When Sir Richard Branson showed up mid-summer to officially cut the ribbon on Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, nobody knew he was weeks away from announcing his trip into space.
In hindsight, the clues were there.
I was part of the throng gathered for Sir Richard’s onsite summer press conference to herald the hotel’s grand opening. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas is a revamped version of the property that used to be the Hard Rock Hotel.
The hotel is on Paradise Road near the campus of UNLV. As noted at the press conference by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, it’s the first major off-Strip casino you pass when your taxi departs McCarron International Airport.
The gathered media asked Branson about hotels, Las Vegas, meetings business and all things related to a grand opening.
During a brief lull, with no prompting, Branson noted: “Well, I see nobody’s going to ask me about space.”
Naturally, a reporter asked him about space.
“Hmmm,” he stammered, “I suppose I’d have to say I like this hotel space very much!”
That’s all we got.
When the press corps finished questioning Branson, the author of Screw It, Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life, popped open a bottle of champagne. He shook it up and spritzed the gathered media.
Yes, it’s part of his schtick. No, reporters weren’t expecting to get their makeup smeared or video equipment wet. It was an impulsive, awkward, brash thing to do.
Moments later, as another hotel executive spoke on the mic, Branson walked over to the press section and offered a heartfelt apology for getting them wet.
Collectively, the press corps smiled.
Nobody could have guessed that less than a month later, Branson would be popping corks after his Virgin Galactic craft had landed after a successful suborbital spaceflight.
Viva Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
Sir Richard is part of the billionaire breed that asks for forgiveness instead of permission.
That attitude led to the birth of the Virgin record store chain, a music label, an airline, a highly publicized spaceflight corporation and more than 400 businesses operating under the Virgin Group name.
Space cowboy Branson is definitely into doing hotels—while disarming the Las Vegas market with his unique personal brand of cheeky joie de vivre.
Branson’s casino-resort is just the fifth property to open under the Virgin Hotels banner. With 1,500 room, its nearly boutique sized by Vegas mega-resort standards.
Pet-friendly and part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, the property’s 60,000-square-foot casino is managed by Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment. It’s the first casino in Vegas to be run by a Native American company.
In direct comparison to what the Hard Rock was, Virgin’s overall décor is brighter and more colorful, with lots of red accents. Where music-related memorabilia used to be omnipresent, Virgin mixes up modern art with fun and frivolous iconography.
There’s an overall sense that a more upscale, mature clientele is being sought. This is not senior living, however. The hotel’s high-energy, sports-forward ultra-lounge is called Money, Baby. Signage directing you to Money, Baby features pre-Millennial faves like Farrah Fawcett, Wayne Gretzky and Kathy Ireland.
Along with Money, Baby, indoor-outdoor restaurants that front the new Virgin pool scene include Kassi Beach House, serving coastal Italian Cuisine, and Mexican themed Casa Calavera.
Hard Rock’s former pool scene was off the charts. Rehab Beach Club was the first major day club in Las Vegas. It was wall-to-wall bikinis, bros and boozing.
The vibe is toned down. The redesigned, sandy Élia Beach Club is inspired by the Greek island of Mykonos. There are now three sections in the pool area. You can still get a fix from thumping DJs, but there’s one pool for relaxing and another dedicated as adults-only.
Loud music is by no means verboten at Virgin. The Theater is a 4,500-capacity venue that books big musical acts. The hotel grand opening weekend featured a rare live show by Lady Marmalade herself, Christina Aguilera.
And during a set at The Theater by rapper Flo Rida, Branson joined the group onstage. This time he was armed with two champagne bottles—and unleased a double-fisted barrage of spritz into the crowd.
Food & Beverage Has Landed
More than a dozen new food-and-beverage options have landed on the Virgin landscape. The one holdover from Hard Rock days is legendary sushi restaurant Nobu.
Following a 20-year stint at The Bellagio, the big, bold flavors of Todd English’s Olives return to the Vegas culinary scene here in Virgin.
Other noteworthy spots: Pizza Forte, The Kitchen at Commons Club, The Shag Room, Funny Library Coffee Shop and Afters Ice Cream.
I dined at Kris Yengbamroong’s bright and colorful Night + Market. The chef’s Thai street food has won numerous awards at his Los Angeles locations, as well as a James Beard nomination.
My wife and I were pre-warned about the spicy offering at Night + Market.
Even at a 5 (out of 10) spiciness level, my Panang Neua (beef short ribs in a coconut curry sauce) lit a yummy, three-alarm blaze in my esophagus. I overheard another patron at a nearby table exclaim, “My mouth is on fire!”
We also had an excellent dinner experience at the upscale, ultra-lounge-vibed One Steakhouse.
One Steakhouse is a one-off creation from the group headed by brothers Michael and David Morton. Their father is Arnie Morton, founder of the eponymous steakhouse chain.
The main dining room is dark, but lively and loud. Our Brooklyn-born server exuded fuggetaboutit friendliness. My surf-and-turf entrée of Maine lobster tail and a pre-sliced New York Strip steak came to the table fabulously presented on a charcoal fueled Hibachi.
Before we left One, there was a final moment of unplanned, Sir Richard-esque chutzpah to drink in.
In the outer bar area, an impeccably dressed woman in high heels was helped up onto a dining table. From that perch she launched into a pitch-perfect version of Andreas Bocelli’s pop opera classic “Con Te Partirò (Time to Say Goodbye).”
Patrons smiled and applauded. No champagne was spilled. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the space. J&J