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Condé Nast Traveler’s Pilar Guzmán on sneaking into a Vegas casino and what she packs in her carry-on

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Condé Nast Traveler’s Hot List is out again, and what better place to celebrate than one of Las Vegas’ hottest destinations, Rose. Rabbit. Lie. at the Cosmopolitan? On May 15, Editor in Chief Pilar Guzmán and company will be taking over the lavishly odd supper club space for an evening dedicated to hip hotels that are worth the trip all by themselves. Before she landed in Las Vegas, we caught up with Guzmán to talk about the properties that made the list, what she packs in her carry-on and the contentious destination she’s dying to visit next.

Tell me a little bit about the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List.

We cover the new hotels of the year, so of 2013. This year, our criteria was really about making sure that these properties gave you a sense of place. For our consumer at least, the pendulum has sort of swung back from this idea that we want this hermetically sealed, pristine luxury experience, to yes, we want all the modern luxuries (or at least enough to make us feel like we’re on vacation), but we really want to make sure that we have a sense of place, that we haven’t lost the reason why we’ve traveled thousands of miles and in some cases across continents … [Another criteria was that] the service is not just you check all the boxes and there’s the butler, the this, the that, but more that there’s a real intuitive sense on behalf of the staff of what the individual, personal needs of the customer are. That sense of intuition is something that we feel really strongly about. … Sometimes the hotel really so encapsulates a culture that it can be the very reason to go. It becomes a kind of lens through which you see a particular place or culture and can really experience it.

Which properties on the list really embody that idea of a hotel reflecting place for you?

There are so many that do. I’m actually flipping through the issue right now. … The Hotel D’Angleterre in Copenhagen, a refurbished 18th century property that was somewhat stuffy before it had this pristine overhaul. It’s modern in all the right ways, but still holds onto the integrity of the original architecture and design. It’s the delicate balance of respecting the past but meeting the modern needs of the traveler and making them feel at home. Then there’s a beautiful property in Fogo Island [Newfoundland] in the way-out-there category. It’s just spectacular in that it is this stand-alone architectural wonder, and of course it’s in this completely isolated place. … [The hotel is] as original as its environment, and I think that is sort of a criteria. Even though it is completely modern and the surroundings are all about appreciation of nature and water, there is a synergy between how the architecture is as out-there as the destination.

You’re throwing the Hot List issue party here in Vegas at Rose. Rabbit. Lie., and of course, Vegas is the kind of place where the resorts sort of define the city as a destination, so it’s a really interesting fit. Have you spent much time here?

I was there very recently, and hadn’t been in a long time. I had been a lot as a kid and a 20-something over the years but it had been a big gap. And it is so utterly transformed, obviously, and continues to evolve in all of these new developments and openings. … The hotel ante just keeps getting upped.

Do you have a favorite Vegas memory?

When I was just there we had a sort of behind-the-scenes tour of the Bellagio, and I actually got to choose a song and they ran the fountain to the song.

What song did you choose?

It was a Michael Jackson song. It might have been “Beat It,” I can’t remember right now, but it was pretty awesome. … I think probably [my favorite Vegas memory] was when I was not legal, sneaking down into the casino one time when I was traveling there with a sports team or something in high school. Sneaking into the casino—I think that was sort of defining—and playing a round of blackjack. Nothing too major. (laughs)

In your editor’s note for the March issue you talked about the litmus test for stories being “Does it make you want to jump on a plane?” What are the places that are making you want to jump on a plane right now?

In general, it’s about going to a place where you feel far away. Of course, our business is totally wrapped up in the development of great hotels where you can really experience a place, and we’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve and find the next great places. For us, the thrill is sort of about finding the next great coastal village where you can experience a culture, and the combination of great hotels and great villas and kind of off-the-beaten-path places to stay. We’ve just had a meeting today and one of our themes is “the other side of …” The other side of Aspen or Capri or the Greek Islands—the lesser-known parts of well-traveled places. I think tapping into something you haven’t seen before is a reason to get on a plane. … And the natural and man-made wonders are still reasons to get on a plane; there’s a reason why they are wonders of the world. When you go to Angkor Wat, you understand why it’s a place of pilgrimage.

What about your most recent travels? What was the last stamp in your passport?

I was just in China. I was in Hainan, which is an island equidistant from Hanoi and Hong Kong in the South China Sea. It’s basically like their Hawaii. It’s a resort island. It’s an interesting place; a lot of the hotels are there and making a presence. As the Chinese economy grows, there’s a class of people who are taking luxury vacations, but it serves the Chinese market almost exclusively. … It’s a really fascinating place. It’s kind of gone up overnight.

I imagine you’ve got your packing list boiled down pretty expertly. What do you always bring with you?

I’m a real minimalist when it comes to travel. I never check; I only carry on, unless it’s ski boots or something. Even my children have been trained to stuff their backpacks with clothes. We’re extremely minimal. I have a very small toiletry case. I always travel with either black jeans or black leather pants just to have a layer on the plane, because you just want that protective layer. I usually travel with flats—one heel, one flat, and it’s my time to exercise since I have children, so I travel with my running shoes. I’m a little boring in that I wear a lot of black, because you can wear it over and over again. One dress, a couple of shirts that I wear over maybe two pairs of pants. I have a shirt that dresses up, a shirt that dresses down, a jacket and always a big scarf for the plane, and also for meetings, and for dinner and everything else. Everything gets triple duty.

You’ve been at Traveler since September. Has it changed the way you look at your own travel?

Absolutely. … A lot of people do a lot of business travel, and maybe they spend one day in London or a couple days in Las Vegas and they want to maximize their air time. If I’ve already flown five hours and I have business on a Thursday and Friday, I might as well stay the weekend ... The piggyback of business and leisure is something we’ve [been] noticing a lot and is something I can speak to firsthand. My husband travels a lot for business, too, so if he’s in Italy, maybe we’ll fly on miles and meet him and make a trip of it. Just to kind of maximize one person’s ticket, you might as well make the most of it.

What’s on your travel wish-list right now?

I’m dying to go to Egypt. There isn’t an advisory; actually, for months I’ve been saying, “Can we really not go?” And then there’s been that news lately, which is the Egyptians are saying, “Come anyway!” My feeling is, everyone has to make that safety determination for themselves. Obviously, if you have children it changes the equation a bit. Even if you don’t travel with them, just facing that risk when you have little ones is a consideration, of course. My father was Chilean and that whole side of my family still lives there. They were there during the Pinochet years, and my mom never allowed us to go down there for all of those years because of the bad press that it got. And when we finally did go and she finally relented, it was absolutely fine, and my father went back and forth all the time and everything was fine. Things do get blown up. I mean, they’re real and because of the news cycle you’re aware of every single thing that happens. The reality is, everyone has to make that determination for themselves. But I’m dying to go to Egypt and Alexandria. Such a beautiful culture.

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