2018 Events, Trends & Moments…Cosmic and Controversial


A lot has happened in the past 12 months. Today I look back on large-scale events…

GREATEST SIGHT IN THE SKY – Angels of the 2017 Massacre

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                      I witnessed it on Sahara Avenue near Palace Station…

This one is emotional and unforgettable. If you were there to witness it, you couldn’t have helped being shaken to the core. As friends and loved ones gathered to commemorate the victims of 2017’s mass shooting one year later, the sunset brought a phenomenon that was seen throughout the entire valley.

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                       Courtesy of Michal Furmanczyk, Absinthe acrobat…

While some were quick to explain it scientifically, many of us felt it was a sign from a greater power…or perhaps a message from another plane of existence. Whatever your take on the matter, there’s no denying that the sunset on 10/1/18 was one we’ll never forget.

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                                  Courtesy of performer Kim Lange…

ROLLING BACK THE PARKING FEES

So many people want to sling buckets of rotting fruit at the money-grubbers of MGM Resorts for instituting parking fees on the Strip. As usual, copycat CAESARS Entertainment followed, the same way they did with resort fees. But unlike those dreaded mandatory surcharges, many of their competitors have held off…or even rolled back…charging their guests to park.

To my recollection, Wynn/Encore was the first to rethink this strategy by offering validation to shoppers, show attendees and hotel guests. Cosmopolitan began including parking as part of their mandatory daily fees just this month. Of course, they had to spoil a bit of the satisfaction by RAISING the resort fee another four dollars per day.

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       Caesars couldn’t resist sticking it to their guests one final time in 2018…

Tropicana, Treasure Island, SLS, Stratosphere, Venetian, Palazzo and a few others still offer parking to everyone without cost. Then there’s the Caesars properties, who dropped a stinkbomb during New Year’s Eve weekend by introducing a flat-rate “surge price” of $20 per day. Keep on gouging, guys. You’ve learned nothing.

LADY GAGA IS THE NEW QUEEN OF THE STRIP

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It seemed really odd when MGM Resorts decided to spend $170 million to rip out their new-ish and gorgeous Aria Theater in favor of “more lucrative” convention space…and then spend millions more to expand/rebrand the adjacent Monte Carlo theater for…get this…more live entertainment. Mmmm kay….

The gamble seems to have paid off, though, as Park Theater just celebrated two years of hosting such high-profile acts as Cher, Ricky Martin, Queen/Adam Lambert and Stevie Wonder. Reports have surfaced that the unwelcome return of faux entertainer Britney Spears has suffered underwhelming ticket sales. But Lady Gaga’s ENIGMA residency came to the rescue by swooping in during the last few days of the year.

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Initial reviews have been stellar. Entertainment Weekly wrote “Enigma the show is a damn good time, and it’s admirable in its attempts to elevate a greatest-hits gathering into something striving for more, something that perhaps even galvanized an artist in the peak of her career to take a Vegas residency in the first place.”

A local media publisher, who shall remain unnamed, confided a different take with me: “Gaga was great. Everything else about the show was a disaster.”

There’s no question that Lady Gaga’s profile has risen substantially since she signed her Park Theater contract. She’s sure to get an Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born…and might actually win. Her credibility as a performer, humanitarian and cultural icon are unquestioned. So having her as a fixture on the Strip (for a planned two years) is a major coup for Park MGM. Britney who?

UPDATE: Mere minutes after I published this piece, it was announced that Britney had cancelled her Las Vegas residency, citing “family health concerns”. That’s PR-speak for “My sales suck and they want me out”. What a wonderful bit of news for lovers of genuine talent. Buh-bye, Brit Brit. Don’t let the door hit-hit.

https://www.ktnv.com/news/britney-spears-cancels-las-vegas-residency

TOUGH YEAR FOR VEGAS RESORT EXECS

The past twelve months have seen a surprising upheaval in upper management at major hotel casinos. It all started with an ominous event as embattled former Caesars Entertanment CEO Gary Loveman was shown the door in January…from his replacement job with Aetna. Loveman had never previously worked for healthcare companies.

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His successor Mark Frissora, who assumed the position from Loveman in summer 2015, will be departing his role in the next month or so. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Frissora was accused in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing by his former company, Hertz Global Holdings, of “inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information to an effective review” three weeks after he took over at Caesars. Ouch!

Gary Loveman wasn’t the only former resort exec to have a bad year. Longtime MGM Resorts‘ Felix Rappaport was found dead in his home this summer. Current MGM CEO Jim Murren issued the following statement: “We are saddened by the news of the passing of our former colleague and friend, Felix Rappaport. Felix was a member of the MGM Resorts family for more than two decades and is remembered fondly by many. Our condolences and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Also at MGM, it was announced in October that Bobby Baldwin, Chief Customer Development Officer of their resorts and President/CEO of CityCenter on the Strip, will depart both positions soon…without explanation. The press announcement was extremely brief and offered no details, which stirred up plenty of rumors. Hmmm…

During that same month, they welcomed George Kliavkoff as the new President of Entertainment and Sports. He took over for legendary bushy-maned Richard Sturm who had held that position since 1993. Sturm shocked many when he announced his departure from MGM five weeks earlier. He was leaving to form his own entertainment consulting firm that would work exclusively with…MGM Resorts (insert facepalm here).

VitalVegas.com reported on a number of departures and managerial changes this summer at Westgate Hotel Casino. The most noteworthy that I personally can report on was the promotion of Cami Christensen into the position of President and General Manager. I happened to be there on the evening of the announcement and was honored to offer congratulations.

Christensen has been with the property for over seventeen years and assumed the responsibilities of former GM Geno Iafrate, who reportedly departed to help launch a new franchising concept for Westgate’s Superbook. Oddly, Iafrate’s LinkedIn account currently shows him as having left the property and looking for work.

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             Gordon Prouty and Cami Christensen raise the bar at Westgate…

I was also excited to meet Gordon Prouty while covering the annual Mr. Olympia Weekend this summer. Gordon had just accepted a position as Westgate’s Director of Public and Community Relations. This dapper gentleman has an extensive background in media and community relations throughout the country.

Here in Vegas, Gordon’s been involved in several organizations and Greenspun Media Group. And as the best-dressed man in all of Las Vegas, he served as inspiration for my article on STITCHED Men’s Haberdashery. Only good things can happen at Westgate with Gordon Prouty behind the PR wheel.

There’s nothing like a sex scandal to ruin a man’s legacy. Just ask Kevin Spacey….or in this case, Steve Wynn. The super-successful businessman, whom many credit with the mega-resorts of today, had one really tough year. Allegations of sexual misconduct forced the magnate to sell off his shares in Wynn Resorts this past March. Just before that he’d stepped down as CEO of his own company while denying the claims being made against him: “The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous.”

The founder of one of Las Vegas’ most luxurious resorts was also forced to depart the on-property villa he called home, as well as to forfeit his healthcare and severance pay. To add insult to injury, Wynn’s final pet project, the Paradise Park Lagoon, was scuttled. It would appear that Wynn West, an expansion on the opposite side of Las Vegas Boulevard, has also been put on ice.

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                                                     Photo via KSNV-TV

This is the third project to fall apart on the former New Frontier Hotel space. Perhaps it’s just as well. Somebody is apparently building Wynn West just a little farther down the street anyway. Unfortunately they’ve named it Resorts World, which doesn’t quite have the same ring. But it certainly looks familiar…

Tomorrow I’ll conclude my year-end wrap-up with the things that made Las Vegas 2018 a deeply personal affair.

Banner photo by Jim Gisclair of Serenity Helicopters

 

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Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Aaron Losch


Getting to know the big man behind the resort’s food and beverage services…

Last fall I met with one of Westgate Resort‘s executive team to discuss this series on their culinary team. During our luncheon we were unexpectedly joined by a third person. Big, burly, and with a serious expression on his face, this mountain of a man made an imposing first impression. Then he broke into an enormous smile…and everything changed.

Chef Aaron Losch is a fascinating person to watch in action. Omnipresent, he seems to be everywhere at once. Being Director of Culinary Operations over the vast array of Westgate’s food and beverages, that perception surely works to his advantage. His presence is felt even when he’s not around.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Westgate’s Fresco Italiano’s lounge and bar area…

Now that I’ve covered most of the Westgate dining outlets at this point, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Chef Losch. He’s introduced me to other members of his team, invited me to sample new offerings at The Court and greeted me in passing while going about his day. But we never got to sit down and actually converse in depth until recently.

We started off our interview by getting a little dirty, so to speak. I’d checked out Chef Losch’s Facebook page and was fascinated by posts about him participating in Tough Mudder competitions. The images were a far cry from his usual pristine white attire, so I had to find out how someone gets involved in those extremely dirty endurance events.

“Why not do something insanely stupid?” was his remarkably direct response.  The trendy gauntlet-like courses are usually over ten miles long and test mental as well as physical strengths. “Your first one is a rite of passage. Every first-timer gets an electric shock” he said.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

These courses are made up of several kinds of obstacles, like plunges into ice water, monkey bars slicked with butter…and live wires hanging over a field of mud. “It’s really extreme” he laughed. “People go down from the electric shocks and they don’t get up. It’s really funny to watch”.

My face must have conveyed its own kind of shock, as Chef Aaron continued to laugh. He told me that his nine-year-old daughter participates in Tough Mudder, too. Losch doesn’t worry about coddling her, though. A natural prankster, he has a unique angle on parenting. “I’m the kind of dad who wraps grapes to make them look like chocolate Easter eggs”.

The Losch family lifestyle is all about adventure. Chef Aaron, wife Jamie and children Abbie (9) and Ethan (7) love to travel. Whether it’s zip-lining in Mexico, swimming with dolphins, visiting the Statue of Liberty or dabbling in Harry Potter’s magic at Universal Studios California, the quartet of thrill-seekers always has a blast.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Before marrying Jamie eleven years ago, Losch had already covered a lot of ground in the culinary world. Born in Santa Monica, he grew up in Port Angeles Washington. At nineteen he moved to my area of Portland Oregon to enroll in Western Culinary Institute. The school later became Le Cordon Bleu of Portland before permanently closing its doors in 2017.

Like many of his Westgate colleagues, Chef Aaron got his first taste of kitchen experience at an early age. “My parents told me to get a job while I was in high school. I applied for a dishwashing spot at the family restaurant of a friend. It was one of only two fine-dining restaurants in Port Angeles”.

It wasn’t long before Losch moved from scrubbing plates to working on the line. “After awhile I got to do prep in the kitchen and ended up being at the restaurant for three years. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush!”. That thrill motivated the budding chef to change his career plans from accounting to culinary school.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                             The Mansion at MGM Grand…

Moving to Vegas, Chef Aaron gained experience in several high profile locations. “Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern was my intro to fine dining in Las Vegas”. That famed spot, which was home to the legendary Cable Car Cocktail, shuttered in 2013. His tenure at MGM Grand also included The Mansion, one of the most opulent and revered destinations in the city. Despite the prestige of working in that exclusive location, the pace just wasn’t for him. “I wanted to shoot myself. It was so up-and-down there. I wanted volume!”.

Within those pre-Westgate years were a collection of valuable opportunities and beneficial experiences. One of them was the chance to open a restaurant from the ground up for Piero Selvaggio. “Caffe Giorgio Ristorante at Mandalay Place was the first one that I got to build out. It wasn’t the fit I was looking for either, so I only lasted eight months”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

BOA Steakhouse at Forum Shops of Caesars was more to Losch’s liking. “I walked in, got recognized and was hired on the spot. I went from Sous Chef to Executive Sous Chef and remained there for another year and a half”.

Throughout the ensuing years, quality and prestige went hand-in-hand in the varied establishments that added to Chef Aaron’s portfolio. Renaissance Hotel (home to ENVY Steakhouse), Wynn/Encore, T-Bones Chophouse at Red Rock Resort…all fabulous restaurants recognized for their top-quality dining. While at T-Bones, he received an award for his contributions to the Vegas Food and Wine Festival.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Losch was wooed away from Red Rock by an opportunity to work with famed hotelier/restaurateur Chef Alex Stratta. Stratta is best known to Las Vegans as the name behind Alex and Stratta at Wynn Las Vegas. Hired as Corporate Executive Chef for the Stratta Restaurant group, his time there was a mixed blessing.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                With Chef Alex Stratta (center) at TAPAS…

“The level that Chef Stratta was doing things was at one I’d never seen before”, he told me. Despite those high ambitions, Stratta’s desire to bring Strip-quality fare to outlying areas didn’t quite work out. Efforts such as Tapas at Tivoli Village and an Italian steakhouse at The Gramercy either closed quickly or didn’t happen at all. A partnership with Vegas-based Preferred Restaurant Brands also collapsed.

But such is life in a profession where concepts soar, tastes change and new opportunities lie in wait. For Chef Losch, that next adventure would take place at a legendary destination, itself in the midst of reinvention and elevation.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                          Westgate’s Silk Road Asian Bistro…

Now the new Executive Chef of Sid’s Cafe, Losch worked alongside noteworthy names like Grant MacPherson and Charles Wilson. Last August he accepted a promotion to his current position. “As Director of Culinary Operations, my job is to help the chefs in the room to be creative”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                         With award-winning Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan…

“I’ve worked with a lot of really good chefs” he continued “but some are not always the best people. I’ve been very lucky with my team here”. That collection includes the chefs that I’ve previously profiled on this site as well as his four assistants. Together they’re the driving force behind the restaurants, events, catering and banquet menus.

Being in charge of so many aspects of a department can be daunting, but out of it comes results. “I want to earn my position…I’m my own worst critic. The pressure comes from wanting to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                                          Fresco Italiano…

As the resort continues to evolve alongside ever-changing preferences, so do the concepts that Westgate’s culinary team rolls out. “Falling back on ‘What we always do’ never works. If you’re continuously doing the same thing, time after time, but expecting a different result…well, that’s the definition of insanity. You have to change and re-evaluate your approach. Of course, ‘corporate’ has their own ideas, too. You’ve got to integrate that all together. Ultimately, I want my bosses to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Entrance to Westgate’s “Restaurant Row”…

During our conversation, Chef Losch and I were joined by Gabrielle PerezGeneral Manager of Casual Dining. She and Chef Aaron had previously worked together at Wynn Las Vegas. It was clear from their camaraderie that being at Westgate was a positive and beneficial change of pace. Especially from the corporate mentality at other Vegas resorts.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

“I enjoy building strong and dynamic teams that are passionate, committed and engaged to making hospitality fun, beautiful and profitable”, she told me. “I love the atmosphere at Westgate. There’s lots of professionalism here. So much of it that I’m continually amazed. But it’s mixed with fun and plenty of creativity”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Such positive words coming from a member of his own team must make Chef Aaron feel very proud. Despite the challenges of his field, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his personal time as much if the culinary team wasn’t a smooth-running machine.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

After our interview, Chef Aaron showed me his office in the depths of the resort’s inner workings. Covering the walls and shelves were memorabilia and mementos. Crests from Game of Thrones. Disney character statues. Bottles of Las Vegas Knights wine. “I LOVE the Knights”, he exclaimed.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

When I mentioned how serene things seemed in his personal space, Chef Aaron chuckled. “It’s not always this way. Sometimes I have a line of people out the door. Situations need to be addressed, emergencies come up, decisions need to be made. But that’s why I’m here”.

With things going so well at Westgate, it’s safe to say that everyone is glad that Chef Aaron is the big man in charge. And that’s why dining at the re-invigorated off-Strip resort is such a satisfying and mouth-watering experience.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

For a list of Westgate’s casual and fine dining options, menus and operating hours, click here.

Photos: Sammasseur, Chef Aaron Losch, Jamie Losch, Vegas.com, Vegas Food and Wine Festival, Tough Mudder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review Part 5: Best and Worst Sights


Most Amazing Sight – Vegas sunrises and sunsets

Most Vegas visitors miss out on the glorious sunrises and sunsets that blanket the Valley in amazing colors and warmth. Do yourself a favor and get up early one morning to experience stunning desert hues as the city comes alive.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

I captured a great moment last week from my suite at Westgate Las Vegas. While snapping the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, the mirrored wall on the opposite side of the room cast my outline in silhouette, and well….see for yourself.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Photographer Greg C. supplied these glorious shots below:

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Most Annoying Sight – Celebrity DJ Billboards

They’re angry, puzzling and look like mugshots after all-night binges. From a leering Diplo to dead-eyed Tiesto to creepy Marshmello (WTF?), these eyesores litter the landscape and dot the highways with their blank stares and zero useful information. If the sight of an IMAX-sized stoned-looking Calvin Harris stirs up your desire to dance….well, I just can’t relate to your tastes in the slightest.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Runner-up – kids on gaming floors, Fremont Street and late at night on the Strip

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017