Vegas – Insights, Casinos, Fine Dining, Nightlife, Zappos & Adventure

Vegas – Insights, Casinos, Fine Dining, Nightlife, Zappos & Adventure

Vegas collage ypo jan 2015

There is something about Vegas that brings everything good and bad in America front and center. Though I’ve been many times, my adventure in Vegas last week was extraordinary. It combined the expected – great restaurants, nightlife and gambling with the unexpected – awe inspiring nature, mind blowing business culture, and valuable take home business insights.

First, renting a house off the strip was a first for me. We used AirBnB and had a 7 bedroom mansion that was a little dated (furniture/fixtures) but was perfect for a group that wants to spend quality time together and have options away from the Casinos. The back and forth was a 10 minute ride and really no issue for anything we wanted to do. I would rent the place again in a second and if you want the link to the house, just contact me.

I’ll bet most of you who have gone to Vegas never leave the strip. That was my feeling until a few years ago I visited (and got married in) the Valley of Fire State Park and well, wow. So now it is a must to get out of town and enjoy the incredible nature surrounding Las Vegas itself. Hiking in the Red Rock Canyon Park is a must do and only about 25 minutes away. Further out is the Valley of Fire (60 min) but well worth the ride. We opted for an ATV ride through the park, which was exciting and enjoyable. We had some nice stops along the way to take in the beauty in between our daredevil ride. Kudos to Adrenaline ATV Tours! –They have a totally professional and cool staff and great equipment made it enjoyable all around. I highly recommend them.

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The week of my visit there were many conventions in the city, but the two most notable were the Shot Show with 67,000 attendees and the Adult Entertainment Expo with 25,000 attendees. The SHOT Show® is the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show and Conference for the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting accessories industry. The AEE is well, if you don’t know I won’t discuss it here. Naked people shooting guns you might ask? You can be the judge of what is good or bad, but it is indisputably interesting.

Vegas has arguably the highest concentration of fine dining anywhere in the world. I visited several of note:

  • Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan– I agree with their own description: “Touted aestiatorio-miloss one of North America’s finest Greek restaurants, Estiatorio Milos by restaurateur Costas Spiliadis features fine Mediterranean cuisine at its best and has a longstanding reputation for serving the freshest, most pristine seafood imported daily in New York City and Montreal.” My group did family style and enjoyed everything served. Appitizers of particular note – The grilled Octopus and Greek Meze Plate with Tarama, Tzatziki, Htipiti, manouri cheese, olives & cherry tomatoes blew us away.images-3
  • Katsuya at the SLS Las Vegas– Their description “KATSUYA MARRIES MASTER SUSHI CHEF KATSUYA UECHI’S FRESH TAKES ON JAPANESE CLASSICS WITH DESIGN ICON PHILIPPE STARCK’S SLEEK AND SULTRY INTERIORS.” Among the top sushi restaurants in the country, I put it right up with Nobu, Sushi Ran and our regular favorite Sushi Den.
  • Rao’s at Caesar’s Palace– As they describe it “Step in to a legendary institution—or at least the Vegas offshoot—when visiting Rao’s. The original Rao’s in New York City opened in 1896 and is one of the oldest family owned restaurants in the city, and at 12 tables, is one of the hardest places to get into.” Great family style Italian. Particular favorites include the Sausage & Peppers, Meatballs, the Roasted Red Peppers and the Penne Ala Vodka. Everything is solid and traditional.
  • Buddy V’s Restorante at the Venetian- As they describe it “Buddy Valastro, of TLC’s Cake Boss, has brought his first restaurant to Las Vegas at The Venetian. Buddy V’s Ristorante, a partnership with veteran restaurateurs Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla, is inspired by Valastro’s family gatherings and features recipes passed down from his mother, grandmother and aunts.” Well worth the trip!

Our nightlife included visits to The Sayers Club for live music (awesome) and LIFE for craziness (also awesome in a different way) both at The SLS Casino Vegas as well as a great comedy show at the Flamingo by Vinnie Favorito. Don’t go if you are easily offended, he literally offends everyone, every race, religion, size, shape, origin or whatever. By the end, it would be hard to be mad as he left no stone unturned in his attacks. Its quite an enjoyable show and highly recommended.

zappos logo

One of the coolest things I’ve done in Vegas to date was to visit the offices of Zappos, the online shoe company bought by Amazon in 2009 (I know the date well as I won a prize for remembering the date from the video presentation). Zappos made the reputation and built their business around uncompromising customer service. As they put it – “Customer Service Isn’t Just A Department!

We’ve been asked by a lot of people how we’ve grown so quickly, and the answer is actually really simple… We’ve aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible. Internally, we call this our WOW philosophy.”

We took the ZapposInsights Cultural Tour and added in the Q&A session. I’d like to give a special shout out to Erika Newman aka @ZCulture_Equine who guided our tour with ease and grace and to Jon Wolske aka the Evangelist @bassred who led our Q&A session warmly. The people really do believe in their motto and live their culture. Their core principles guide their every action and EVERYONE is empowered to make decisions as long as they are consistent with them.

zappos offices

Tony Hsieh the CEO is well known but here is a little background on his story: In 1999, at the age of 24, Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay) sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for $265 million. He then joined us as an advisor and investor, and eventually became CEO, where he helped us grow from almost no sales to over $1 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, while simultaneously making Fortune magazines annual Best Companies to Work For list. In November 2009,, Inc. was acquired by in a deal valued at $1.2 billion on the day of closing.

I really found it interesting that the #1 hire was Fred Mossler from Nordstrom. Fred brought knowledge of the shoe business. But I can remember back at Cornell doing case studies on Nordstrom (formerly Nordstrom & Wallin but that is for another day) and their famous customer service. It was one of the most used examples in the 1980s of who to do retail right. In particular their shoe department was famous for service like no other. That Zappos is all about service and started in shoes has Fred’s Nordstrom finger prints all over it. Pretty cool how old school excellence inspired a next generation disruptor.

Here are the 10 core values:

Zappos Core Values


While it was infectious to be around such a motivated team, I don’t think this exact culture would work for many businesses. That said, their commitment to core principles, from top to bottom is a difference maker. Any organization that can distill its core values and get its entire work force believing in them (whatever they are) would out perform any normal organization. I think that is the critical insight that Zappos gives – if you can build a core team who all believe in the core values and remain true to them, you can do extraordinary things. Asked several times does the culture make the company or do the people make the it… we got the same answer from different people – they hire people that are consistent with their values. They DO NOT try to hire people and then change them to work within the Zappos culture. It really is all about fit at the front end or they don’t hire you. Simple yet powerful.

Going from next generation internet retailer with a cult like culture to one of the top luxury hospitality operators gave me further insight into what makes for excellence, in any industry. We had the good fortune to experience a VIP corporate tour of the Venetian and The Palazzo. What an incredible operation. These properties and the Sands Expo & Convention Center are the Las Vegas properties of Las Vegas Sands Corp (NYSE:LVS). The Venetian® Resort~Hotel~Casino and The Palazzo® Resort~Hotel~Casino are in addition to being the world’s largest Five Diamond rated resort, the properties offer not only luxury and entertainment but when combined with Sands® Expo and Convention Center, The Venetian | The Palazzo also make up the largest LEED certified building on the planet, a testament to our commitment to sustainability. As they describe it, their values are:

“Our integrated resorts have become premier destinations for travel enthusiasts around the world. Why do they insist on us? Because they know they can count on unmatched service, a luxurious atmosphere, and superb hospitality every time. They also know that at the heart of our company are unshakable values. We’re committed to listening to our guests and employees, to considering the environmental impact of our decisions, and to contributing to the well-being of the communities in which we do business.”

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The tour took us behind the scenes of an operation that not only has all the visible food and beverage offerings to customers but also serves over 3,500 employees as much as 3 meals a day. It is quite an operation and Executive Chef Olivier Dubreuil took his time explaining how they feed so many team members and serve such a large-scale operation. The large scale sous-vide (French for Under Vacuum) that enables them to slow cook meats slowly for banquets of 1000s of people was mind blowing. Thank you Chef for your commitment to excellence and the care you took explaining and showing us your operation.

John Caparella President and Chief Executive Officer, The Venetian| The Palazzo which along with the convention center and shopping mall form a $1.25 billion revenue business within Sands Corp, shared some of his personal insights into being successful in a luxury gaming operation. Its pretty basic, he said “I look at business as a 3 legged stool. They consist of customers, employees and profits. It only works if all three legs are solid and working together.” In other words, the customer is everything but that only works if your employees, the team that is responsible for serving them, are happy and bought into the mission of excellence. What follows when executed properly are profits. Here is an interview of John by his friend Chuck Wolfe on leadership and emotional intelligence. It was great spending time with John and his team! Thank you.

Well that’s all I may write about from Vegas… I hope you enjoyed and do let me know what you think.






Pubs, Cocktails & Restaurants – Adventures in NYC

Pubs, Cocktails & Restaurants – Adventures in NYC


I keep thinking about what Tony Abou-Ganim shared about bartending being a legitimate, sought after profession today, from the transitional job it once was (see my post from January 13). It also made me think about how various hospitality businesses are run and if the ownership/management gets it. As I traveled over the past week, I had the opportunity to experience a wide range of incredible places. Here are some of my observations and thoughts on who “gets it” in New York City:

First an aside re New York itself… I’ve spent a lot of time in the City over the years. As a kid, I lived in Hoboken, NJ and would take the PATH into the City often. Yes that Hoboken, but it was WAY before it was cool or expensive! I remember the City being pretty tough and dirty.

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Wallin family in NYC circa 1980

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NYC circa 1980 taken by JSW

Visiting during my years at Cornell with my Long Island friends and then later in the early 1990s for business and meetings (mostly with Seagram), NYC was rough and dirty but still a blast. These were the Mayor David Dinkins years when NY was not functioning very well. Then came Mayor Giuliani and everything changed. The guys who would spit on your window as you came out of the tunnel were gone, the broken windows where boarded up, the trash was cleaned up. NYC fundamentally became a world-class city and was treating itself with respect. This continued throughout the 2000s under Mayor Bloomberg but toward the end, I thought I noticed some deterioration in the streets, more trash lying around etc. I was staying in the city during the 99% marches on Wall Street “Occupy Wall Street”. They all seemed pretty unfocused and I expected it to last weeks, which it did. I put all of this off to the downturn and not much else.

Fast forward to this past week in NYC… it is interesting and somewhat disturbing. The city is amazing and the hospitality industry, in which I inhabit, incredible as it has been for a long time. The new Freedom tower stands out to me as a symbol of strength and resilience.

Freedom Tower - NYC

Freedom Tower – NYC

However, I couldn’t help but notice how much trash was all over the streets. It also seemed like there 2015-01-20 09.38.03were more “street” people hanging about. I did not feel unsafe, but was wary nonetheless. NYC friends, is this just me or is it much worse than it has been? I can’t help but think the era of Mayor de Blasio is not starting out good for the city for lots of reasons. I do hope it is not a move back to the Dinkins years. That would be bad for everyone there and all of us who like to visit.

I had a series of meetings and a strategy planning session/workshop with a major international drinks client of mine. As part of this, I surveyed a number of accounts (doing my “work”). Here are a few that stood out:

  • The lobby lounge at the Mandarin Oriental in the Time Warner Building is one of my favorites for experiencing NYC at the top. Literally, it looks down at Columbus Circle and out to Central Park. There are few better high-rise locations for a cocktail (or tea) and a majestic view. What struck me here was the new towers looking down over the Park., several, since the Iast time I can remember, that look incredible. Clearly the ultra 2015-01-21 12.38.18high-end condo market is thriving. One went recently for $100.5 million, I wonder how much this 2015-01-21 11.46.26is Russian, Chinese and other international buyers? The lounge itself has an air of sophistication and elegance. Even though I spend a lot of time in places like this and I worked at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, it still makes me a little cautious and aware of my dress and my party’s behavior. Service was efficient if not warm. Cocktails and beverages all prepared to perfection. Nothing really to complain about here (prices aside, but if you complain about those, you don’t belong). Along the lines of one of my favorites, the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram building, a must stop for anyone wanting elegant, high end NY.
  • Cambell Apartment – Grand Central Station – cool lounge tucked away behind Cipriani’s in Grand Central. I have actually been next to it no less than 50 times and yet never knew it was there. It seems all my friends did, so I’m not sure how they kept it a secret from me. As long as you don’t mind a jam packed bar at 6pm on a Tuesday, a 2015-01-20 18.04.54short wait for a table and a loud atmosphere this is a cool spot with a rich history and an incredible architectural setting.   Service was right on time, even as busy as it was. For more intimate discussions or meetings, better off elsewhere.   As the NYT puts it “Tucked away in Grand Central Station, this classy lounge is the restored private office of early twentieth-century tycoon John W. Campbell…”
  • Whole Foods, Columbus Circle – Ok we have Whole Foods in Indiana and I’ve been to many dozens around the country, but there is something about the NYC version that is just simply awesome. If you are not a foodie, you might become one by visiting this store. It has a incredible presentation of food that makes it feel like a gourmet market, which I guess, it really has become. But just when I thought I’d seen it all, I got to the back of the store and discovered the in-store Pub… yep, a full on British style pub with draft beer and wine and tables. As a colleague said next to me “I’d come to this Pub anytime”. What a great execution of the blending between retail and hospitality. I would say to my friends running bars and restaurants, be aware. This is no joke.   And of course the increasingly ubiquitous ability to fill up a growler of fresh craft beer was prominently being promoted.
Whole Foods Columbus Circle Pub

Whole Foods Columbus Circle Pub

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Whole Foods Columbus Circle

  • I surveyed numerous stand-alone pubs including St. Andrews (Scottish) and The Beer Authority (vast craft selection). These were both well done. St. Andrews is definitely ground zero for NYC Scottish Pubs. They carry and fantastic Scotch selection as well as my favorite Scottish beers from Belhaven Brewery (at least 6 on tap). Some of the other ones I visited were pretty standard pub feel with nothing really to write about or bring me back other than convenience, if I was on that particular block in need of a pint. One cool place was the
    St. Andrews Pub

    St. Andrews Pub

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    St. Andrews Pub

    William (as in William Shakespeare). This is a boutique hotel, lounge and downstairs is a British Pub. We held some meetings on site and enjoyed uniquely crafted cocktails in the upstairs lounge. This lounge has an exclusive yet strangely warm feel. If you are looking for a great place to meet up with a small group of friends for well crafted drinks in seclusion, this is your place!

  • I had a terrific lunch in Raffles restaurant at the Lexington Hotel. An upscale diner, it hit the spot with high quality food. Also the rooms are perfectly fine at this 4-star hotel that had a great sale going on during my visit. I would stay again (at the <$200 price point).
  • Keen’s Steakhouse for dinner was as expected, a solid steak and sides. Service was normal and the place was packed on a Tuesday night. Apparently in 2013, Zagats gave it a food rating of 26, and rated it the # 2 restaurant in the Garment District, and the 7th-best steakhouse in New York City. I don’t know about that but it’s a solid choice for traditional USDA prime steak in midtown.
  • Biggest surprise in NYC was in Brooklyn. Now I’m admittedly one of those visitors who rarely venture outside of Manhattan. So it was a completely new experience for me to take an UBER over to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and experience such a delightful spot as Radegast Hall & Biergarten. A German beer hall, R&B had two large rooms, great beer selection and incredible cocktails served by delightful wait staff, bar tenders and management.   I tried the cheese beer soup. What’s not to like? It was great, but definitely a share dish. There are two options for food, one in the back room – a grill where you build your own brat or burger and the other from the main kitchen. I ordered the Grilled Smoked Pork Chop with Sautéed Tuscan Kale, Parmesan served with a Spiced Apple & Pear Chutney from the main kitchen along with several sides for the table including brussel sprouts, cabbage and mashed potatoes. All were fantastic. The Pork chop was a 10/10. Kudos to Executive Chef Eric Francou “who draws upon his culinary training in France, London, Belgium and his Italian ancestry to bring new ideas and flavors to his patrons at Radegast Hall & Biergarten”.  The place has live music 7 nights a week and does not take reservations. A special shout out to new manager (and a sommelier) James Herman, who has such positive disposition to life that it’s infectious! I really liked your take on moving from the sommelier world to beer and cocktails. James is a great example of the next generation of professional in the hospitality industry. James, thanks for the creative cocktail using the Belhaven and Scotch. Did we settle on a name?

    Radegast Hall & Biergarten

    Radegast Hall & Biergarten

Next up my review of Vegas – Casinos, Restaurants, Nightlife and Fun





Hi I wanted to share that Sugar Skull Rum is now available in select markets through my company Taliera. Here is the Sugar Skull announcement..


SSR bottle lineup


Brand new Rum sets sights on super-premium segment

Scottsdale, Arizona (October 6, 2014) … Cocktail lovers, it’s time to raise a glass! Sugar Skull Rum, a meticulously-crafted super-premium Rum made from fine Caribbean sugar cane molasses, is coming to a celebration near you.

“The premium and super-premium spirits categories have been growing consistently for most of the past two decades, outpacing the spirits market in general,” said J. Smoke Wallin, CEO, Taliera, LLC, exclusive global sales, marketing and distribution agent for Sugar Skull Rum. “Despite its size, the Rum category has yet to produce a break-out brand in the $25-30 price category. Sugar Skull Rum will be that brand.”

Sugar Skull Rum (SRP $27.99, 750ml) is an artisan Rum, made from the very best sugar cane molasses carefully sourced from growers’ farms throughout the Caribbean and South America. Our Rum is produced at partner distilleries in the Caribbean Islands, who use four-column stills to produce a clean and crisp base Rum, before it is brought into the U.S., where it is filtered, blended and flavored with natural ingredients to produce Sugar Skull’s unique taste.

Simply delicious and endlessly versatile, Sugar Skull Rum cuts across traditional product categories and will appeal to anyone who loves a great cocktail and a fun time. “It is a true crossover spirit that can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks or mixed in a number of innovative and traditional cocktails,” says Wallin.

At launch, the Sugar Skull Rum portfolio includes Tribal Original, Mystic Vanilla, Native Coconut, Madagascar Wild Berry and Hellfire Cinnamon flavors.

The brand’s distinctive name and packaging honor the Dia de los Muertos. Often mis-understood as a slightly morbid relative of Halloween, the ‘Day of the Dead’ is a convergence of European Catholic and ancient Aztec traditions that celebrate those who have left this world but mean so much to the people they touched.

“Sugar Skull Rum was founded on the principle that life should be celebrated and is at its best when we celebrate those who are important to us,” said Wallin. “We like being a part of what – and who – people love, so if there is a great time to be had, Sugar Skull Rum will be there. Join us!”

Sugar Skull Rum is initially available in Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida, with a selective rollout planned in additional major markets in early 2015.

About Taliera, LLC.
Taliera was founded in 2006 by beverage industry leader J. Smoke Wallin to incubate, acquire, and grow new and existing brands by combining core brand building expertise, relationships and capabilities with leading edge technologies and innovative business approaches. Taliera is the exclusive global sales, marketing and distribution agent for Sugar Skull Rum.

Sugar Skull Rum created by a group of serial entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers who dared to ask the question: “If not us, then who?” and “If not now, when?”

J. Smoke Wallin heads this team of leaders in the ice cream, beverage, sports, entertainment and hospitality industries, who have combined their expertise to create one of the finest super premium spirits to hit the back bar.

Sugar Skull is a celebration of life. It is the life we live, the lives we touch and those that have touched us. We celebrate them all. Live. Love. Celebrate. How do you celebrate? Sugar Skull Rum.

Media samples and hi-res images are available upon request.
Contact Laura Peet, PeetCom, Inc.,, (917) 860-6285.

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