Selling Mandalay Bay

RICHARD HARPER'S MIGRATION TO THE MANDALAY BAY RESORT AND CASINO IN LAS VEGAS began where his 18-year stint with Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Westin brand ended.  Richard Harper

Now the vice president of sales and marketing for the 4,300-room Mandalay Bay, Harper initially thought he would never leave Westin. "I thought I'd be there forever," he said about his job at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, CA. That changed upon receiving a call in 1999 from MGM Grand. "I looked at my wife and said, 'This is the top sales job at the largest hotel and casino,'" Harper says. "'I'd be dumb not to take it.'" So they moved to Las Vegas.

Today, almost nine years later, Harper is still working under the MGM Mirage umbrella, only at a different hotel from the one he started with. He's been at Mandalay Bay since leaving MGM Grand in 2005.

A Love for Las Vegas

To this day, he still feels like a kid in a candy store. "I can't drive fast enough into work every morning," says Harper, who had early aspirations of being a psychologist, a far cry from selling one of Las Vegas' hottest and sexiest hotels.

Harper's enthusiasm and drive have turned Mandalay Bay into a haven for both leisure and business travelers, and it's his competitive nature in sales and marketing that stokes the fire.

"It's every day and I love it," Harper unabashedly says of the competition to fill beds. "The biggest high is convincing a customer that Las Vegas is the place to be."

His tactic for selling to travel agents over the years hasn't strayed much either, and he says the main difference he sees between Mandalay Bay and Westin is scale and size of operations. "As much as we try and complicate it," he says, "it's still about listening to customers, providing service and commanding a fair price. The fun part is the landscape changes [and] some of the people do, but the fundamentals stay the same. Now, it's how you execute it."

One thing is certain: Las Vegas is a city that changes obsessively, highlighted by new hotels sprouting up and older hotels getting reworked to look like brand spanking new ones. Mandalay Bay is no exception: The main portion of the hotel, the Mandalay Tower, which holds 3,200 rooms, just completed a $150 million room upgrade. This included new carpeting, bedding ("You'll never want to get out of bed," Harper jokes), artwork, iPod docking stations and flat-screen TVs. Mandalay Bay also features THEhotel, a separate property with 1,100 suites within a non-gaming environment. In the main casino, however, Mandalay Bay has added the Eyecandy Sound Lounge & Bar, a 24-hour bar/nightclub smack in the middle of the casino floor. "A place to see and be seen," Harper describes it.

While there is competition for leisure travelers from other destinations, Las Vegas hoteliers also compete with one another to steer guests to their properties. "That's just another reason why I love this city," Harper says. "It's first about bringing a person into the city; after that, we get into the nitty-gritty of competition between hotels. Some say, 'I'd rather lose out to another city than to the guy down the street.' Not the case [here]. We sell the city first and foremost, then the hotels."

Luckily for Harper, Mandalay Bay is not a hard sell. Location is one thing, but the draw of the property is in its attractions, amenities and space. This includes one of the best water areas in Vegas: Mandalay Bay Beach, an 11-acre tropic waterscape with real sand, a 1.6-million-gallon wave pool, outdoor casino and cabana service.

"We can speak to the travel agent community, the convention audience, to the couple back East who are looking to get married—there is no audience we can't speak to," Harper says.

For a guy from Maine, who started his career in hospitality as a busboy at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Harper has carved a solid niche for himself in sales and marketing. "It's rare to find a job that you love so much that you can't imagine doing anything else," Harper says. "I'm very fortunate to have fallen into this." —DAVID EISEN