A Shot at the Brass Ring

John Unwin is tasked with making the Cosmopolitan a success in a daunting market. Is he the man for the job?

John Unwin’s not quite moved into his new office—the artwork’s still waiting to be hung and the shelves are mostly bare—but he’s right at home as the Cosmopolitan hurtles toward its Dec. 15 opening. As of this writing, it’s 14 days, three hours, 47 minutes and eight seconds until the curtain officially rises, according to the Strip-front clock. For the CEO, life and work will be controlled chaos until then, and probably for some time afterward.

“The last two weeks are always nuts,” he says with a smile that belies the oncoming storm. “Even if we pushed the opening back four months, the last two weeks would still be just as crazy. That’s just how it is.”

His crisp white shirt and dark purple tie, framed by a well-tailored gray suit, match the color palette of the Cosmopolitan’s logo. At this point, it’s hard to tell where the hotel ends and the man begins.

The Bellevue, Wash.-native is used to challenges. His first job in the hotel business was at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel. Just out of college, his English degree landed him a position in the Olympic’s storeroom, hustling crates of lettuce up from the loading dock. He worked his way up through the food and beverage department before joining Fairmont Hotels in 1991. Six years later, he presided over the rebirth of Copley Plaza, a hallowed Boston hotel that had fallen on hard times. It was part of the progression that’s brought him to the Cosmopolitan.

“The hotel had been mistreated under other owners, so I had to bring confidence, bring a point of view back. I changed things that needed to be changed.” He was successful: In 1997, he was named General Manager of the Year by the Massachusetts Lodging Association.

Although he had “a very comfortable future” at Fairmont, Unwin moved on again, to join Ian Schrager as regional vice president for his New York properties. Ultimately, Unwin became the company’s chief operating officer, responsible for hotels and restaurants in London and San Francisco. The job was grueling—Unwin estimates he flew about between 100,000 and 250,000 miles a year—but provided him with an invaluable mentor and sounding board.

“Ian knows more about popular culture than anyone I’ve met,” he says. “He also knows how to throw a great party—an important thing in our business. I learned a different way to look at hospitality from him. With Fairmont I really knew the business, but with Schrager I got to see what’s working in some of the hippest destinations in the world, what was pushing the envelope.”

Even though Unwin got to see a different side of the business as COO—how development deals are put together, how the legal end works—he was at his happiest when he was on property, working with employees and interacting with guests at a hotel. So when Caesars Palace came calling, he moved from Manhattan to Las Vegas.

At Caesars, Unwin presided over several renovations, including the completion of the Augustus Tower, and is credited with restoring some luster to the storied property.

With the Cosmopolitan, Unwin inherited a project that had been acquired out of bankruptcy by Deustche Bank in 2008 and whose structure was a fait accompli: It would have 2,995 hotel rooms in two towers, with a five-story podium. Unwin’s task was to create the software, so to speak, that would bring that hardware to life.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he says. “The chance to open a $4 billion resort on the 49-yard line of the Strip. It was my chance to create a company, to create a culture—to put my money where my mouth is.”

From the start, he believed that the challenge was organizational, not architectural.

“I needed to find the point of view. We had the building, but I had to create a brand, create the promise that would draw guests in. Yes, I took part in many design decisions—which tiles go where, that sort of thing. But the really important thing was creating a brand, an organization, a culture.”

That point of view he came up with, according to Lisa Marchese, senior vice president of brand marketing and a co-worker of Unwin’s at Harrah’s: “playful, curious, and authentic.”

Early evidence of this approach came when Unwin got a Twitter account. Since April, he’s been sharing bits and piece about the project and his personal life, from pictures of his labradoodles Sparky and Augie (shortened from Spartacus and Augustus, an artifact of his years at Caesars Palace) to inspirational quotes from the likes of Karl Wallenda, Oscar Wilde and Yoda.

Unwin is clearly no humorless workaholic. He’s a guy who likes to have fun, a fishing fanatic who can discourse on what wine pairs best with Alaskan halibut just as easily as he can the history of Caesars Palace or the art on display at the Cosmopolitan. He’s even had some fun with the latter.

While next-door neighbor CityCenter boasts a serious $40 million public art collection, the Cosmo offers playful touches that Unwin hopes will connect with visitors on a more personal scale, such as the Shepard Fairey mural in the parking garage, floor-to-ceiling video columns whose images range from swaying dancers to falling leaves, and the six strategically placed Art-o-Mat dispensers (fashioned from converted cigarette machines) that offer take-home opuses for $5 a pop.

There are other delights where those came from. While there is the expected slate of luxury restaurants, for example, there is also what Marchese calls the “wink” factor that will keep the Cosmo accessible and interactive, such as the pizza place with no sign that’s accessible down an “alley” (actually, a hallway decorated with vintage album covers). And as guests meander toward their dinner reservations at Jaleo or Comme Ça, they’ll come across the P3 Studio, in which a rotating corps of working artists (hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy is the first) will create and talk with them.

The buy-in to this theme of “discovery” has been big among the staff, chief financial officer Jeffery Burge says. “It’s not about big secrets, but lots of hidden things in the project. Right now, that kind of stuff has the staff talking. We think, for guests, these things will generate a lot of excitement and curiosity.”

This whimsical hospitality spirit stems from Unwin’s stint with Schrager, where he oversaw boutique hotels such as New York’s Morgans and Royalton, Los Angeles’ Mondrian and San Francisco’s Clift. Although the Cosmopolitan is Strip-size, it has a few boutique flourishes, such as a sampling of literature from Phaidon Press nestled between bookends in each room.

The literary offerings are a personal favorite of Unwin, who describes himself as a voracious reader. “I’m usually reading one or two novels, and I like history, popular culture … and I’m constantly zipping through newspapers and magazines.”

And no, he’s not overly concerned about guests helping themselves to the books. “We’ll figure it out,” he says.

Schrager, the Studio 54 co-founder who many credit with creating the boutique hotel genre, is confident that, whatever the challenges the Cosmo has, Unwin will figure them out.

“John went to college with Marriott, but he went to grad school with me,” Schrager says. “Deustche Bank really got the best of both worlds when they brought him on board. He’s very creative and has so much integrity. What he’s going to do at the Cosmopolitan is really different from what’s in Las Vegas right now. I really think he’s creating the next generation of the Las Vegas hotel. This is a real shot for him to grab the brass ring.”

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