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INSIDE THE NEW LAS VEGAS : IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST : With 5,005 rooms, the MGM Grand is the world’s biggest hotel. How do you run a behemoth and keep everyone happy?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The numbers never stop. The stucco-maned lion out front is 88 feet tall. The room count is 5,005. The construction bill was $1 billion. The guy in 8303 wants a continental breakfast, 21303 wants 10 liters of mineral water, and the boxer’s entourage on the 29th floor --well, they want a lot.

Which should be fine, because if anybody is in the business of massive quantities, it’s the people behind the green-tinted glass at the MGM Grand Hotel, Casino & Theme Park. Among Las Vegas’ three new mega-hotels, the Luxor sphinx across the street may exude more hotel-mascot magnetism, and Treasure Island down the block may collect greater sidewalk crowds with its marauding pirates and sinking ship. But these 5,005 rooms make the MGM Grand the largest hotel in the world. Under the same roof, the largest casino pulsates with 3,500 slot machines, a 15,200-seat arena is just down the hall and 33 acres of theme park wait beyond the back door. Just two months after their Dec. 18 opening, the MGM’s operators say they are routinely renting 4,000 rooms, serving 20,000 meals and grossing something like $1.6 million per day. In a city that lives by numbers, these are figures to reckon with.

How does such a place handle all the little things that go into making a guest happy? By gambling, of course. The house bets that about 350 maids per shift can keep up with turnover of 1,500 or more rooms daily. It puts up 38 windows at the reception desk and hopes that 500 guests don’t step up simultaneously. It assigns nine order-takers and 50 waiters and waitresses at a time to handle room service on a busy day, and prays that they don’t get 2,000 breakfast requests at once.

Mostly, the house wins. But when the house loses, its guests do, too, and in the shakedown of the MGM Grand’s first two months, there have been many losses. Even Barbra Streisand--who might have been expected to keep quiet, considering the millions she was being paid--spiced up her New Year’s Eve concert here with quips about the shortcomings of her quarters. The next morning, insiders say, things got worse: 2,000 room-service orders came in between 6 and 11 a.m. Service elevators broke down. A computer went down. A dishwasher went blooey. The wait for room service stretched from the usual half an hour to two hours and beyond. When the hotel’s food people talk about that morning, they have the look of soldiers who have seen awful, awful carnage.

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Too many mornings like that and the MGM will begin to look like a billion-dollar bad bet. Conversely, if the place can consistently keep so many guests and gamblers satisfied, it deserves to be studied as a wonder of American ingenuity. And so, on the fifth weekend in the young lion’s life, I stepped down its throat to see what goes on in the belly of the beast.

The lion is the hotel’s public face on The Strip, but for many guests, parking is where the MGM experience begins. You find your way to the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard South and Tropicana Avenue, roll up the driveway and leave your vehicle in the hands of a valet, your luggage in the hands of an attendant. But because there are only about 1,200 valet parking spaces to serve 5,005 rooms, a casino and eight restaurants, you may instead be redirected to the hotel’s self-parking structure, as my wife and I were on a busy Saturday night. The parking is free there, but the spaces are uncomfortably tight, and a 100-yard-long tunnel separates you from the hotel.

Checking in, you find the long desk, its 38 windows, and behind them, to occupy the waiting masses, an 80-panel video screen that flashes panoramic images of desert scenes, baseball stadia and advertisements. VIPs have their own guarded, glassed-in registration area. Hotel staff members say the goal is a 15- to 20-minute check-in for ordinary guests, but during peak hours the wait can stretch to 40 minutes and beyond. That situation could ease when the hotel opens six windows elsewhere that have been earmarked for guests in large groups, but it’s hard to be sure. Five weeks after its opening, about 700 rooms in the Emerald Tower were not yet in service, which made the MGM’s peak guest population about 15% smaller than it eventually will be. (By the end of this month, MGM management says, all rooms should be finished.)

On the ground floor, in its casino and public rooms, the hotel is as loud and colorful as any Las Vegas lover could hope. The registration area leads immediately to the din of gaming: a Monte Carlo area, a Hollywood area, a sports area, an Emerald City area. Wolfgang Puck’s Cafe stands brightly tiled in the middle of it all, offering a short menu with no entrees over $14.50.

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Beyond the Emerald City casino, near the lion’s head entrance, a 75-foot-high crystalline Emerald City rises in a broad atrium. A cast of three-dimensional figures from “The Wizard of Oz” stand out front inviting gee-whiz snapshots. Around the periphery, the 1,000-seat Oz Buffet attracts long lines; the 750-seat Studio Cafe surrounds casual diners with posters from old MGM movies; a couple of stages offer live entertainment, and a corridor leads to five more restaurants, a fast-food court, a couple of retail shops, an arcade, an Oz Midway, a supervised youth center and, finally, to the theme park.

Underfoot sprawl carpets in the best Las Vegas keep-'em-awake-and-spending tradition: floral, purple, yellow, red, green and pink. One afternoon, while I eavesdropped near the Emerald City, an earnest-looking visitor asked a security guard:

“Do you get used to this carpet?”

Upstairs, the guest rooms come in four basic flavors: Oz (complete with prints of scenes from the movie, gold crown moldings and bedspreads with bright-red poppy patterns), Hollywood, the Deep South and Casablanca. There are about 750 suites, about 330 of which are really oversized bedrooms with a sofa and two TVs. Some others, however, perch on the 29th floor, fill 3,000 square feet in split-level design and are served by one butler and up to 27 telephones each. Prices for standard rooms usually range from $59 (on the slowest nights) to $129. The priciest suites, often reserved by the casino and offered free to high-rollers, fetch up to $2,500.

What kind of service does one get for $2,500 a night? One morning as I spied on the food preparation area, one of the butlers suddenly emerged with a custom order from the room where fruit is sculpted. He was in a hurry, and on his tray he balanced a green melon carved into swanhood, complete with tail feathering.

“Two-and-a-half minutes!” the butler exulted, never breaking stride.

Larry Woolf, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of the MGM Grand, is fond of recalling that he grew up on a farm in Idaho and that he comes from a high-school graduating class of 36. When he started work at his first 150-room hotel, he says, he asked himself: “My God, how do they do this?”

That was then. Now, he says, running a 5,005-room hotel is mostly a difference of scale, and not as complicated as it may seem. He describes how carefully the hotel screened its 100,000 job applicants down to about 8,000 employees (“cast members” in the corporate lexicon), how each one had to test drug-free, how he hopes that paying well and running a non-union shop (in a highly unionized town) will allow better cooperation between management and workers, how he plans to carefully measure customer and worker satisfaction. All things considered, says Woolf, resonating grandfatherly calm, “I would rather run one 5,000-room hotel than five 500-room hotels.”

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But resonating calm is his job. Just outside Woolf’s office, a maintenance crew has arrayed buckets and a tarp to catch copper-colored water leaks from the new ceiling. Down the hall, an incredulous voice is heard in the advertising and promotion office: “Forty-three-foot logos? Today?” A floor below in the kitchen area, vice president for food and beverage service Leon Schelbert, a 48-year veteran in the business, says opening this hotel was “the toughest thing I’ve done in my life.” Behind the front desk, vice president for hotel operations Vince Matthews, a 22-year man, calls this “one of the hardest things--and most rewarding things--I’ve ever gone through.”

The weekend at hand won’t be dull, either. On Saturday, Mexican super-lightweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez will top the first major boxing bill at the MGM Grand’s Grand Garden. On Sunday, the Super Bowl will be televised amid much betting and bellowing.

Now it’s about noon on Friday. At a counter in the employee wardrobe area downstairs, a waitress arranges herself in a snug black vest. When the costume specialist behind the counter punches her computer keyboard, the clothing racks mechanically delivers someone’s costume from the back of the shop to the front. The computerized, motorized, alphabetized storage system serves as repository for uniforms of about 6,000 employees, from rainbow-hued epaulets to carefully creased slacks, almost every item devised to harmonize with the hotel’s dominant hue of deep green.

“We wanted to maintain a dignified silhouette,” says Jackie Murphy, the costume and uniform manager, decrying the goofiness of garments at other hotels along The Strip.

MGM cast members arrive for work in street clothes, retrieve their lockable garment bags and slip into their uniforms. At the end of their shifts, they reverse the process and the uniforms are dispatched to an off-site laundry. A computer printout of the uniform inventory runs to 60,000 garments.

Down the hall, uniformed cast members queue up for cafeteria meals--free food on workdays is part of the employment package--and beyond them, a massive preliminary kitchen prepares food for forwarding to the six hotel restaurant kitchens. Executive chef Bruno Wehren stands over a 100-gallon vat of soup, musing about how “it was always my dream to get a big place and start from the beginning.” But this place is so big and busy, he says, “I don’t think anyone can visualize it.”

In the phone reservation rooms, operator are stationed at 62 desks, repeating the corporate mantra into their headsets (“Thank you for calling the MGM Grand . . . Have a Grand day”), booking rooms and show tickets. Three days before, on a slower day than today, the reservation room took 12,151 calls and booked 1,434 rooms. The tote board shows five of the next seven days booked solid.

Tonight? “Nothing at all,” warns the scrawl on the employee bulletin board behind the check-in counter. “No walk-ins, no stay-overs, no late checkouts--don’t even think about it!”

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In his office behind the reception desk, Matthews ticks off a few staffing numbers. There are 86 parking attendants (35 at a time during peak checkout times on Sunday afternoons). There are 740 guest-room attendants (usually known as maids) who work in shifts of about 350, deployed in pairs. Once things settle down to normal, those two-person teams will be expected to clean 16 rooms per eight-hour shift).

But in a broader sense, Matthews allows, “I don’t know if there will be a normal here. Just when you think it’s normal, they announce a Barbra Streisand show or a Jackson family reunion.”

Saturday, a little after 8 a.m.

“Vaso de leche? Mucho gusto.”

So says Robert Corbin, speaking into a telephone headset in the nerve center of the MGM’s room service operation. Through the window before him, Corbin sees hundreds of metal carts and a squadron of cast members arranging fresh flowers in tiny vases, juggling coffee carafes, counting cutlery. When a cart is cleared for departure, its pilot grabs it and dashes out the swinging double doors and down the hall to the service elevator. Two coffees and an orange juice to 13209. Bagel, English muffin and coffee to 18327.

Corbin, 23 years old, born in Puerto Rico and adept in half a dozen languages, is this shift’s designated Spanish speaker, fielding calls forwarded by the eight other room service operators who sit alongside him. The calls come fast--scores of high rollers from Mexico City are here to see Julio Cesar Chavez fight--and Corbin has no chance to browse through the “Let’s Study Japanese” handbook he keeps by his phone for idle moments.

At 8:48 a.m., the Chavez people themselves call from the 29th floor to place a pre-fight meal order: 12 servings of boiled orange roughy, 12 steamed vegetable plates, 12 spaghettis, 12 slices of strawberry shortcake, 12 bowls of fish soup, along with sodas and waters. The bill is more than $500--not small change, but not all that remarkable, either. In its first 21 days, says room service manager Suzanne Poland, this operation grossed $1 million.

As the afternoon progresses, fight fans flood the hotel and the valet parking area fills to capacity. Boxer Thomas Hearns and his entourage cut a swath through the crowds of mere mortals, his handlers ordering strangers to please move aside.

Later that night, underdog Frankie Randall astounds a crowd of about 12,000 by defeating the previously unbeaten Chavez in a 12-round split decision. Chavez had been a 17-1 favorite. Soon the halls soon are flooded with men who have lost large wagers. By one bank of elevators, two men in sports jackets stand with thick wads of cash in hand, silently peeling off $100 bills.

Sunday is Super Bowl Day, and my cue to exit. While most of the hotel turns its attention to the game, my wife and I approach the checkout counter with my bags and, tucked away inside them, an MGM guest-opinion survey. The results are bound to be incomplete, for several reasons. The hotel’s pool wasn’t ready yet (it has since opened). In the theme park, the Deep Earth Exploration attraction is aiming for a spring opening. The hotel’s signature production show, to be staged in the 1,700-seat Grand Theatre, is scheduled to open later this year; no dates have been decided. That unfinished business aside, lodging professionals agree that it takes months of operation to get any hotel running.

But if the MGM is ready enough to rent out its rooms, a guest should feel free to let loose with his mixed marks.

Good marks: Our Thursday night check-in took all of nine minutes. Our 16th-floor room had a fine view of The Strip and the mountains beyond. We had a terrific Southwestern dinner at Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe (an independently run restaurant in the compound), and two good and timely room-service breakfasts. We enjoyed an expertly assembled Smokey Robinson show in the 630-seat Hollywood Theatre (tickets: $44 each). Wake-up calls came on time. When little things went wrong, service personnel were cheerful and acted quickly to remedy them.

Bad marks: Many little things were amiss. The only phone was in a far corner of our room, about six paces away from the bed. Busy signals blocked all my efforts to directly call any room in the first nine floors. In the shower, the hot and cold water indicators were reversed. Downstairs at Leonardo’s restaurant, a waitress accidentally substituted bruschetta (bread) for prosciutto (ham). At breakfast in the Studio Cafe, another waitress substituted blueberries for bananas. At the theme park, a computer crash and communication breakdown left us standing in line for half an hour. Back up in our room and unable to reach room service on Saturday night, we found no mini-bar. (Only the hotel’s 423 costliest suites, I learned later, have mini-bars.)

But checking out proves as painless as checking in. With the Super Bowl preoccupying the masses, we’re in our car and on our way within 20 minutes. Soon the world’s largest hotel is a distant green speck in the desert, and I’m formulating advice for those who would seek it out.

First, expect big things and friendly people, but keep in mind that whether you lay down a penny in the casino or not, you’ll be a hostage of odds. Second, don’t begin your day with the roughy and vegetables and spaghetti and strawberry shortcake and fish soup--it’s clearly not the breakfast of champions.

The City Within a City / MGM GRAND HOTEL, CASINO & THEME PARK

1) THE THEME PARK: Guest pay a separate admission fee (winter rates: $15 for adults) to enter the 33-acre site of MGM Grand Adventures, which includes rides, shows, scenery designed to resemble movie sets, restaurants, souvenir shops and a pair of wedding chapels.

2) PERFORMANCE VENUES: The 15,200-seat MGM Grand Garden (houses prize fights and top headliners such as Barbra Streisand); the Hollywood Theatre (a 630-seat theater neighboring the casino, featuring performers such as Smokey Robinson) the Grand Theatre (a 1,700-seat space that will eventually house the hotel’s elaborate production show). The Center Stage, Turf Club and Santa Fe lounges also feature performers.

3) THE POOL: A 144,000-square-foot complex, neighbored by cabanas, a bar, a health club, six Jacuzzis and four tennis courts.

4) RESTAURANTS: Eight, including Leonardo’s (Italian 250 seats), Sir Reginald’s Steakhouse (300 seats), Ocean Grille (175 seats), Dragon Court (Chinese 250 seats) the Studio Cafe (750 seats), the Oz Buffet (1,000 seats). In behind-the-scenes food preparation areas: Apples are refrigerated at 37 degrees; bakery can turn out: 8,000 Danishes per hour, 12,000 rolls per hour. Wage of non-union dishwashers: $9 an hour. Number of meals prepared daily about 21,000, eventually expected to reach 32,000.

The other two restaurants are independently operated: Wolfgang Puck’s Cafe and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe (dinner entrees $19-$32.50; 26 types of tequila available). Also, the food court includes independently run McDonald’s, Burger King, Hamada’s Orient Express, Nathan’s.

5) CASINO: 171,500 square feet (said to be largest in world), 3,500 slot machines, 165 gaming tables. Area divided into four themes: Emerald City, Monte Carlo, Hollywood and Sports.

6) THE RECEPTION AREA: 38 windows for checking in, 15 lanes in entrance driveway. Baggage-handling operation delivers as many as 16,000 items a day.

7) ROOMS: 5,005 rooms, including 751 suites in four 30-story towers. Sizes range from 446 square feet to 6,000 in the most lavish suite. Room decor themes are “Casablanca,” “Hollywood,” “The Old South” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

8) THE “STRIP” ENTRANCE: An 88-foot-high lion’s head, made of gold-painted stucco. Inside, pedestrians find a 75-foot-high mock Emerald City, peopled with characters from “The Wizard of Oz” and a magic show.

GUIDEBOOK: A Grand Time

MGM Grand Hotel, Casino & Theme Park: 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, Nev. 89109; tel. (800) 929-1111 or (702) 891-7777. Rates: $59-$129 per night for standard rooms, double occupancy, $89 and higher for suites, subject to availability. Also available via (702) 891-7777: tickets to shows and MGM Grand Adventures theme park ($15 for ages 13 and over, $10 for ages 4-12, free for those under 4 and over 60, through March 31).

Getting there: Las Vegas lies 228 miles east of Los Angeles via interstates 10 and 15, and is also connected by Amtrak rail service (tel. 800-USA-RAIL). Air fares from LAX begin at $88 (on Southwest, America West, Delta, American and USAir), as do fares from Burbank (on Southwest) and Ontario (on America West and Southwest). Fares from John Wayne Airport in Orange County begin at $108 (on America West and American).

For more information: Contact the Las Vegas Convention/Visitors Authority at (702) 892-0711.


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