Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Elvis is still Relevant in Las Vegas

Elvis Presley would have been 80 this past January. He died in August of 1977, but you would never know it in Las Vegas. There are plenty of Elvis impersonators in the city, especially at wedding chapels and in impressionist shows. Not to mention movies, Broadway plays and TV commercials which associate the King with Sin City (3000 Miles to Graceland,  the play Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the movie, and a recent State Farm ad, just to name a few).

There has also been a body of work representing the performer and his role in Las Vegas. Here's a short list:

  • The former Aria Cirque Show (Viva Elvis).
  • The current Elvis Experience at Westgate (formerly LVH, Las Vegas Hilton, and the International)
  • The King's Ransom at the former Imperial Palace (now the LINQ)
  • The former Elvis-o-Rama Museum on Industrial (gosh I miss that… it was a great museum!)

Elvis first performed in Las Vegas in 1956 at the former New Frontier. The crowd at that time was a little older and more conservative. Elvis didn't fit that mold, so the shows didn't go over that well.

In 1963, filming for Viva Las Vegas began, and that kick started his love affair with the city and, subsequently, started drawing a lot more folks to Las Vegas.

In 1967, he married Priscilla at the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood). He hung out at the Sahara. He never played at the Sands like the Rat Pack, but his impact on the city was much like theirs.

From 1969 to 1976, Elvis played a great many shows at the International (then the Las Vegas Hilton… which later changed became LVH and is now the Westgate).

So yes, there's a lot of history there. And as we know, Elvis was troubled late in life, and less than a year after performing the last Vegas shows, Elvis passed away. There was a time when Elvis and his impersonators were considered a sad joke. But respect for the King and his legacy have withstood the test of time. Impersonators relate a sense of fun and excitement, and people love to see Elvis memorabilia and places where he performed.

I urge you to check out the Elvis Experience at Westgate. It is scheduled to close at the end of May, and it would be a shame if you missed out on the experience.

Viva Elvis… and Viva Las Vegas,

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Best of Times, the Rest of Times

This weekend is a significant milestone this year for Las Vegas. There are three major events that will dominate the headlines:
  • Mayweather vs Pacquiao: the fight of the century
  • Riviera's last weekend: after 60 years, the casino will close at noon on May 4
  • Kentucky Derby: American Pharaoh is the favorite in the run for the roses
Big Las Vegas weekends typically revolve around cyclical events; the Final Four NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Super Bowl, New Year's, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January. But this weekend is different. This weekend is filled with events that seem taylor-made for Las Vegas. Every weekend is big in Las Vegas, but when something special is happening, it's bigger. And this weekend, it's the biggest it's been a long time.

Mayweather vs. Pacquiao
This match up is a huge deal. Big fights used to be the norm in Las Vegas, especially at the MGM Grand. But then something funny happened on the way to the ring: ultimate fighting. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has moved to the forefront in hand-to-hand (and face-to-foot) combat. It may be the natural progression of boxing - a more modern, fast-paced and dangerous sport, UFC embodies the changing landscape in a younger, more cutting-edge Las Vegas.

It seemed as if boxing was all but dead, even in Las Vegas where it was a mainstay.

But then along came the brawl to end it all. Whether or not Mayweather vs. Pacquiao lives up to its hype remains to be seen, but reports of boxing's death are greatly exaggerated.

Kentucky Derby
One of my favorite pastimes in Las Vegas is taking a break from the tables, the crowds… well, everything, and just relax in the sports book. All of the books have horse races on a few of the TVs, and I've always enjoyed placing a few bets on a long shot or an exacta. Horse racing and Las Vegas go hand-in-hand. It's a tradition to look at the racing forms and study them, putting all of your knowledge and experience into picking the right horse to cash, only to have it all fall apart when the 35-1 dog surprises everyone. If you have a system betting on the ponies, it's a lot like having a system for blackjack or roulette; it just doesn't work.

But that doesn't mean I don't try. Hope. It springs eternal in horse racing and spring in Las Vegas. I can't wait to watch the Derby this year. There's something magical seeing the race, watching history.

The Riv
The Riviera opened April 20, 1955. It has undergone many changes and has lived nine lives. I had always hoped that the powers-that-be, the folks with lots of money and good ideas, could save the Riv. But it was not meant to be. The Riv is no longer profitable and does not show any promise for the future, so it will succumb to the same fate as its neighbors, the Sahara (now the SLS), they Desert Inn (now the Wynn) and the Stardust (soon to be the Resort World). And this weekend is its last hurrah. Thank you, Riv, for entertaining us for 60 years. You deserve your retirement.

So as I think about the importance of this weekend in Las Vegas, I think about the memories and good times I have always had in Sin City. That's what this memorable weekend comes down to: experiences. People will remember the fun, the fight, the Derby and the last time they gambled at the Riv. Classic Vegas.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

We learned this week of the passing of Betty Willis, who designed the Welcome sign that has become the signature icon of Las Vegas, printed on everything from shot glasses to the cover of my book. Ms. Willis was 91. The sign was installed in 1959, which is ancient history in Vegas terms. The design was never copyrighted, so you see it everywhere, including on non-Vegas items.

So much has been written about the sign, the design and Ms. Willis that I don't want to restate all of that here. Instead, I've been thinking about the message on the sign: "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada."

I do find Las Vegas very welcoming. The city draws me in. A friend of mine, who grew up in England and is often jokingly critical of many things American, says "if you can't have fun in Las Vegas, then you don't know how to have fun." Exactly. There's something at every turn, every step of the way, that makes me happy that I'm there.

Now in some ways, Las Vegas is unforgiving. If you lose in the casino, there's no going back. There are no "do overs" or "Mulligans" once your money disappears. The heat can be unbearable. The clubs can be packed and expensive. Lines are long for popular entertainment venues, and crowds can be overwhelming, especially on weekends.

But the city is certainly fabulous. Las Vegas has the level of excitement that I want for my entertainment dollars. My finance calls Las Vegas "our working vacation" because we are always on the go. It's true. I don't like to waste a minute whether I am in a casino, or at a show, or walking the Strip just to see the sights.

The sign embodies all of that. To see it at night in all its blinking glory is truly amazing. But no matter what time of day or night you visit it, there are always people standing underneath it. Everyone wants a selfie, a group photo, a funny snapshot of themselves with the sign. It's a reminder that they were in the most exciting city in the world.

So thank you, Betty Willis, for capturing the sentiment perfectly and for making us all feel welcome in the fabulous city we love.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Tax Day: Money Matters in Las Vegas

Happy April 15th! I hope you are not preparing to write a check to the IRS today, but if you are, I hope it is because you won a lot of money in Las Vegas.

When you think of Las Vegas, you probably picture the bright lights, the fancy clubs, the posh restaurants, the cool pools and the imaginative shows. You may even think of the casinos, but statistics show that not as many of you are thinking primarily about that, even though there are record numbers of folks visiting.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, including but not limited to:
  • You can gamble anywhere. When Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the only places to place a bet, it was a different story. Now, you can find a casino on almost as many corners as you can find a Starbucks.
  • High rollers are not the target market anymore. Gary Loveman did a statistical study some years ago that proved that slot players, not whales, make up the majority of casino profits. Loveman also began toying with the idea of more entertainment opportunities in Las Vegas when he became CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corporation (CEC), the conglomerate that owns Caesars Palace and a bunch of other casinos in Las Vegas and other places. Hence the High Roller observation wheel and related shopping/dining area.
  • Las Vegas does not promote gaming nearly as much as it used to, and what used to be the "extras" to lead folks into the casinos (shows, clubs, pools, etc.) are now becoming more of the primary reason to visit. 
  • Younger folks make up a bigger percentage of the Vegas pie, and they want to party and hang out first, then maybe spend a few minutes in the casino until their dinner reservation is ready.
Throw all this and more together and what do you get? Lower gaming revenues and fewer people spending money in the casino. So is gambling dead? Nah. It's just sitting in the corner, waiting for the right casino execs to figure out how to make the most of it. Here are some thoughts:
  • With better promotion, gaming could skyrocket in Las Vegas. The troubles in Macau mean that more high-rollers could come to Vegas, which means more revenue. But for the rest of us, who don't spend $10k per hand on baccarat, casino execs could dole out better coupons, better stay/play packages, and a better overall gaming experience. Which leads me to…
  • Better games/rules. Right now, the rules stink in most casinos, and we notice. We are much more savvy consumers, and we can tell the difference between full pay VP and lousy VP, between 3-2 Blackjack and 6-5 punch-me-in-the-gut Blackjack. Make the rules better, and you will draw in more customers, and you will make more money because the house still wins.
  • Better service. I love playing games where the dealers are fun and I don't have to switch tables. I love when drink service is faster than my Corvette and even more attractive. I love when my chair is not crammed next to someone else's and I have room to get up from my seat when nature calls (because the drink service has been so good). These are not difficult things to accomplish, but they are becoming rare. They make a world of difference to players. Easy win for the casino if they have the smarts to do it right.
People want to gamble. If you look at the national statistics on gaming revenue, it continues to increase year-over-year. The idea that "younger visitors from California don't gamble" is only true if Las Vegas makes it true. So, I'm hoping that Las Vegas finds inventive ways to draw more of us punters into the fold.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Can You Really Trust Reviews?

Amazon's recent lawsuit shows that fake reviews are prevalent, and you can't always trust what you read. Fake reviews can come in different forms. Some are used to boost products, so a company gets a lot of 5 stars from people who don't own the product and have never used it. Some are used to make the competition look bad, so people badmouth a service or product and give it a low score, discouraging people to buy.

It's difficult to tell the fake reviews from the real ones, which makes purchasing an item more difficult. Some experts recommend that you ignore the 5 star and 1 star reviews and look at the ones in between. But what if a product is really great, and the majority of reviews are 5 stars? Does that mean that they are fake? What portion of them are real? How can you tell? You can't.

So you have to take reviews with a grain of salt. You can't quickly assess a product or service strictly by the number of good or bad reviews. You have to be a much more savvy consumer and do a bunch of research, especially if you are buying something expensive.

Which leads me to reviews of Las Vegas. Many so-called experts will review hotels, restaurants, shows, etc. What makes their opinions more valid than yours? Even if the reviews you are reading are from a knowledgable, seasoned Vegas veteran, you still have to keep a very open mind when reading them. You never really know if the reviewer had either a bad day or an unusually good experience for no good reason. When you are spending a lot of money on a vacation, you want to be sure you're going to get your money's worth and have a great time.

One of the major premises of my book is that reviews are too subjective, so I put the tools that you need in your hands to make decisions. Now I don't mind telling you what I like, but I make sure that you understand that it is my opinion. My 20 years of experience is just that - mine. You have to make sure that you understand all the things that make your experience something special.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Of Taxis and Ride Share Programs

One of the biggest hubbubs in Las Vegas these days is the Senate Bill 439, which will determine the fate of ride share programs (such as Uber and Lyft) in Nevada. The argument basically comes down to jobs and safety.

If you are a taxi driver in Las Vegas, your point is that Uber and friends will substantially ruin the taxi cab market in Las Vegas, thus putting lots of folks out of work. You also claim that Uber does not adhere to the same safety standards as the Nevada Taxicab Authority.

If you are Uber or other similar ride share companies, you claim that the system has worked in other cities, that it's safe (background checks, monitoring, etc.) and that an open market is good for consumers.

Is there room for both in the Las Vegas market? Perhaps. But here's the deal. When a new competitor threatens the existing status quo, then there's going to be a market shift. Taxi cab drivers can argue all they want against Uber, but eventually ride sharing is going to come to Las Vegas. Taxis have to offer something more to their customers. They've noticed that visitors want more convenience and better service, so the Nevada Taxicab Authority approved Ride Genie, which is basically an app that hails a cab and adds $3 to the ride. But to me, that's not the answer.

Taxis are already expensive, which is why I rent a car when I'm in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the base rate for a ride is $3.30, which is higher than Los Angeles ($2.85) and New York City ($2.50). Taxis have to  lower their prices and provide better service to Strip, off-Strip and downtown locations. That's a tough agenda, considering that taxi cab drivers don't make a lot of money. And, according to Forbes, taxi driver was the 4th worst job in the US in 2014. A lot of that has to do with the lack of projected growth due to... you guessed it, increased ride share programs.

So I don't envy taxi cab drivers in Las Vegas. Unless there are more creative ways to making it work, they may be a dying breed. Fighting ride share is a tough battle, so they will have to think of different ways to compete for Las Vegas customers.

What are your thoughts? How do you like to get around in Las Vegas? What do you think of taxis, public transportation, the monorail, and the potential of ride share programs in the city? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

What's Your Vegas Playlist?

Hi Vegas fans,
Last week I wrote about my favorite Vegas movies. This week, I'm thinking about music. I sometimes create a special playlist on my phone for Vegas trips. Some trips have included alt-rock anthems that I wanted as pump-up songs as I drove down the Strip or travel songs that I like to listen to as soon as I've settled into my seat on the plane.

Past trips have also included some Vegas-themed music, including Sheryl Crow ("Leaving Las Vegas"), Drive-By-Truckers ("Check Out Time in Vegas") and, of course, Elvis ("Viva Las Vegas").

This trip, I'm going to buy a bunch of songs that I don't have on my phone yet, mostly with "Vegas" in the title. Here's what I'm thinking:

  • Frank Sinatra - Luck be a Lady
  • Sara Bareilles - Vegas
  • Katy Perry - Waking Up in Vegas
  • Tennis - Vegas
  • Semi Precious Weapons - Vegas
  • David Gray - Snow in Vegas
  • Brandon Flowers - Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
  • Ray Charles - Blackjack

That's all I've come up with so far. Every trip needs theme music, whether it's a guy's get-away, a gal's weekend, a family vacation, or a romantic honeymoon. Think about the music on your favorite device. Is it Vegas ready? What is your ultimate Vegas playlist?