his hotels, Wynn says, came down to accountability—whose gate, he muses, swings both ways. “People love accountability. People think they know me that don’t. Or people ascribe to me qualities that I don’t deserve because the people I work with do something wonderful. If something’s wrong, then I’m a jerk, but if something’s nice, I’m a genius. The counterpoint is that accountability is a good thing when people are trusting you with their stay. They want to know that someone cares.” All over the Wynn and Encore grounds, he says, people approach him to thank him for creating a wonderful place. In-person criticism? “Only my mother did that once,” he laughs.
What started as Wynn’s modus operandi has become the brand. But Wynn doesn’t see his properties as a string of luxurious one-offs. “Our idea in China and Boston is the same,” he emphasizes. “The board and I feel that if we do a wonderful job on a metropolitan grand destination hotel and casino, we’ll create the template for cities like Atlanta or Dallas that would want to do this. The hotel we’re building in Boston is a destination— not a box of slots in a regional casino, but an addition to a city that makes people want to go there and vacation. Similarly, Wynn Palace in Cotai is going to be the photo-op for the city. It is orders of magnitude fancier than the competitors—and that’s not developer-speak,” he says. “They’re case studies of why you can trust our brand if you really want to improve your city.”
That won’t be the end of Wynn’s to-do list. “They say you’re only as good as your track record,” Wynn says, a flicker of what is perhaps some new idea crossing his face. “So I’m busy creating a track record in Boston and China. And if we do that well, I want to reinvent Las Vegas one more time.”