10 things I never knew about Las Vegas until I ran a high-roller suite
By BRANDON PRESSER | Bloomberg | Published: September 13, 2018
In Las Vegas, the ultimate sand trap-turned-capital of capitalism, there’s no better byword for sophistication than the Cosmopolitan. Its 20-plus suites, known as the Boulevard Penthouses, are the most coveted rooms in town, largely because they’re priceless. The only way in is by invitation, which means fronting over a million dollars (and preferably two) at the Reserve, the hotel’s private, three-room casino on the 75th floor. It’s a gaming experience so exclusive that not even James Bond could charm his way through the door.
When the resort offered me a staff position serving its penthouses’ high-rollers, roving from butler to bartending stations and everywhere in between, I jumped at the opportunity. And after passing my security clearances, I was initiated into the secret realm of the Reserve, catering to the whims of the world’s wealthiest gamblers. But it wasn’t all popping bottles and cutting cigars -- try cleaning up "lucky" piles of rotting fruit, or walking in on nude hotel guests instead.
Think what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Not this time.
Putting the sin in Sin City
There’s a fine line between letting high-rollers have the run of the house, and indulging all their gaming-adjacent vices. "It’s a judgment-free zone," explains Leslie Sadovia, Cosmopolitan’s executive director of national casino marketing. "People can come and behave in an extreme manner, and we’re not telling them not to."
Some big spenders push this to the limit. One repeat guest prefers the suite with a chinchilla-fur hammock; he’s been known to splay himself across it naked, waiting for a butler to find him. Another, a well-known basketball player, enjoys having sex on the morning of his departure while the butlers fastidiously pack up his luggage. And one of the casino’s oldest guests -- also one of the only high-rolling women -- has garnered a colorful reputation for discarding fur coats ("I’m bored of them!"), and throwing fists in the gaming salon when her luck is waning. Her other favorite pastime: asking the butlers to dress up in pajamas, crawl into bed next to her, and read her bedtime stories. These incidents will hardly get you kicked out -- though the staff will periodically step in with slaps on the wrist.
There is one habit that even the brattiest clients tend to avoid: getting blindingly drunk. When you’re gaming at such astronomical dollar values, after all, it’s critical to keep your wits.
How to have them at 'hello'
You know the fruit bowl that’s often waiting for you when you check into a fancy hotel room? In a Boulevard Penthouse suite, the value of your welcome amenity might be five or six figures.
Sometimes welcome gifts can include obscure objets d’art or vintage Chanel; the hotel has even hired a full-time chocolatier to create custom-made, edible sculptures inspired by a guest’s Instagram account. But booze is, by far, the most popular option. On my shift, it was more than $1,100 of liquor -- a bottle of Macallan and Yamazaki whisky. ("A pretty basic gamer get," I was told by a colleague.) Occasionally, it’s $14,000 bottles of wine from the Rothschild estate. Louis XIII cognac, priced at $4,300 a bottle, is a far more common ask; one high-roller was so emphatic about having multiple, unopened bottles in his room, the casino team started engraving his name on them to prevent him from reselling them.
High-roller stakes, lowbrow tastes
Every Boulevard Penthouse guest comes with a rider detailing everything from favorite brands of ice cream to the exact number of minutes guests like their eggs hard-boiled. On one, I spotted these comical instructions: "Guest confuses American and cheddar cheese, so when she orders American please bring her cheddar, but tell her it’s American."
Which brings me to the pedantic room service tastes of big-spender guests. Standard orders range from green juices to fresh seafood picked out via webcam from the casino’s private aquarium. Off-property requests -- which come with a $25-per-hour service fee-are common and most frequently send butlers to such glamorous places as In-N-Out Burger and Target. Kim Mantle, Cosmopolitan’s head of butler services, says she makes two or three trips a week to the mega-mart in search of various of sundries; on my own run there, the shopping list included 10 boxes of Maltesers (the British chocolate candy) and several PlayStation 4 video games.
Regular trips are also made to Chinatown’s 99 Ranch Market, and T&T Ginseng, emporiums that peddle a witch’s brew of rare teas, herbs, and -- strangest of the bunch -- cordycep worms. Haven’t heard of them? Neither had I. Cordyceps aren’t actually worms. They’re a type of caterpillar-eating fungus that gets hand-picked in the Himalayas and sometimes used like Viagra. They’re literally worth their weight in gold.
Counting the wins and losses
When a high-roller is ready to gamble upward of $2 million, Brian Benowitz, Cosmopolitan’s vice president of casino operations, can have the Reserve unlocked, set up with the client’s preferred games, and fully staffed within 25 minutes.
Here, Baccarat is the prevailing game of choice. First, it’s familiar to more than 50 percent of Reserve guests who hail from Asia and play it in Macao. It also has a significant house advantage, meaning that the Cosmopolitan will better incentivize its play. Higher risk, higher reward.
The casino’s biggest Baccarat bet to date was $300,000 per hand for an entire shoe -- that’s 8 decks of cards, played out as roughly 60 hands in 60 minutes -- on two tables simultaneously. Those are stakes of roughly $600,000 per minute, or $36 million per hour. (That nearly matches the 2017 gross domestic product of Tuvalu: $40 million.) "I’ve never seen anything like it," adds Benowitz. "There were some ups and downs, but eventually the casino won."
The biggest client victory Benowitz has witnessed amounted to $30 million over a short weekend trip, but that was before he started at the Cosmopolitan. Here, he’s seen a high-roller score $6 million playing Single Zero (European-style Roulette) -- and lose up to $7 million.
Excessive spending happens off the tables, too. "We’ve seen billionaires buy the Cosmopolitan out of their Champagne -- that’s millions of dollars’ worth of alcohol -- just because they can," adds Benowitz. "High-rollers love to compete with their buddies on who can outspend the other."
As an animal-friendly hotel, the Cosmopolitan fields a lot of pet requests. Butlers hustle schnauzers around the on-site dog walk, make trips to Petco for additional dog beds and leashes, and put in orders to the esteemed on-site culinary team for canine-specific gourmet feasts. But dogs aren’t the only pampered critters in Vegas. A misbehaving sugar glider (aka a flying squirrel) with severe separation anxiety takes the prize for weirdest animal guest, while nocturnal snakes that required dozens of blackout shades might be the highest-maintenance.
Things get crazier when animal requests revolve around wild creatures, rather than domesticated pets. Once, someone asked for a monkey to be dressed up in a butler’s uniform to check the guest in. And inebriated demands for zoo animals have ranged from llamas to tigers; the latter was needed to -- no joke -- reenact that infamous scene from The Hangover. Alas, none of those wishes could be fulfilled due to rules against animal cruelty-and common sense.
Some things are off limits, even in Sin City
Also in the category of demands that can’t be fulfilled: hookers. It’s a common misconception that prostitution is legal in Las Vegas. While it’s allowed in the rest of Nevada, Clark County prohibits it. The thinly veiled requests, however, come roughly once a week: "Can you introduce me to someone?"
Requests for drugs -- usually cocaine -- are also once-a-week occurrences that come with a hard "no." (Unless, of course, butlers see a valid prescription.) Even directing guests to Nevada’s legal marijuana dispensaries is a no-no, because the Cosmopolitan operates under a federal casino mandate that strictly forbids its consumption.
Courting lady luck with a dose of superstition
Among high-rollers, superstitions can quickly escalate from the demanding to the absurd. Some millionaires will sleep on the couch because they believe a bed with a headboard will beckon bad fortune. Others crowd themselves with citrus -- often with holes poked to "unleash the luck" -- scattering pierced oranges and lemons around the suite, letting them rot during longer stays. Also lucky for clients from the Far East: filling water basins to the brim. That’s how one high-roller flooded his bathtub … and the suite underneath.
It gets weirder: Some guests are completely phobic about having anything thrown away, lest the discarded object be something lucky. Hot winning streaks may be accompanied by mounds of cigarette ashes, crumpled paper, or random assortments of trash. It’s so common, most butlers know never to remove anything from a gaming table without triple-checking. Once, a high-roller wanted to rescue an "auspicious" piece of used plastic wrap his wife had accidentally tossed, and sent his butler rifling through the hotel’s trash system.
Of course, some quirks are fully individual. One notorious guest, for instance, requests glass after glass of scotch on the rocks while he’s on the gaming floor-not for drinking, but to moisten a tiny brown "medicine bag" that hangs from his neck. No one’s ever figured out what it is, but Mantle is sure the guest practices some kind of Santeria. "Once, we found a room service cart in his penthouse, half-melted by hundreds of candles," she says. "I’m honestly surprised he didn’t burn the hotel down!"
Hosts with the mosts
Boulevard Penthouse guests get pampered by two legions of staff: butlers and hosts. Hosts are like banker-bestie hybrids who liaise between high-rollers and casino: they extend interest-free, seven-figure lines of credit and learn how much players are willing to throw down and how risk-prone they are.
Each of the Cosmopolitan’s 25 hosts nurtures a portfolio of 300 to 500 clients who’ve demonstrated the propensity to play hard. Almost all of the clients are men, ranging in age from millennials to 70-year-olds, and they stick around for three to five years before going dark-usually due to bad investments, dips in the economy, or divorce.
Only 15 to 20 of a host’s contacts can be deemed "worthy" of an open invite into the Boulevard Penthouses-and managing that VVIP list is among a host’s most important tasks, since penthouse invites are on a "whenever you want" basis, rather than for particular dates or times.
It’s no wonder, then, that hosts often become engrained in their client’s personal lives, being invited to weddings, birthdays, sports events, and kids’ graduations. They get to dip into the casino’s coffers for gifts that will cement the bonds, says Kelly Van Aken, vice president of national marketing. That can be anything from a fabulous bottle of wine to an $18,000 Birkin bag, or a hand-delivered platter of Peking Duck from their favorite Vegas restaurant.
Tips that tip the scales
Seven-figure bets often mean sky-high tips. It’s standard for a weekending penthouse guest to leave between $300 and $500 for housekeeping-plus a few hundred dollars a day for the butlers. The record-setter, however, was a $40,000 gratuity for a couple of days of service, left by a famously generous repeat guest. Like all other tips, it was divvied up amongst the butlers, based on their hourly work commitments.
But butlers don’t get the biggest tips; dealers do. In fact, a gig at the Cosmopolitan’s casino is so coveted that auditions are by invite only. That’s because its gamblers commonly make wagers with the intent of giving the dealer the winnings, as a tip. The Cosmopolitan’s largest bet of this kind, a $150,000 wager, would have yielded $300,000 in winnings for the dealer, had it not been a bust.
That giant vault in the basement of the Bellagio that Clooney and his crew masterfully emptied in “Ocean’s 11”? There’s no such thing. Casinos quickly move their liquid assets to banks and secondary locations -- though almost $91 million worth of chips was exposed on the casino floor while I was on staff.
Most thieves are small-time crooks-cheaters, really, or low-wagering guests who see opportunities to toss a chip onto a winning hand here and there. According to Benowitz, around 10,000 people pass through the Cosmopolitan’s casino every day and 5 percent to 10 percent of them stop to gamble. How many of them try to cheat? Around one in 200.
High-rollers take this to a whole other level.
"When a guest loses a million dollars in the casino, they want their million dollars back," explains Mantle, who tallies stolen items every day. Artwork, duvets, even bathroom scales: gone, gone, gone. The oversized Oribe bath amenities? Pilfered by the bagful.
But some guests are especially brazen about their thefts. One requested that the butler team get slippers from a competing casino so he could steal those, instead of the ones by his bed. Several have brought extra suitcases and asked the butlers to fill them with items from their suite -- think coffee table books, unopened alcohol, and decorative Hermes knickknacks.
Turns out, even if you lose big at the casino, the hotel has its ways of making you feel like a winner.