It’s the ultimate Las Vegas shopping experience, a show in itself. Its success inspired other projects, including one just a couple of miles away. And it’s become an icon, one that continues to grow. Despite a city that’s changed radically since it opened, and the debut of a number of competitors, the Forum Shops at Caesars remains unique – and incredibly successful. Why does it work?
It’s so much a part of the city that it’s hard to remember now that Forum Shops at Caesars was a huge risk when it opened in 1992. At that time, it broke nearly every business rule of building a mall, from its location to its design to the stores in the center. Yet it succeeds, beautifully, and continues to do so when a lot of other malls built around the country have closed forever.
Think back more than 20 years and the image of Las Vegas then. It wasn’t exactly the heyday of the Rat Pack, but shopping wasn’t the first thing a visitor to the area (usually a gambler or, like me, a convention attendee) might think of. Who came to Sin City to shop, on the Strip of all places?
The answer then was mostly the residents, because there already was a large traditional center on the strip. The Fashion Show was a suburban-style mall with a local department store, and high-end stores Neiman Marcus and Saks. Did it serve the community (especially the locals)? Yes. Was it a show? No.
And that’s what where Forum got it right, the first time. It connects to the Caesars Palace casino, providing an extra set of restaurants and bars to drown your sorrows – and a place to spend the winnings. More important, it extended the theme of the resort, with a Romanesque design that continued the genuinely inauthentic feel of the entire Las Vegas Strip. Some retailers are housed in small villas – statues are on top of the “buildings.” Piazzas house seating areas with even more sculptures, some of which move and perform a show on the hour.
It even boasts a fake sky (which changes color during the day) that bridges the idea of an enclosed mall with a city street, circa 50 BC.
The fake sky was just the first part of the show – there are statues that come to life, a huge aquarium and early on a Trojan horse (outside FAO Schwarz) that visitors could enter. Other projects have tried artifice and failed. Ultimately, it comes down to the stores. The Forum Shops is an attraction, but also a legitimate mall for all shoppers and even more important a transformational source of dining.
Not everyone who visits Las Vegas is rich – or has just won big. But the Forum from the beginning had shops to appeal to both. You can get a Vuitton bag, expensive jewelry or an inexpensive souvenir T-shirt. But perhaps most important, you can eat, and eat well. In the late 1980s, there were a handful of great restaurants near the Strip. The Forum helped to draw celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck to open restaurants that eventually helped the entire city become known as a town for foodies. Today, the list of restaurateurs is a Who’s Who of dining: Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Michael Mina, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsey, Bobby Flay, Scott Conant and more. They could film Iron Chef America there.
The result was an instant success, and the project has been one of the most profitable in the industry, so much so the developers found a way to expand it in 2004. The new section brings the mall entry onto the Strip, allowing pedestrians to wander in without entering the casino. The “new” section focuses more on the luxury shopper, a nod to changing times and growing international tourism.
Other projects have followed, with varying success. The Grand Canal Shoppes, by the Venetian resort has its own gondola ride, and a similar mix of dining and high- and moderate shopping. Desert Passage, which followed the Forum playbook with a Middle Eastern theme (and yes, a faux sky) but struggled, has now been converted into the more traditional Miracle Mile. And the Fashion Show itself renovated into a much glitzier center, with a “Cloud” structure with a video screen — and a lot more dining. And as of mid-2014, more construction is planned, as casinos themselves build more retail.
But the Forum clearly stands apart, even as FAO Schwarz gives way to H&M, moving statues have to be reprogrammed, and Las Vegas itself survives a horrendous economic crash. It was the risk that turned out to be the right project at the right place at the right time.