How the Fontainebleau Las Vegas came to be

January 23, 2024
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Gaming America explores the ins and outs of the long-awaited opening of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, the newest resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

Colleen Birch started her journey at the Fontainebleau Las Vegas with the title of Executive Director of Revenue Management & Contact Center back in September 2008. When Gaming America met Birch in Las Vegas, she had ascended to the role of COO, but the Fontainebleau Las Vegas had still yet to open.

In 1997, Birch moved to Las Vegas to finish her BS in Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She smiled as she admitted, “It was never in my wildest dreams that I believed I would be in Las Vegas all these years after.” Similarly, as the Fontainebleau Las Vegas was originally announced by developer Jeffrey Soffer in 2005, it is also hard to believe the project isn’t already a thriving destination on The Strip. However, the resort is now ready to welcome guests into a new era of luxury.

Circling back

Fontainebleau Las Vegas began its construction in February 2007, with Bergman Walls & Associates as its executive architect (Gaming America spoke to EVP George Bergman in our November/December issue). By 2009, however, financing for the project was cut off, and construction was put on hold with the resort near 70% completion. October 2009 was no longer a possibility for the property’s grand opening. Birch said, “It was just a short nine months before the economy took a turn in Las Vegas that paused the project. What happens when you start working in Las Vegas, in these really big boxes that are really exciting, and the job every day is a little bit different than the day before? It can get addictive, and I use that word with a very positive meaning.”

Though Birch found this role rewarding, luck would have it that the Fontainebleau would once again call her name. The project was sold in 2010, then again in 2017, and finally in 2021 Soffer bought back the resort and resumed construction. Birch called the opportunity to rejoin the Fontainebleau Las Vegas team something she “just had to be a part of.” The COO added, “Our owner gets to say it’s his full circle moment.”

The Fontainebleau brand, though, already has a legacy to uphold, with its older sister property in Miami Beach opening 70 years prior in 1954. The resort has shown up in film and television ever since, beginning with a scene from 1959’s “A Hole in the Head,” during which Frank Sinatra’s character attends a party at its swimming pool. In the 1960s, the hotel also features in James Bond classic “Goldfinger,” and continues to be a destination in modern shows like “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” and “Grand Hotel.” Birch agrees that the Fontainebleau Miami Beach sets a very visible standard for the Las Vegas property to follow. She said, “Over the years, it’s really been known on the East Coast – really across the country – as the place to see and be seen.” Other than hoping to capture the apparent timeless and successful hold the Miami Beach location has had on its guests, Birch said she is inspired by talking to people who have grown with the Fontainebleau and are ready to continue making memories at the resort. “I get really excited when I talk to customers on the road and they’ll tell me, ‘Oh, I used to go to Fontainebleau when I was a child,’ – like with their parents! And so here we are, with different generations now getting excited about Fontainebleau Las Vegas, maybe with a personal experience at our property in Miami.”

Obviously Bleau

The influence of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach will also be seen physically in the Las Vegas property’s design. Birch says some of Miami’s more iconic elements will “weave their way through” the Las Vegas Strip resort, such as replicas of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach columns adorning the new casino floor in Vegas, as well as the opening of Vegas’ very own Bleau Bar. Birch was sure to spell its name out loud, to keep up the well-established brand recognition: “‘Bleau’ is obviously ‘B-L-E-A-U.’ The Fontainebleau way.” The Fontainebleau Las Vegas will also have several new amenities, which Birch proudly lists, including 36 new-to-market concepts between food and beverage, a six-acre pool deck and the BleauLive Theatre. Every casino resort on the Strip, and many away from it as well, seem to boast a celebrity chef or fine dining experience. But Birch’s belief in The Fontainebleau was palpable as she said, “Our food will be much better.” She added, “Las Vegas will have new entry, new concepts and new energy in a way that it hasn’t in quite a number of years.” Birch and the Fontainebleau are banking on the property having something for everyone, and on providing a specific brand of luxury and indulgence, unique to each new guest’s tastes.

“We’ve got a very firm belief that luxury means different things to different people,” Birch explained, “And so, the variety and opportunity to experience Fontainebleau Las Vegas means you can do it your way.” The resort boasts enough restaurants to eat somewhere new for breakfast, lunch and dinner during at least a three-day stay, if not longer. However, Birch confesses that the Fontainebleau’s job will not be to confine visitors completely to its shining, azure building, and that there are plenty of opportunities for tourists and locals alike to explore the city as a whole. As of September 2023, there were over 1,200 restaurants in Las Vegas, and Birch rattled off another impressive statistic about the extremely saturated nature of planning a stay in Sin City. “I think what sets us apart, in this very, very hyper-competitive market there’s about 152,000 hotel rooms in a five-mile radius here in Las Vegas (which is crazy), is going to be our people.”

The people who will make up the Fontainebleau Las Vegas team will number over 6,000. Upon our entrance to the lobby of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas office suite, Gaming America had the pleasure of witnessing the excitement in the eyes of many hopeful bartenders as they arrived for interviews. A job fair was also held at Vū Las Vegas’ production campus in late September during Fontainebleau’s search for both front-of-house and back-of-house food and beverage professionals. And those lucky enough to earn a role with Fontainebleau, in any sector, are referred to as ‘members’ rather than ‘employees.’ Birch explained that that the “idea of belonging” as a member is just as important as making visitors feel welcome at the property. Birch said the Fontainebleau aims to be, “really focusing on how we make people feel coming to work, and giving them a level of enthusiasm that just is a little bit contagious. We believe that if our members are excited and believe in the brand, in the culture we’ve created, they will provide exceptional service onto our guests who will then hopefully just continue to return and return.”

As far as returning goes, Birch noted a survey, conducted by Skift Research, that said in the first quarter of 2023, “57% of people added an extra day – a play day or personal day – onto a trip.” For any resort, the preference will be for guests to book the longest stays possible; but for Las Vegas, which is now known almost as widely for its conventions and concerts as it is for its casinos these days, catching the business trip demographic and keeping them occupied in the city a few extra days can prove extremely lucrative. The Fontainebleau, in fact, will also offer 550,000 square feet of meeting space. Birch says conventions will form a large part of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas business and as much as 30% of the business will be group room nights. In the ‘early years’ after opening, Birch says business will also be reliant on transient customers rather than loyal casino goers. She added, “We’re a brand new building and we don’t have a database. That’s a little scary, but it’s also a great opportunity. We’ve built an exceptional casino marketing team, bringing their relationships from years of practice in the market. We know that once our doors open, and we’re able to showcase what we’ve created, we fully believe we will earn the business of those casino customers and get them really excited — and be their new home in Las Vegas.”

Orchestrating luxury

The casino will certainly capture the attention of any legacy Fontainebleau Miami Beach guests. The brand’s original, longstanding property doesn’t actually have a gaming floor, while the Las Vegas location would obviously be remiss without one. Those making the cross-country trip from Miami Beach to Las Vegas to check out the new Fontainebleau and see how it compares will be met with a 150,000 square-foot gaming floor, complete with handcrafted Italian chairs, a high-limit salon, a VIP rooftop experience and a Tavern at Fontainebleau sportsbook. Unlike in Miami, players can even place bets poolside from a gaming lounge on the pool deck. It will be interesting to see how many previous guests of the Floridian Fontainebleau will choose the Vegas version for a stay out west. As a brand with loyalty and reputation in the industry, but outside of the city, the first players who gamble at the Fontainebleau Las Vegas will experience a special atmosphere where it can truly be anybody’s game. Birch said, “We want to make sure we can cater to our guests’ needs as we learn more about who they are.” As those casino guests start arriving, playing and showing their loyalty in Las Vegas, the Fontainebleau members will not only need to learn, but also adapt and compete, to keep casino guests on The Strip happy.

Birch was also quick to say that the established legacy and focus on luxury the Fontainebleau has already created will give way to “raising the stakes” in Las Vegas in a service-driven and experiential way. The years of industry recognition and hospitality industry credentials have helped the Fontainebleau team develop a phrase Birch believes will be used to inform how members and guests will interact in the new resort. “Polite with a personality,” she told Gaming America. “It’s the idea that we can still be really polite, but I can do that in a way that connects with you, instead of just a very scripted entry. There are ways we can make connections, and we’re going to focus a lot on that. In Las Vegas, what we’ve seen is that it’s become pretty transactional, and so we know 'people' will be what sets the Fontainebleau Las Vegas apart.”

And when asked to look into the future, to predict what kind of legacy the property will have, or how Birch would like the Fontainebleau to be known going forward, she carefully considered her answer. Birch said she liked the idea that “you could spend two, three days in the building and have a unique experience; and either choose to relive the same day you had because it was so exceptional, or to turn your day over, eat, play and do some things a little bit differently.” Birch would be proudest if the Fontainebleau Las Vegas' legacy was one of the utmost luxury, “whatever luxury means to you.”

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