By  on April 4, 2008

Why isn't Las Vegas considered a beauty capital?

Kim Vo contends that, among the nation's top beauty influencers, it suffers from an image problem. "A lot of them aren't forward-thinking enough," declared the color specialist, who officially feted his 5,000-square-foot namesake salon at the Mirage Hotel and Casino last month. But he swears the perception of Las Vegas hairstyling as teased bangs and blowouts is as empty as a losing hand.

Las Vegas' salon and spa landscape has quickly evolved in a manner that suits the city: by getting glitzier. Grander salons by recognized names — Vo at the Mirage, Michael Boychuck at Caesars Palace and the Palms and Frédéric Fekkai at The Harmon Hotel, Spa and Residences in 2009, for starters — are replacing standard hair fare. And a wave of renovations has swept spas into the modern age with a host of updated facilities to give guests access to the choicest services.

The emergence of high-class beauty amenities is often compared to Las Vegas' restaurants' and shops' transformation from pit stops between gambling into some of the globe's finest. "I watched from when we had $2.99 breakfast buffets to the best restaurants in the world. Vegas before was never known for shopping," said Las Vegas native Darcy Nielson, general manager of the four-year-old Cristophe salon in the MGM Grand. "The dynamics change."

In Las Vegas, perhaps more than anywhere, money is the currency of change. Boychuck, who left Los Angeles to assist with the now shuttered Privé at the Bellagio in the late Nineties, said hotel-casino operators had scant understanding of salons' potential before Laurent Dufourg opened an outpost. Boychuck currently helms three Las Vegas salons: Color, a 5,000-square-foot salon unveiled last January at Caesars that cost an estimated $5 million to construct; Amp Salon at the Palms, and the new hotel-condo complex Palms Place's salon.

"No one realized the amount of income a salon and spa could do. We were doubling and tripling their revenue," he said, speaking of Privé and the Bellagio.

Without breaking out figures per salon, Boychuck revealed that his revenues have exceeded $5 million a year at a location. Vo said that $5 million is his revenue goal, although he forecasts the first-year total would probably be from $2.5 million to $3 million. At two salons with a combined 5,400 square feet at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino and nearby Mandalay Place, Robert Cromeans said he hits $3 million in annual revenues, but also tagged $5 million as a reachable target. Cromeans' average ticket in Las Vegas is $200 to $250, about $50 more than at his San Diego flagship.Hotel-casinos have signaled their commitment to beauty is serious by rethinking their contracts and pouring investment into refurbishment. While salons and spas run by the properties had been the norm, leasing space to identifiable entities has become common. The Mirage has gone a step further with Vo by crafting a deal similar to those with celebrity restaurateurs. The Mirage holds a majority stake in Vo's salon, and it is managed as a separate company from the property with its own nearly 45 employees. "I didn't find intrinsic value in a place where I would invest $5 million, and it would pay out over seven years," said Vo, who has a minority stake.

Blake Feeney, spa director of the nine-year-old Canyon Ranch SpaClub at The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, has seen Las Vegas spas progress from overlooked amenities to integral components of guests' stays. "The Venetian built their brand on bringing in other brands. It was successful," he said. "They are in the hotel-casino business, not the spa business."

The giant of Las Vegas spa renovation projects is Canyon Ranch. With the addition of The Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino next door to The Venetian, the SpaClub this spring is expanding from 69,000 square feet to 134,000 square feet with two restaurants, two salons and 94 treatment rooms. It is expected to serve 40,000 to 50,000 people a month, up from 25,000 presently.

Spas at half of MGM Mirage's 10 properties in Las Vegas were completely remodeled within the last two years. For instance, the tropical feel of the Spa at Mirage was jettisoned in favor of a Zen-like environment with a birch tree as the aesthetic theme. At New York New York Hotel and Casino, Kimberly Weber, recreation services manager, explained that pinks and purples were removed to infuse the spa with earthiness. "Before, it was very old-fashioned," she said.

Overhauls don't come cheap. In Las Vegas, it costs $1,000-plus per square foot to redo space, according to Bill Hornbuckle, president and chief operating officer of Mandalay Bay. But hotel-casino operators are forced to give their properties tune-ups to draw discerning younger guests and generate revenues from nongaming sources. Hornbuckle estimated about 73 percent of Mandalay Bay's revenues are from those sources. "It is more about creating a destination for everybody," he said.At Palms Place, a hotel-condo complex that will be fully finished later this year, it is improbable the likes of Jessica Simpson would pay $500,000 to $7 million per unit and be satisfied with yesterday's beauty amenities. Owner George Maloof built the 30,000-square-foot Drift Spa with 20 treatment rooms to give guests a prime setting for relaxation, and a Sunset Tan with eight treatment rooms to keep them bronzed. He hired Jennifer Noble, who developed spa programs at The Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, The Spa at Red Rock and The Spa at the Diplomat, to oversee Drift Spa.

Engaging known beauty professionals in Las Vegas has altered service preferences. Although Las Vegas retains a reputation for being a blowout hub, pricier color services can gain traction if clients trust the salons. Vo said his salon is experiencing an 80 percent hike in color from its Mirage-operated prior incarnation. At his salons, Boychuck said that 25 percent of the income is derived from a variety of color services, 40 to 50 percent from haircuts and blow-dries, and the rest from manicures, pedicures and makeup.

"People have such preconceived notions of Vegas that it blinds them. At one time, it was about blowouts and bridal. We are doing so much color," said Vo. "Of course, [the stylists] can do a good blowout, but do they do blowouts all day? No."

Las Vegas spas, where massage is the single biggest revenue driver, are busy incorporating the hottest trends, notably personalization and socialization. After surveys showed a desire for more coed facilities, the Canyon Ranch SpaClub decided to construct three rooms for both genders. The Hammam at the Palms Place's Drift Spa is a coed enclave with heated stones and ambient steam. On spa menus throughout Las Vegas, tailoring to individual needs is widespread. There's Drift Spa's $215 Truly You facial that adapts to skin types, and New York New York's $130 Customized Escape that allows guests to select different massage varieties for 50 minutes.

"We are going to have a compelling message for [guests] to say, 'Wow, I want to be there three hours,'" said Feeney of plans to enhance personalization at Canyon Ranch SpaClub and boost the number of services a customer receives from the current 1.2 average.It's not a given that the improvements to Las Vegas' beauty scene will net winning results. Recognized names — José Eber and Dufourg among them — have tried Las Vegas and retreated. Boychuck suggested that Privé was a victim of its own success, and speculated that the Bellagio seized the opportunity to control the salon when Privé racked up significant profits. "It was ahead of its time," Vo concluded.

Janice Winter, an advisor to José Eber, said Eber left Las Vegas about a year ago following a nine-month stint at the mall Fashion Show because of differences with his partners. "There wasn't a consensus on how the brand was being depicted," she said. However, Winter stressed that the salon's business was healthy, and Eber would return to Las Vegas. "He believes it is an amazing market and that is why he's going back," she said.

To succeed in Las Vegas today, prominent hairstylists and colorists can't fall into the trap of expanding their empires without paying attention to their branch locations. "When you go to Vegas, people are looking to get close to these celebrity hairdressers," said Cromeans, the San Diego-based salon owner who landed in Las Vegas in 1999. Vo pointed out that he would be at the Mirage every other Sunday and Monday to ensure the salon is functioning smoothly. "I don't want to shoot myself in the foot," he said. But if out-of-towners become absentees, Boychuck argued that his salons would benefit because he has his headquarters in Las Vegas. He said, "I make sure our quality meets L.A. standards. If somebody is here once or twice a month, can they keep it up?"

Another challenge is the weakened economy and associated declines in Las Vegas tourism. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, visitor volume was down 0.6 percent in January this year from the same month last year. Salons and spas target locals to recover any lost guest business. Locals generally constitute 5 to 15 percent of their customer base, but Boychuck and Cromeans reported that locals constitute 40 percent of their clientele. "I would love that to be 50 percent. That means you are having clients even if there is no convention in town," said Boychuck. Spas and salons attract locals with back entrances and convenient parking.To keep increasing the patronage of guests and natives alike, most spa and salon owners insist a critical mass of luxury venues is crucial to elevate Las Vegas' beauty status. "I am rolling the dice to see if all the great people can get there and together as a group take it to the higher level," said Vo.

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