Whale Hunting—Vegas Edition

Forget the high-rollers of old. Today, the most valued customer in Sin City is younger, hipper, and just as interested in the club scene and UFC as he is in blackjack. He also requires a new kind of host who can get him anything he wants—and more. Meet the Whale Hunters.

From a sea of bodies writhing to a Lil Jon remix, barely visible among the bobbing waves of sunburned faces and bachelorette tiaras, a chubby, bespectacled mass—the whale—surfaces unexpectedly. "There!" motions Ryan Craig, the top host at XS at Encore, part of the Steve Wynn empire and one of the hottest nightclubs in Las Vegas. Craig, 27, has just spotted Stuart, a fortysomething French steel magnate who's in town with a couple of buddies. They stumbled in clueless, but now they're about to get taken care of. "He's asking us," Craig says—pausing while Lil John screams "O-kaaaaay"—"to rock-star them." That means a dance-floor table, the sudden and seemingly coincidental appearance of girls, and a fusillade of Dom, whatever the cost. Craig had been alerted to their presence by a minion, and now he's ready to pounce. After all, there is real money to be made. A relationship to be forged. A whale to hunt.

Craig, a midwestern kid who came to UNLV to play soccer and never left town, is part of a new generation of young, aggressive casino and club hosts hustling to lure a different kind of Vegas player. Sure, the old-school high-rolling gambler—the Fortune 500 exec, the Asian baccarat player—is still in evidence, but he's not necessarily the most desired customer anymore. The guy who increasingly fits that profile is younger, hipper, and just as likely to blow big wads at a nightclub or a pool party as he is at a high-limit blackjack table. And in turn this "whale" has spawned a new breed of 24/7 consigliere. As Sin City's economic engine finally roars back to life, hosts and concierges like Craig are perhaps its most important lubricant.

Dressed in a dark, perfectly tailored suit, with his thick brown hair combed back over his ears, Craig looks like a better-tanned, less goofy Ashton Kutcher. He is in the category of hosts who make upwards of six figures and personally generated a large chunk of the $67 million in revenue that XS brought in last year. Most of that is not from the superrich but from clients like Stuart—"mid-level" whales who come to town a few times a year and drop less than $100,000 per visit. "The $25,000-to-$50,000 guy is actually more valuable than the $1 million guy, because you're looking to build a 20-year relationship," says Tony D'Ambrosio, 36, a Hard Rock Hotel casino host known as Tony D. "Most big-time gamblers don't last."

Landing those whales means using the standard Vegas perk structure—the RFB (room, food, beverage) comps, the limos from the airport, the prime tee times—as mere jumping-off points for services that will impress even in a town known for excess. Top hosts get creative, trading on their deep relationships within the town's complex hospitality ecosystem—You take care of my guy, I'll take care of yours—to score special experiences at the best restaurants, VIP tables at the hottest clubs, front-row seats at the biggest fights... in short, anything the other hosts can't offer.

Yet even after landing a whale, the best hunters still live in constant fear of seeing their catch stolen by a host from another resort. It's not unlike dating the impossibly hot girl: You've sweet-talked her, wined-and-dined her, and somehow convinced her you're worth her time, but you know in your bones the commitment is fleeting, and there's a bar full of dudes ready to deploy their A-game while you're dallying in the bathroom.

"There are about 600 casino hosts in town, and about 30 have big reputations," says Owen Choi, 34, a Vegas local who grew up watching his father in the business and now entertains $50,000-and-up players for the Bellagio. "Everyone wants their business, and they'll do anything they can do to get it."

One of those hosts is Tony D., a spiky-haired Michigan native who played a little pro baseball before arriving at the Hard Rock in 2002 and becoming one of its three casino hosts who specialize in "player development"—Vegas code for whale hunting. He solidifies relationships with his 400 or so clients by catering to personal quirks, like supplying the guy who's fascinated by midgets with several little people for him to hang out with, or making sure the million dollar gambler who enjoys miso soup so much always has a bucket of it waiting for him in his room. "There's a guy from Boston who really loves Kiss," Tony D. says. "He's a $10,000-to-$15,000-a-weekend guy, but he's out here twice a month, so me and another host put together a Kiss tribute band for him."

"Tony makes me feel like a baller," says Jim Grant, 47, a Phoenix-based commercial builder and one of D'Ambrosio's clients. "Food, booze, UFC, whatever. I just stayed at the Aria and it was a disaster. I walked out of a UFC fight and my limo wasn't there. 'What the fuck is this?' I thought, then I saw the Hard Rock limo, and Alex, the driver, knows who I am and gave me a ride. That's the kind of service Tony gets me."

The reputable hosts steer clear of drugs or hookers, because once they've been busted, the major resorts won't touch them. (Plus, the illicit stuff isn't exactly hard to find in Vegas.) Instead, they focus on customized touches of excess that make an impact—and, more important, form a bond. ("Monday we were having dinner and a guy said, 'I'd like to have lunch in L.A.,'" says Craig. "So we chartered a G4.")

Resorts typically divide their whale hunters by specialty—one guy caters to the Asian market, others handle Latin Americans or the convention business, while someone else deals specifically with the NFL. Choi, who's single and stocky with a huge smile that suggests he's spent his whole life aiming to please, has developed especially strong relationships with the young, bicoastal money-makers that have powered the explosive growth of Vegas nightlife over the past decade. And he's always available, no matter the hour. Recently, Choi partied with some Hollywood execs until 4 a.m. at Surrender—another hot new club at the Encore—even though it was technically his day off. Besides making sure that they were having fun, Choi was also protecting them from would-be poachers. Choi has witnessed brazen tactics ripped from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, like rivals calling clients and convincing them that their reservations have been canceled, only to offer a penthouse at another resort, or posing as a tourist in the Vegas airport and befriending pre-scouted whales in baggage claim, then whisking them away in a limo. Perhaps the most common tactic is to find the best-looking girl in a club and persuade her to cozy up to a whale and pass along the host's card.

"I see them every night trying to guilt the clients into coming back to their property," says Bob Shindelar, director of VIP services at Tao at the Venetian, of the lower-rung hosts trying to muscle in on the relationships that the top guys take years to develop. To maintain contact with his clients, Shindelar, 32, types on his BlackBerry almost constantly. On a recent Thursday, he counted 1,280 incoming and outgoing texts, e-mails, and voice mails.

The whalehunters lifestyle can take a big toll, even by Vegas standards. D'Ambrosio says he works 11 hours a day, six days a week, and often sleeps with his phone in his hand, just in case. His girlfriend is pregnant, and he'd like to settle down, but it's tough to hold a baby and a BlackBerry at the same time. Plus, like most good hosts, he travels all over—31 cities so far this year—visiting clients in their hometowns. "Tony keeps in touch constantly," says Grant, who gambles $100,000 to $200,000 per visit. "He knows about my private life. He calls on holidays, he texts. We'll have dinner when he's in town. He makes the relationship personal."

And that's what Ryan Craig is well on his way to doing at XS as he enters Stuart's digits in his phone. Soon the Dom and a pair of busty brunettes arrive. Craig pours a glass and motions in the direction of the dance floor for a few more ladies to join their table. While they're introducing themselves to Stuart and his buddies, Craig slips over to an adjourning booth. He'll return every now and then to check in, maybe have some champagne. By 4:30 a.m., the fortysomething Frenchman has dropped $30,000 on champagne alone. More important, he wants Ryan to come visit him in London for a few days. Stuart has a man in Vegas now. And Ryan Craig, fresh from the hunt, has a whale to protect.

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