Heavyweight Hospitality

Caesars Palace used to be the champ. Builder Jay Sarno hyped its opening festivities, which kicked off on Aug. 5, 1966, and lasted for three days, as “an orgy of excitement.” The celebration was pure Swingin’ Sixties: bottomless champagne flutes, two tons of filet mignon, cocktail waitresses in so-short-they’re-barely-legal toga dresses, and Andy Williams crooning in the Circus Maximus theater. Before the last chorus of “Moon River” ended, the place was the top casino in the world.

By all accounts, Caesars held onto that title for the next 23 years, an eternity in Vegas time. The city’s biggest players invariably headed there and the casino became synonymous with Vegas in popular culture. Jimmy Caan’s character memorably hit on an 18 there in The Gambler. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman made a mint counting cards there in Rain Man. Mel Brooks’ “standup philosopher,” Comicus, played there in History of the World, Part I.

But Sarno’s original freewheeling Roman orgy is long gone; he sold his interest in the hotel only three years after opening it, and under the leadership of the Perlman brothers, Caesars never stopped expanding through the 1970s as it became the home for world-class heavyweight fights and the center of an empire that included non-casino hotels in the Poconos.

Along the way, fun became serious business. A sign of the times came in the late 1980s when executives replaced the original Caesars Palace logo—a chubby reveler reclining on a couch, a blonde dangling grapes over his gaping mouth—with the current smooth Roman profile. Sloth was out; strength and determination were in.

Around that time, Steve Wynn’s Mirage wrested the Vegas imperium away from Caesars, replacing it as the must-stay-at casino. Then came Bellagio, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, Encore and Aria, providing more and fresher competition for high-rolling visitors.

Caesars Palace fought back, constantly reinventing itself by adding towers, restaurants and venues, from the Colosseum to Pure nightclub. But like an aging heavyweight champion who’s lost a step, Caesars isn’t the world-beater it used to be. Iconic is great, but in a city that’s about newer and better, Caesars is often overlooked.

Ramesh Sadhwani, who in September was named the hotel’s vice president of operations, might be the man to help Caesars recapture the title.

He’s certainly got a championship resumé: 15 years with Four Seasons, living in several countries and managing a number of five-star properties; five years as senior vice president and general manager of hotel operations for Wynn Las Vegas and Wynn Tower suites. Sadhwani knows top-tier hospitality, both in its broad international context and its specific Las Vegas spin.

On paper, he’s the first guy you’d want on board to run your five-star hotel. What doesn’t come through on paper, though, is Sadhwani’s genuine enthusiasm for the business of other people’s leisure.

“The approach,” he explains, “has to be that you treat every guest encounter as the only encounter you’re doing—one on one—and you have to make every guest encounter count. If I’m engaged in some service, that person is my complete focus. If I do that with every guest, we can provide a great level of service.”

Caesars will get a big boost when the Octavius Tower officially opens in January. According to Sadhwani, workers have already started loading in furniture and fixtures, and the company is on target for a soft opening in mid-December.

“The product is on par with Wynn’s Tower Suites and Encore, with a standard 550-square-foot room,” Sadhwani says. “It’s designed to be a very secluded enclave, a place to get away from the crowd after you’ve done all that Vegas has to offer.”

The new tower is part of Sadhwani’s push to position Caesars Palace alongside the top names in town, with its Roman Tower rooms slotting next to resort side rooms at Wynn or standard Bellagio rooms once a pending renovation is complete. The Augustus and Octavius towers, he thinks, are firmly in the Tower Suites’ weight class. With the recent renovation of the Forum Tower and the Centurion Tower’s evolution into the Nobu Tower, Sadhwani says that by 2013 Caesars will be “a brand-new hotel.”

Even with about 3,900 rooms once Octavius opens, Sadhwani believes Caesars can provide the kind of personalized service that boutique hotels pride themselves on. The resort’s size allows, he says, “more room to maneuver” and the chance to build secluded spots that are like oases of calm close to the action.

Yet he realizes that size can work against him; so he’s devised a two-pronged counterattack. The first is technology. “People are comfortable with iPads, smartphones and their mobile devices, so we’re playing with an app that will let guests communicate directly that way, making reservations and interacting with staff. It’s one way to reach out to guests who like technology, let them use it the way they want.” The second prong of the attack is to create what Sadhwani calls “hubs” within the 85-acre resort complex so guests don’t have to trek across the property to get what they need.

“I want to make this the most user-friendly hotel ever,” he says.

With his track record, it’s hard to bet against him.