Words: Catherine Martin Portrait Photograph: Leila Navidi / Las Vegas
Roger Thomas, Executive Vice President of Design for Wynn Design and Development, continues to lead lavish refurbishments for the gaming resorts developed by his long-term mentor Steve Wynn.
The global financial crisis seems to have bypassed Wynn Resorts. Arriving in London to meet Sleeper Magazine, Roger Thomas announces that he is taking time out from refurbishing the guestrooms at the group’s flagship Las Vegas property. All 2,716 of them. He has also recently completed a new restaurant at the hotel, in addition to a high limit, high luxury private gaming salon. This, at a time when the rest of Las Vegas is struggling to pull in the punters.
“We’re not in any danger at all,” comments Thomas after our initial salutations. “We’re the leading gaming company, our stock is very strong, and Steve’s investment policy has been such that we have enough money to keep our hotels beautifully upgraded. There’s not many hotels that are re-doing 2,500 rooms in Las Vegas right now. We are,” he states. “We don’t want our guest experience to suffer, we want to upgrade our guest experience so that in a tough market, we’re the best. And because Steve has been so fiscally conservative we’re able to do that.”
Steve, of course is Steve Wynn, founder of Wynn Resorts and the man Thomas describes as his “big brother”. Although no genetic links, there is a longstanding family relationship between the pair that has cemented their design collaboration. “My father was Steve Wynn’s mentor and Steve Wynn is my mentor,” he reveals. “But also because I’ve been designing for him for thirty years, every project we work on we have the complete history of all our successes, and more importantly our failures so that we don’t repeat those.” He continues: “I don’t have to learn the culture of Wynn Resorts, I’m part of it, I helped define it. And I think we get richer and deeper results from our design efforts because of our longstanding relationship.”
Thomas has spent most of his life in Las Vegas and can be credited with the interior design of many major hotels on ‘the Strip’. He grew up in what he calls “beautifully designed environments”, surrounded by Florence Knoll sofas, Eero Saarinen’s Womb chairs, and George Nelson Coconut chairs. Even the family dining chair was an Eames. With a taste for design, Thomas went on to study art and art history in Boston, majoring in painting, ceramics, sculpture and weaving. Learning about the objects that go into an environment has had a profound effect on Thomas, as his interiors are defined by an extraordinary attention to detail.
As well as creating interiors, Thomas designs a wide range of products for the likes of APF Master Framemakers, Edward Ferrell + Lewis Mittman, The Natural Carpet Company, Fromental, and Niedermaier. New collections for 2011 include a line of trimmings for Samuel & Sons Passementerie, designs for Boyd Lighting to be launched at NeoCon (Chicago) in June, and an extensive fabric collection for S. Harris/Fabricut to be unveiled at HD Boutique in September.
The early days of Thomas’ hotel design career saw him create interiors for many properties on the Las Vegas Strip as Senior Vice President and Director of Interior Design for Atlandia Design, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mirage Resorts Incorporated owned by Steve Wynn. He set the ball rolling with the Golden Nugget, followed by The Mirage, and Treasure Island Hotel and Casino. When it opened in 1989, The Mirage set a new standard for design and opulence and changed the face of the Las Vegas hotel market by offering entertainment, dining, gambling and lodging under one roof. Thomas went on to design the world-famous Bellagio Resort, again under Steve Wynn’s direction. With a $1.6 billion price tag, it was the most expensive hotel in the world at that time. When Wynn sold Mirage Resorts in 2000, he set up under his own name and made Thomas Executive Vice President Design for Wynn Design and Development. “So for the past 10 years I’ve done Wynn Las Vegas, Encore Las Vegas, directed the design of Wynn Macau, and Encore Macau,” he explains. “We’re currently working on a new project in Macau called Wynn Cotai and refurbishing all of the rooms and suites at Wynn Las Vegas, as we do every five years.”
Wynn’s five-year refurbishment policy remains the ultimate priority for Thomas: “We think of ourselves as a resort with a casino, not a casino with a resort,” he says. “Our hotels run at 98-99% occupancy which means rooms get used faster than those running at a lower occupancy. We want to make sure that they’re absolutely fresh and absolutely beautiful for our guests.”
The new guestrooms at Wynn Las Vegas are described as light, fresh and incredibly uplifting with an abundance of natural light and rich furnishings, fabrics, wallpaper, carpets, chairs and lamps.
Steve Wynn’s involvement in the look and feel of these refurbishments remains a big part of his role, according to Thomas: “Steve’s favourite part of being in the business is the design and development of hotel casinos. He’d rather sit in a design meeting than in any other kind of meeting and therefore he is very, very involved... The more involvement you have with the expertise and vision of an owner, the better the product is I think.”
With each of Wynn’s projects, Thomas is handed every designer’s dream: an open design brief and “liberal budget”. Elements such as the size of the hotel, restaurant experiences, and number of gaming tables in the casino for example, are defined by an operational team, but in terms of concept and design, “that’s my role in the project” says Thomas.
At the outset, Thomas was asked to create something unique. So for the past ten years he has been trying to “invent the alphabet, the vocabulary, and forming new words, new sentences, new paragraphs, things that haven’t been seen before,” he says. “It’s a very personal interpretation. It’s kind of the design I’ve wanted to do for all thirty years but now I’m getting to show my own ideas, my own concepts, my own vision of the way things should be done.”
When it comes to the issue of budgets, Thomas has some tales to tell. “I have a reputation of exceeding an unlimited budget,” he admits sheepishly, referring to his design of six lavish villas at Wynn Las Vegas. “When we created the very first ones, Steve said they had to be the most extraordinary guest accommodations on earth. He told me, I want you to concentrate on the experience and I don’t care what you spend,” recalls Thomas. Nowadays things are a little more structured. “We always have a budget, and we always stay within budget,” he says. “Steve asks for magic and he knows what that costs.”
In addition to a large in-house design team, Thomas works with contributors who are commissioned to design a restaurant, or retail outlet. Cameo appearances include Jacques Garcia, Vincente Wolf, Jeffrey Beers, David Ling, Robin Kramer, and HBA.
Having taken Las Vegas, Wynn Resorts broadened their horizons to Macau, now the most lucrative gaming destination in the world. The group opened Wynn Macau followed by the all-suite Wynn Encore Macau in 2010.
Wynn Encore occupies a site that was formerly used as a car park for Wynn Macau. Having found that no-one was arriving by car, the group took advantage and built a 414-key tower with private casinos. Asia’s first Vegas-style resort features a total of 1,009 guestrooms and suites, a range of fine dining options, luxury shopping boutiques, two spas, entertainment, and approximately 205,000ft2 of casino space.
Thomas has used a host of luxurious elements in the detail of Encore, including hand-embroidered wallpaper by Fromental, a 27ft long crystal dragon in the Chinese restaurant, and artwork from Steve Wynn’s own collection. Much of the furniture, wallcoverings, and patterns are from Thomas’ own sketchbook, which is always to hand to record things that inspire him. “I want our interiors to be unique,” he says, “I develop my collections with the knowledge I acquired in making custom furnishings, fabrics, light fittings and other things to make our interiors unique. So I design these things and the first use of them is for my own projects.”
As Sleeper went to press, Wynn Resorts announced a six-fold profit increase for Q1 2011, led by major gains in its Macau operations and modest improvements in Las Vegas. Net revenues for the first quarter of 2011 were US$1,260.3 million, compared to US$908.9 million in the first quarter of 2010. The revenue increase was driven by a 46.6% increase in revenues at Wynn Macau. With the group’s third property in Macau expected to cost between US$2 billion and US$3 billion, the stakes in the world of casino hotel development are as high as ever. But for Wynn and Thomas, it is a gamble that appears to keep paying off.