Venice, Vegas, Vici?

It's only a week until showtime, and Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas's newest hotel magnate, is sweating the details. Some 3,500 construction workers--which works out to about one per room--labor around the clock to finish the Strip's latest megaresort, the Venetian. Built for roughly $1.4 billion, it is the town's second most expensive project ever: only the $1.8 billion Bellagio resort, which opened to rave reviews six months ago, cost more. The pressure is especially great for Adelson, not just because he's staked his ego against Las Vegas's No. 1 tycoon, Steve Wynn, who built the Bellagio. Adelson--who made his fortune by, among other things, creating the Comdex computer expo in 1979, which he sold 17 years later for just under $1 billion--has another reason to worry. He's put $320 million of his chips into the Venetian, scheduled to open May 3.

That's a pretty big bet even in a place where everybody comes to roll the dice. Adelson's plan is that folks will frequent the 6 million-square-foot Venetian for a little taste of Venice--right down to its canals, bridges and villas, not to mention the marble-inlaid floors and the enormous frescoes everywhere. Why schlep across the Atlantic to see the real thing, when you get almost the same pigeons and singing gondoliers right here in America--and have the chance to gamble away your disposable income, too?

Las Vegas gets 30 million visitors annually and is one of the leading tourist destinations in the world, and some might think it already has enough opulent, sasquatch-size hotels--all the more so with the opening in recent years of the Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island (all Wynn properties), along with the MGM Grand, Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay. But don't tell that to the streetwise, headstrong 65-year-old Adelson. The billionaire fancies himself a high-stakes poker player with just one real opponent, whose name is Wynn. That's about right. Like Wynn, Adelson believes that the Strip means more than $1.99 prime rib. Let's play word association. Vegas ... elegance. Who ever said being a visionary was easy? Adelson even thinks his Venetian can trump Bellagio, which boasts a $260 million collection of Renoirs, Picassos and Cézannes. Real paintings! Nonetheless, chirps Adelson, "when you see how real our place looks, the question will be, 'How will Bellagio compete with us?' "

Well, Wynn knows how to cater to those special gamblers who arrive with at least a $100,000 credit line. At the Bellagio and elsewhere, these high rollers get suites the size of homes, private elevators, gratis dining, 24-hour butlers, personal shoppers and, best of all, private card rooms. "We have specially trained employees who know how to please people who are accustomed to fine experiences," says the impeccably tanned Wynn.

The question for the novice Adelson is whether he can lure the high rollers over to his pleasure palace. Expertise in trade shows doesn't necessarily apply; others, with more experience, have come to the Strip and come up snake eyes. "The man has got to climb Mount Everest," says Wynn. (Hey, there's another idea for a theme casino!) Adelson responds that Venice-in-Vegas is a great idea and that he's got a built-in advantage from his adjoining Sands Convention Center. During the critical mid­week lull for most casinos, Adelson figures his properties will still buzz. Conventioneers at the Sands can stay in the non-VIP rooms at the Venetian. It's not every day you get to hear a singing gondolier--in the middle of the Mojave Desert.