Friday Boss: Casino architect Paul Steelman

Las Vegas casino Mr Steelman says successful casinos are about more than gambling

You have almost certainly never heard of Paul Steelman, yet he is one of the most successful architects in his field in the world. It is just that his field is rather narrow: Mr Steelman specialises in designing giant casino complexes.

He says the world of casino architecture is an unforgiving one: "My father told me you are going to be an old architect when you see your first building torn down," Mr Steelman told me rather wistfully when we met in his practice headquarters which is, naturally enough, in Las Vegas.

"Well I saw my first building torn down when I was 44. I didn't think I was that old."

Casinos may be vast buildings, some of the most complicated "business space" buildings, according Mr Steelman, but they don't have a very long shelf life.

"Great architecture like Norman Foster does is judged through the ages," says Mr Steelman, "is judged by generation after generation, after generation. Sometimes the architecture becomes famous long after the architect is dead. In casino design they walk in, look left, look right - if a person likes it it is successful if not watch out."

Start Quote

We are in the fantasy architecture business”

End Quote Paul Steelman

The trick is to attract a customer in and then try and keep them for as long as possible.

"We are trying to stretch the day. Casinos are not successful unless people are in the seats 65% of the time - think about that. Sixty-five per cent of 24 hours is a good proportion of the day so you have to stretch the day. It is really not hard to design a casino for Friday at 7 o'clock. It is very hard to design it for Tuesday at 10 o'clock in the morning, and believe me that's what we are concentrating on," he says.

"It is not that that we are money grubbers: we are in fact interested in the total entertainment experience from the minute you get up to the minute you go to bed. We are interested in promoting that experience in new and different ways and that is why this little recession that has hit Las Vegas what you are going to see coming up in the next four or five years is going to make the rest seem super old".

So what makes a successful casino? Paul Steelman says the first thing to understand is that casinos are about much more than just gambling.

"We are in the fantasy architecture business," he says. "You can't build casinos out of glass and steel as you would an office building... Customers want fantasy, they want to be James Bond."

That means providing a whole range of entertainment from great restaurants to fabulous theatre shows and theme parks. One casino boasts the biggest sweet shop in the world.

But there are a few guiding principles, he says. Brown is out and red is in: "Red is the colour of commerce. There are no mirrors in casinos, catch yourself in one and you'll realise you aren't James Bond after all."

Finally, however big your casino is, it can't be overwhelming. He says casinos are designed to draw you in, that's why casinos have curved pathways. "At the end of the curve you never see what is next, you are always peaking your curiosity to explore more to find other activities."

Mr Steelman has worked all over the world but he built his reputation in Las Vegas and is still fiercely loyal to the city. I ask about competition from Macau.

Las Vegas at night Paul Steelman is based in downtown Las Vegas

The tiny island territory in the South China Sea has seen incredible growth. It now generates five times the gaming income of Las Vegas, $30bn a year compared to the $6bn earned in Sin City.

Mr Steelman acknowledges it represents tough competition: "Macau sits with a target market of over two billion people who, quite frankly, invented gambling. Las Vegas sits in a target market of maybe 300 million people."

But he says Vegas has something Macau will never have: it will never be the home of gambling, Las Vegas is that.

"If you ask any of those guys sitting at a table smoking a cigarette and playing baccarat in Macau whether they want to go the Las Vegas. They'll tell you 'I want to go to Vegas, baby, I want to go to Vegas.'"

That's why Paul Steelman is still so confident about his home town. He says there are some grand plans for Vegas: "You are going to see coming up in the next four or five years is going to make the rest seem super old."

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