The fine art of being Steve Wynn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am

Not many men would willingly shell out $78.5 million of their own money for a 600-year-old Ming vase and immediately give it away. Such is the enigma of Steve Wynn - billionaire hotelier, entrepreneur and lover of fine art whose mega-casino and resort is set to transform the entertainment scene in Macau from September.

If nothing else, his world-record purchase at an auction in Hong Kong last week proved how deep are the pockets of a corporate impresario who played a leading role in turning Las Vegas from a sleazy, mafia-run town full of prostitutes and gambling addicts to a global model of elegant, profitable tourism.

Yet if there's one thing Mr Wynn loves as much as his art, it's being talked about. And his decision to donate the vase for public display in a Macau museum, instead of spiriting it away to join the Picassos, Rembrandts and Van Goghs in his private collection in the US, was a timely way to set tongues wagging with less than 100 days until Wynn Macau opens its doors.

Bill Thompson, a casino industry expert and professor of business and economics at the University of Nevada, says it was a masterstroke.

'In Las Vegas, the notion that we have all this top art at the Wynn Resort and the Bellagio and Venetian hotels gives the city a quality image that we lacked before he opened the Mirage in the 1990s,' he said.

'Steve Wynn is all about quality. He sets high standards and others reach for them. In Macau, Sheldon Adelson [owner and developer of the Sands Macau and the under-construction Venetian] and Stanley Ho Hung-sun [Lisboa Casino] will have to try harder and harder to measure up.'

Wynn, 64, has always been a man of big ideas. His entertainment-driven, themed casino resorts such as The Mirage, Treasure Island and The Bellagio changed the face of the famed Las Vegas Strip forever and made the desert city a popular holiday destination in its own right, a far cry from the heyday of the seedy and smoky mob-owned casino hotels that attracted the washed-up and worn-out.

Crowds still flock to see the spectacles outside the hotels, such as erupting volcanoes and 30 metre fountains dancing to music and lights, before heading inside to gamble away their dollars.

Before Wynn's revolution, which began in the 1980s, Las Vegas casino revenues were falling. 'In a sense, he was a knight in shining armour and rescued a city in the doldrums,' Professor Thompson said. 'It went from being very ordinary, middle-class mass tourism to elegant tourism, and as he raised the standards, others followed them and that enlivened the city. He brought high-class shopping, top restaurants, quality entertainment and service way above anything seen before.'

Mr Wynn changed direction with the opening of the 2,716-room, US$2.7 billion Wynn Resort last year, a project many thought would be his last roll of the dice in Vegas. Gone were the conspicuous, over-indulgent themes of some of his earlier projects, replaced by a more conservative look. The fountains, giant glass screens, upmarket boutiques and a Ferrari dealership are still there, hidden from view inside the building's nondescript facade.

Rivals were critical. 'Putting your heart into your hotel is more important than putting your name on it,' Mr Adelson said. But Mr Wynn is happy enough with business and has committed to a self-contained extension, to be called Encore, which will open next year. 'Adding 2,000 rooms to this place is like spitting on the floor,' he said. 'You can't miss.'

It is the Wynn resort concept that he believes will be successful in the fast-growing Asian market. As columnist Joel Stein noted when Time magazine named Mr Wynn one of the world's 100 most influential people last month: 'If someone can teach the Chinese how to skip the ugly growing pains of capitalism and get straight to the pretty parts, it's Wynn.'

Born in Connecticut in 1942, Wynn inherited his father's bingo parlour business when he was at university. He made enough money from that to buy a stake in the Frontier Hotel and move to Las Vegas in 1967. Shrewd business dealings enabled him to buy the Golden Nugget then develop the Mirage into the city's first themed resort hotel in 1989. He is a noted philanthropist, is on the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, and is a trustee of the George HW Bush Presidential Library.

Married to Elaine Pascal, a former Miss Miami Beach, he has two daughters, Gillian and Kevyn, who was kidnapped in 1993 and famously rescued by her father from a car at the airport after he paid a US$1.5 million ransom.

Her kidnapper was arrested in California when he tried to buy a Ferrari for cash, an incident referred to in the 2001 Vegas heist film Ocean's 11. The character of Terry Benedict, owner of three casinos in the film, was based on Mr Wynn.

Professor Thompson believes that Mr Wynn's Macau adventure will not be his last. 'He's 64 now and sooner or later he'll be tired out, but I think there's a good 10 years left in him yet,' he said.