LAS VEGAS -- For years, Las Vegas took the bigger-is-better route, building expansive glassy megaresorts with 4,000 rooms apiece and seemingly endless check-in counters.
But with just 188 rooms, the newest hotel-casino on the Strip takes a different tack. Managers of The Cromwell hope to impress guests not with an imposing tower, but with unexpected details such as in-room hair straighteners and backgammon boards and free, self-serve coffee stations in the elevator lobby of each floor.
"The problem is, Vegas likes to do things on a grand scale," said Karie Hall, general manager of the boutique hotel that opened to the public Wednesday. "It's far more likely (Cromwell staff) will be able to recognize the guest and customize their experience."
The stand-alone Cromwell, along with the 1-year-old Nobu Hotel and a smattering of other small hotels-within-hotels and off-Strip properties in Las Vegas, reflect a customer base that's increasingly interested in distinctive interior design and foodie culture. Gone are the days when hotel restaurants were afterthoughts and loss leaders, and when all customers wanted out of their room was a place to crash after a gambling binge.
"They don't want to just stay in a property. They want to experience a property," said Frances Kiradjian, founder and chairwoman of the Boutique and Lifestyle Lodging Association. "These properties are like a destination unto themselves."
Both The Cromwell and the 182-room Nobu are built around celebrity chefs. Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis chose The Cromwell as the site of her first restaurant, which overlooks an iconic Strip intersection and features a $30,000 prosciutto slicer and baristas who brew coffees out of custom-roasted Gran Reserva beans.
At Nobu, the first hotel venture for internationally acclaimed Japanese chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, customers order room service from an exclusive menu. Breakfast in bed might include green tea waffles or soba pancakes with pecan miso butter.
"It's about making sure you put together something you can only have here," said Gigi Vega, general manager of the Nobu Hotel.
Boutiques in Las Vegas aim to address some of the inconveniences of large resorts, forgoing vast lobbies full of suitcase-toting tourists and helping patrons skirt long lines for taxis. At Hotel 32, a 50-room hotel-within-a-hotel that occupies the top floor of the Monte Carlo, customers are whisked to a private lobby where they sip cocktails while a personal suite assistant checks them in.
After a 2008 fire at the Monte Carlo damaged some penthouses, officials decided to reopen the floor in 2009 with a design and amenities so different it necessitated its own name.
"The guests appreciate it that it feels exclusive. You have to be in the know to know about it," said Monte Carlo General Manager Patrick Miller.
Many Las Vegas hotels offer separately branded accommodations for their most well-heeled guests. Several floors of the Mandalay Bay belong to the sumptuous Four Seasons, while MGM Grand offers a personal butler for guests at its exclusive SkyLofts.
But boutiques such as The Cromwell, Nobu and Hotel 32 offer personalized service at more accessible prices. A Cromwell room with one king will cost less than $200 on a weekday in June. Nobu's offers a one-king room at about $150 on a weekday in June.
The rates are within reach of customers in their 20s who might visit Drai's Nightclub and Beach Club, which opens Friday on the roof of The Cromwell.
Sharing the same prime corner as Caesars Palace, Bellagio and Bally's, The Cromwell is expected to bring parent company Caesars Entertainment more return than it did in its previous incarnation as Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon, a folksy casino praised online for cheap beer, cheap steaks and cheap rooms.
"They were not utilizing the space in the most efficient way," said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst with Fitch Ratings. "It has a very coveted corner. This is a way to maximize the real estate."
Experts predict more hotels will try to set themselves apart with more personalized service and artsier, more distinctive brands, even if they're larger than traditional boutiques. The shift is already underway at properties including the 1,100-room THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, which is renaming itself The Delano and adopting a South Beach flair this summer. SLS Las Vegas, a soon-to-open 1,600-room remake of the shuttered Sahara casino, recently announced its planned Foxtail nightclub, described as "expertly curated collision of music, art and fashion."
"The landscape is changing," Kiradjian said. "People are tired of what the industry calls cookie-cutter hotels."