One would be hard-pressed to call an 826-guestroom hotel small, but compared to its behemoth neighbors, the Westin Las Vegas is comparatively intimate. That sense of intimacy, hotel GM Lezlie Young says, is what keeps guests coming back to the nongaming, nonsmoking hotel—a rare find in a city known for excess. But what makes a hotel different can be what captures a market, as Young has seen after spending more than 20 years in the business.
While Young was working at a health club to put herself through business classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a club member approached to suggest that she come work at the soon-to-open Luxor. After meeting some of the hotel’s managers, she was offered her pick of areas to begin her hospitality career. Putting her existing health-club knowledge to good use, she decided to work in the hotel’s spa. “I have often looked back at that moment many years ago and wondered—if I had picked casino or sales or HR or one of those other fields—if I would have had a different career path,” Young said. “But I definitely feel like I chose correctly.” Starting off as a spa coordinator, she was quickly promoted to spa supervisor, and knew she had found her calling.
After helping to open Luxor, she went on to open the New York, New York resort, starting as the spa manager and working her way up to oversee recreation, spa, pool and roller coasters. By the time she left the property in 2005, she was executive director of hotel operations—and Las Vegas as a destination was undergoing a dramatic change, with mergers and acquisitions consolidating many of the Strip’s properties.
Las Vegas in the mid-aughts was “growing and prospering,” Young recalled, as was MGM Mirage, the then-parent company of the New York, New York casino. “At that time, [they] announced the acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group,” she said. As the two companies consolidated, Young opted to go to the Mandalay Bay Resort as director of operational development. The move, she said, brought her back to her recreation roots, and gave her a chance to focus on the operational developments of the two companies as they adjusted to the merger.
She remained at Mandalay Bay for two years, and then moved to the Signature at MGM Grand, where she handled operations of the resort’s nongaming all-suite towers. As the VP and general manager for the Mansion and Skylofts—MGM Grand’s ultra-luxury high-roller accommodations, Young worked with designers to reimagine what the private villas could look like. “Being able to oversee the renovation of 26 out of the 29 villas and make those selections with some of the best designers in the world was a chance to be creative and to learn how to use that creativity,” she said.
Young left MGM Resorts to become VP of hotel operations at the SLS Las Vegas, formerly the iconic Sahara. In that role, Young helped the property transition from Hilton’s Curio Collection to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide’s platform as the property added a W hotel in 2015 through 2016 (and as Starwood was acquired by Marriott). In the course of that transition, she met Michael George, the COO of Crescent Hotels, which was acquiring the Westin. George saw an opportunity for Young to grow further.
Small Hotel, Big City
Young started at the Westin in March 2017, and within five months the property began a massive renovation that removed the casino and added new restaurants. “Staying competitive, for us, has meant narrowing our niche of who we are,” Young said. “The decision to remove the casino played a big part in who we are as a property. We know that guests who are loyal to Westin have a vision of what they would expect when they arrive, and we also know that the casino was one of those things that maybe didn't align with what the guest's expectation was pre-arrival.”
Making the entire property nonsmoking also was important to the wellness-focused brand’s devotees, she said. “But even if a guest hasn't stayed at a Westin and they don't have the loyalty to that brand or they're not as familiar with it, I firmly believe that there are more and more travelers to Las Vegas who are looking for a hotel like ours,” Young said. While the Westin may be smaller than its neighbors, she acknowledged, the smaller size makes it easier for guests to get around, and she believes intimacy makes the property distinctive in a sea of 3,000-room resorts.
“There is a lot of competition, and often we're asked, ‘Who is in your comp set?’” Young said. “I say, ‘The whole city's in our comp set, because we have so many different [types] of guests and reasons for guests to visit that on any given day, a guest's trip profile can change.’”
Advice for the next generation
Move from being the "mentee" to the mentor. I learn as much from the young people that I spend time with that have questions for me as I did when I was on the other side of the desk.
Young's biggest challenge
With the financial challenges that Las Vegas still faces, we had to make some tough decisions around staffing—and those aren't always popular. It's one thing when we make decisions because an employee has not performed [well], but when, by no fault of their own, we have to make reductions in force, that is difficult.
Remain optimistic that [they] will find employment elsewhere and that, potentially down the road, you’ll have an opportunity to help them. You are protecting the longevity of the property and the associates and the guests because without those tough decisions, a property [can shut its] doors.
Young's secrets to success
Be creative: Creativity can come from being open to trying new things, being innovative and experimental.
Listen to your team: At New York, New York, our pool manager [suggsted] offering cabana service without the cabana: Pool chairs, bottled water, an umbrella, the VIP service, but no cabana. Now it’s something that all of the resort pools have as an option for guests.
Schedule smartly: Labor is our No. 1 expense in this business, so [we make] sure that the scheduling aligns with the needs of the business and that we don't cut too much to where it affects our guests or our ability to be profitable. But we also have a schedule that is tight enough to make sure that we're optimizing and utilizing the staff appropriately. I think that's not only fiscally smart, but I think that's good for guest service and as well as employee engagement that we have the right amount of staff as necessary.
Westin Las Vegas | Opening year: 2003 | Owner: Fortress Investment Group | Manager: Crescent Hotels & Resorts | Number of guestrooms: 826