Indy Q&A: Head of Virgin Hotels LV management is ‘guy that brings everyone together’
Among his first acts after being named president of the management company that oversees the Virgin Hotels Las Vegas in August, Cliff Atkinson wanted to meet jointly with representatives from the 29 entities that operate businesses inside the off-Strip resort.
What might have first seemed like herding cats became a rally session as Atkinson, 49, jumped into a familiar role — ensuring the diverse companies overseeing the hotel, casino, restaurants, bars, lounges and retail inside Virgin were working in harmony to make the most of the huge business opportunity roughly three months away.
Virgin’s location along Harmon Avenue — less than 1 mile east of the Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix headquarters — was an opportunity that wasn’t around when the property reopened in March 2021 following 20 months of renovations. The $500 million Grand Prix building was the centerpiece for the three days of racing, with high-priced grandstand seating, luxury suites, the start-finish line and pit row garages.
“We knew there were going to be 50,000 people. That was almost the size of Allegiant Stadium less than a mile from our front doors,” said Atkinson, who previously served as president of Luxor Hotel and Casino. “We needed to have the property ready for that event.”
Virgin’s rideshare lot at Harmon and Paradise Road became the pickup and drop-off location for Grand Prix attendees. Space in the property that housed the center bar when the building was known as Hard Rock Las Vegas was “reactivated” from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily with DJs and renewed energy. Atkinson said Virgin rented several golf carts to help shuttle guests between the resort and the race facility.
In addition to paddock area skybox suites, Virgin had grandstand seating access at the start-finish line.
“We kind of went for it. We sponsored the East Harmon zone [of the race track],” Atkinson said. “It just made sense to us. I viewed F1 for this property as another … coming-out party.”
Atkinson took over as president of JC Hospitality, the ownership consortium that bought the Hard Rock Las Vegas in 2018. He replaced Richard Bosworth, who stepped down in March but retains an ownership stake.
The management group oversees the off-Strip property, which includes a 1,500-room Virgin-branded hotel and resort that is part of Hilton Hotel’s Curio Collection, and a 60,000-square-foot casino leased to Mohegan Gaming, the business arm of Connecticut’s Mohegan Indian Tribe.
Atkinson’s background is in hospitality, having held executive roles with Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Las Vegas and San Francisco, and he was the general manager of New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel.
When Mandarin sold the property at CityCenter to Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria brand, Atkinson was lured into hotel-casino management by MGM Resorts International, spending three years as a senior vice president in charge of the corporate hotel division. He spent more than a year as president of Luxor.
Before joining JC Hospitality, Atkinson spent a year as CEO of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas project but left in January. The 3,700-room resort opened Dec. 13.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What kept you in Las Vegas when Mandarin was sold?
I was going to move to run three hotels in Florida but [former MGM Resorts executive Bobby Baldwin] said the company had a role for me. We had all these hotels but they were never centralized. Bellagio and Aria were right next to each other but they never talked. For example, they were buying linens from different companies. It was an exercise in synergy and it was a cultural change getting the senior leaders from all the resorts to work together.
So that role prepared you for Virgin Hotels Las Vegas?
We have all these different entities in one building, but I'm the guy who has to bring them all together and, more importantly, hold them all accountable. In that initial meeting, we rallied for one cause, one vision and one property all under one culture.
My approach isn’t anything different. It’s not about control, but it’s about managing, influencing and doing those things to get everybody to work together. Some of the restaurants we own and operate. I don’t look at Mohegan as a separate entity, for example. They are the casino operator, but we all work together in the same building.
How is the relationship with Mohegan Gaming, which operates the casino inside Virgin Hotels LV?
(Note: This interview was conducted before Mohegan Gaming reported quarterly earnings showing the Las Vegas casino had a 42 percent revenue decline.)
The Betfred Sportsbook [that opened in February] is not even a year old. I think all the stops and starts and the challenges of opening are behind us. We’re using the momentum to carry us forward. [Mohegan General Manager Joe Hasson] is a fantastic operator and he knows the business. It’s our job to challenge each other about what we're doing for enrollment [in Mohegan’s loyalty club] when we do the program and our slot tournaments. It's all about working together. That's the key to the success here.
You have been with Virgin Hotels for roughly four months. Do you have any changes in mind for the property?
Everything is on the table. We have our anchors, such as Nobu and Kassi Beach House, which has been a home run, and ONE Steakhouse. But we have vacant spaces and the Todd English restaurant is gone. So we have a shortlist of ideas that can go in those locations. Those are all great opportunities for the property. We also have the theater where the “Magic Mike” show used to be. We’re looking for some first-to-market-in-Las-Vegas type of opportunities.
Virgin Hotels is more than a mile east of the Strip. Is that an issue?
The neighborhood around us has changed and in a few weeks, we will have the Boring Company drill come through our property at Paradise and Harmon. At this time next year, we’ll be connected to the Strip in 60 seconds underground by a Tesla vehicle. The path will go to F1 and either Vdara or The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas with a branch off to the Las Vegas Convention Center.
How will Virgin Hotels expand its relationship with the Las Vegas Grand Prix?
Our average room rate was five times higher than our normal rate and we think it could be 10 times to 12 times higher. Some of the teams that were staying at other properties around town saw our proximity to the facility and they are already booking us for next year.
Because of our rideshare location and our proximity to the F1 building, we had something like 20,000 people a day walk through this property. The fans that stayed here found it easy to get around. We believe the race will be a great opportunity for us going forward.
The Mirage is being converted into the new Hard Rock Las Vegas, but do you find that customers still think of this property as the Hard Rock?
Regardless of what the name is on the door, rock ‘n’ roll is in the roots and DNA of this property. So we need to embrace that while we move forward. The room renovations that were done here are incredible and we need to educate people on how great our room product is.
You spent a year as president of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas. Why did you leave?
I started my own consulting company [after leaving MGM Resorts] with some great clients. That’s how I met [Fontainebleau Chairman Jeffrey Soffer] and we clicked. I think they just had a different vision of how to operate and open and I thought I had the right playbook. I wish them well over there. It's a beautiful property and they have a fantastic team.
Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson is part of the ownership group and draws attention to the property when he’s visiting. Will he be back soon?
We'd like to see more of him. He's back in January and we'll have some fun with him. We look forward to having him here and helping us activate the property.