16
Mar

Loosening Up Downtown in Vegas Seven

The new Vegas Seven is available online now, and I’ve got an interesting piece about some happenings Downtown:

The folks running downtown’s Las Vegas Club hotel-casino think the slot players are right. PlayLV, which operates the club for the multinational investment group Tamares, has embarked on an ambitious course of slot-loosening—and a pull-no-punches campaign to let downtown gamblers know about it.

via Loosening Up | Vegas Seven.

This was a lot of fun to research, mostly because I don’t usually get to talk to people with such strong differences of opinion (well, except for John Curtas and Marilyn Spiegel, maybe). The biggest obstacle that the LVC will face, I think, is getting the players to actually believe that they’ve willingly loosened their slots.

Steve Rosen’s thoughts about Downtown branding itself specifically as a value gaming destination, with loose slots above everything else, are interesting, and make some sense. A few years ago hotel and f&B values were enough to distinguish Downtown from the Strip, but today that’s no longer the case. Would giving gamblers genuinely looser slots make a difference? I think it might.

Here’s a custom piece of art the PlayLV folks sent me that didn’t make the magazine–I still think it’s pretty funny:
Vegas Club loose slot ad

“The Center of Pleasure Has Shifted,” it’s not.

11
Mar

Requiem for (a Vegas) Methuselah

It’s pretty rare for a Strip casino to get knocked out. Sure, more than a few have taken the standing eight count of bankruptcy, but usually, no matter how far in debt a casino gets, it produces enough cash flow that the lenders would rather see it open than closed.

The Sahara’s scheduled May closure, however, is as bad as it gets. Not only has the current owners’ business model gone belly-up; they can’t persuade anyone else to take the casino off their hands, make a few changes, and hopefully ride out the storm.

By a strange coincidence, I just talked about the Sahara in my GAM 495: History of Casinos class, so its history is fresh in my memory.

The property opened as the Club Bingo, a 300-seat bingo parlor, on July 24, 1947. To put it in perspective, the first Strip resort, the El Rancho Vegas, had been open six years (and was right across what was then called the “Los Angeles Highway”). Further south, the Last Frontier was just starting to assemble the Last Frontier Village, and the Flamingo was barely a half-year old. Local builder Marion Hicks was putting together the Thunderbird with a little help from “the Big Juice” Clifford Jones (then the state’s Lt. Governor) and, it was later learned, Meyer Lansky.

When the Club Bingo was remodeled, expanded, and rebranded as the Sahara in 1952, it was the first Vegas rebirth. In the past few years we’ve seen the San Remo get some plastic surgery and re-emerge as Hooters, and the Aladdin turn into Planet Hollywood. The Sahara was there first.

So the Sahara officially opened, as the Sahara, on October 7, 1952. The Desert Inn had opened a few months earlier, and Moe Dalitz and Allard Roen were just starting to kick around the idea of a golf course. Jake Freedman and Jack Entratter were watching the Sands take shape; it would open that December. People were just starting to call the stretch of road with all that construction “the Strip” instead of “Highway 91.”

And the Sahara saw booms and busts, right from the start. It did so well that it added rooms a year after its opening When several casinos declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of 1955’s over-expansive boom, the Sahara soldiered on. Not every casino made it out of that slump intact, but the Sahara did.

The 1960s might have been the golden age of the Sahara. For the price of a drink, Don Rickles would insult you in the Casbar Lounge. But the story beneath the surface was even more interesting. In 1961, Del Webb acquired the casino from Milton Prell and his partners, becoming the first publicly-traded corporation to own a Nevada casino. Because of the restrictive gaming ownership laws of the time, they had to create a series of shell operating companies, but this was a real milestone.

Architect Martin Stern, Jr., raised the Sahara’s profile with two tower expansions in the early 1960s, putting the Sahara at the cutting edge of casino resort design. He applied some of the lessons he learned there in the iconic Sands tower and the International (1969) and original MGM Grand (1973).

In its later years, the Sahara coasted along, drifting further into the value-oriented market, but filling an important niche in Las Vegas nonetheless. The casino’s closing, no matter how you try to spin it, is awful news and a real loss to the city.

3
Mar

Buffet of Buffets price hike

This is in today’s Vegas Seven. Again, since it’s a short piece, there’s no online link, but here’s the text:

Last spring, Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) rolled out an offer that, for those who like to stretch their waistband without stretching their dollars, sounded almost too good to be true: the Buffet of Buffets, an offer that let any Total Rewards member eat their fill for 24 hours at any or all of the company’s seven buffets for a mere $29.99.

Turns out, it was just slightly too good to be true: the company quickly raised the cost to $39.99. And, since last April, that’s where the price has stayed. Until now. Very quietly, Caesars has changed billboards and its website to reflect a new $44.99 price for the all-you-can-eat…and eat..and eat extravaganza.

The cost bump didn’t get quite the same media coverage as Celine Dion’s impending return to the Colosseum as Caesars Palace—in fact, there hasn’t been any buzz about this in print or online. In a town where the bargain hawks usually don’t miss a thing and even a two dollar increase in resort fees is met with public wailing and donning of sackcloth, this is as rare as a keno player catching 20 out of 20 spots. Or maybe the city’s first ultra-buffet is still such a good deal that a 12.5% increase isn’t news.
Vegas Seven–Inflation Hits Buffet Buffs

I don’t know exactly when the price went up. A few weeks ago, I noticed that the billboard near the airport connector reflected the $44.99 price. I didn’t find anything online when I looked around, not even from the usual bargain-hunting suspects.

What can I say–when something’s plastered all over a billboard, I’m a great investigative reporter.

If you want to see it in its true print context, you can check out the digital edition.

3
Mar

Marilyn Spiegel interview

About 2 weeks ago, I interviewed Marilyn Spiegel for a profile piece in Vegas Seven. There are always space constraints, so I thought it would be a good idea to record the interview and post at at UNLV Gaming Podcasts, mostly so she can share her story in her own words.

I”m having some issues with iTunes presently–it may not show up in your feed, but you can get it here:

29-March 3, 2011
Marilyn Spiegel, President and CEO, Wynn Las Vegas
In this interview with CGR Director David G. Schwartz, Spiegel shares her thoughts on luxury at Wynn Las Vegas and chronicles her career in gaming.

Listen to the audio file (mp3)

One area that I’m sure people will be interested in is her thoughts on the closing of Alex. In his February conference call, Steve Wynn credited her with making him rethink the restaurant. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“There were already thoughts about customer preference at Alex,” she says. “Alex Stratta is a phenomenal chef, but the dining experience is lengthy and American tastes have changed.”

Spiegel has no doubts that she made the right call.

“We have capacity in our other restaurants. If you’re able to drive the fixed costs of your restaurants over more covers, it’s more efficient. And if that space can be used better for a different idea, so be it.”

Its at about the 24-minute mark of the podcast, if you want to skip ahead.

I wanted to know what a food critic thought of Spiegel’s call, so I asked John Curtas of Eating Las Vegas. Here’s his response to me, which regrettably didn’t make the final cut of the article:

Great restaurants inside hotels are amenities that the hotel either does or does not want to offer its guests. Wynn has made a calculated decision to abandon his “great chefs/restaurants” brands of ‘o5, and it has nothing to do with “America’s changing tastes.” They think their customers won’t mind, and they think they can make more money with mediocrity.

The whole “fine dining is dead” chestnut is used as an excuse by chefs/restaurateurs/hotels to cut back on quality (and increase their profits) by pretending to be “with it.” My educated guess is Ms. Spiegel is more interested in pushing steaks and booze on her high rollers/nightclubbers than anything with a whiff of sophistication about it.

Leisurely, fine dining has always been a niche market for the aspirational and well-heeled. It hasn’t gone away, it’s simply not (quite) as fashionable as it was five years ago. Every high-end restaurateur I’ve spoken with, from the Bellagio to Caesars Palace, has told me their business is up…and doing even better now that people who would’ve dined at ALEX are looking for their big deal meals elsewhere. (If you don’t believe me, I’ll take you on a tour of a few of them some night).
John Curtas, Eating Las Vegas

Pretty strong stuff that definitely adds a different perspective.

Overall, I think Marilyn Spiegel has a great story that I’m glad I could help her share with people.

3
Mar

Short piece about Darryl A. Smith in Vegas Seven

Page 18 of Vegas Seven has a brief profile of our last Gaming Research Fellow, Dr. Darryl A. Smith.

Don’t tell Darryl A. Smith that Las Vegas isn’t a thought-provoking town. The Bonanza High School graduate has long been fascinated by the tensions just underneath the city’s surface. He channeled his wanderlust into academics, pursuing a degree in philosophy at the University of Nevada, Reno before getting a divinity degree from Harvard and a doctorate in religion from Princeton. His academic work focuses on ethics and language. And recently, he returned home to give a talk at UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research that illuminated some of the connections between poker tells, common-enough in Las Vegas, and several strands of philosophical thought.

Starting with quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Conrad, Smith related how writers and philosophers through the ages have described hiding things, both physical and cerebral, with excessive light, something that poker players, used to projecting strength when holding weak hands and vice versa, employ ever day. He didn’t just use literary examples, however—he pulled in the lived experience of Las Vegas’ own Westside as an example of a place darkened by surrounding light, and a neighborhood with its own “true names,” sometimes at odds with those on Mapquest.

Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies at Pomona College, drew on his own fieldwork along the alphabet streets conducted while on a resident fellowship at UNLV. And he’s proof that Las Vegas, often derided in the national media as an intellectual wasteland, is capable of producing an academic thinker capable of truly ambitious scholarly work in the same vein as the high-flown theoretical discourse echoing in the halls of the Ivy League.
Professor Smith’s talk is available via UNLV”s Gaming Podcast

Vegas Seven Digital Edition

I can’t find these short pieces on the website, so I cut-and-pasted my original Word document. You can see the article, with a pretty cool picture, in the digital edition for 3/3/11.

24
Feb

Frank Riolo’s leap of faith in Vegas 7

Finally, another Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven. And this is a good one, too:

It’s not often that a CEO becomes a hero by jumping off a building, but most CEOs aren’t like Frank Riolo. And most companies don’t operate observation towers attached to a Las Vegas casino.

Since May 2008—just about the start of the current economic slide—Riolo has helmed American Casino & Entertainment Properties, the company that operates the Stratosphere, Laughlin’s Aquarius and Arizona Charlie’s East and Decatur for Whitehall Properties, an investment arm of Goldman Sachs.

In April, Riolo’s main charge, the Stratosphere, was putting the finishing touches on its new Sky Jump ride. As part of the opening festivities, he opened up the ride for free to all employees who wanted to try. It looked like so much fun, he joined them.

via Leap of Faith | Vegas Seven.

All of this grew out of a conversation I had with Mr. Riolo after he heard me on KNPR’s State of Nevada. As we were chatting, it dawned on me that he had a story everyone should hear.

While he was walking me around the property we ran into Brian Thornton, which turned out to be quite fortuitous, since he was an excellent guy to talk to about the El Cortez suite design competition. It’s another reminder of what a small town this really is. That’s not always a bad thing.

10
Feb

El Cortez suite competition winner in Vegas Seven

It’s Thursday, so I’ve got a Green Felt Journal column in Vegas Seven. This week, I dig a little deeper into the significance of the El Cortez’s Design-a-Suite Downtown competition:

When the El Cortez announced the winner of its Design-a-Suite Downtown competition recently, the downtown stalwart did more than decide the look for its suites; it reaffirmed its faith in the neighborhood.

“Jackie Gaughan’s always said that what’s good for downtown is good for the El Cortez,” executive manager Alexandra Epstein says. “That’s why we’re cultivating friendships with designers and the World Market Center and bringing in as many people as possible. We want to highlight our neighbors.”

via Suite Designs | Vegas Seven.

It’s a very important story for Downtown, and I think it has significance for the way casinos are going to operate.

A programming note: with the redesign of the magazine, the Green Felt Journal is now going to be bi-weekly, instead of weekly. On the down side, that means you’ll be getting 50% less GFJ each month. On the positive side, this might give me the chance to do more features.

8
Feb

Sandoval’s message to gaming in the Las Vegas Business Press

My latest column in the Las Vegas Business Press is now available. In it, I consider Governor Sandoval’s recent call for modernization in Nevada’s gaming regulations:

In his State of the State address, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval briefly noted the necessity of updating the state’s gaming regulations to reflect the new realities of 21st century gambling. It’s a good message to share and it highlights the work the industry and its regulators have done to keep moving forward.

Sandoval highlighted the need for “a flexible environment for the technological resources that are the underpinning of modern gaming devices,” suggesting that the recent forays into mobile gambling — courtesy of dedicated devices developed by Cantor Gaming and applications that run on smart phones, one of which recently gained board approval — will continue. With commerce and information-sharing migrating from brick-and-mortar to Internet to mobile, it makes sense that more people are going to want to gamble using these technologies.

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : As gambling shifts, state must be ready to adjust.

The importance of modernization was really driven home last Friday, when I went to the opening of Cantor Gaming’s new sportsbook at the Tropicana. Cantor is moving aggressively into mobile sports gaming. In addition to their dedicated devices, which you can already get at the M, Venetian/Palazzo, Hard Rock, Tropicana, and Cosmopolitan, Cantor is developing apps that run on smart phones and tablets.

3
Feb

Station hiring in Vegas Seven

It’s Thursday, which means another Green Felt Journal is available for your reading pleasure in Vegas Seven. This one is a look behind Station Casino’s recent hiring push:

The local employment picture has been a dire one. In the past five years, the unemployment rate has more than tripled. That’s why a local company hiring 1,000 new employees is pretty good news.

Of course, even 1,000 jobs hardly puts a dent in the unemployment picture. With more than 140,000 Las Vegans out of work, even if every casino in town added 1,000 workers—and that’s just not going to happen—we’d still have an unemployment rate higher than it was four years ago.

More significant is what these hires say about the near-future of the Valley—and the nature of casino work.

via Station’s math: More employees mean more business | Vegas Seven.

The jobs themselves mean a lot, particularly to the people who got hired, but I think that long-term the more significant thing we can parse from this development is that we might be seeing a reverse of the trend towards fewer employees per position.

With 140,000 people out of work, though, even that’s not going to help really “put Las Vegas back to work.” All of the casinos in Clark County employ about 147,000 people. They’d each have to double their payrolls to solve the unemployment problem, and that’s clearly never going to happen. Moderately higher staffing levels across the industry will create a few thousand more jobs, but clearly Las Vegas is going to have to diversify.

27
Jan

Kyle Markman profile in Vegas Seven

This Thursday, there’s no local news section in Vegas Seven since it’s a special People issue. Instead, I wrote a brief profile of Kyle Markman, who’s been doing some very interesting things at Station Casinos:

Kyle Markman knows how to throw a party. In June 2008, it was his job to set up a celebration for the release of Nelly’s Brass Knuckles at Red Rock Resort. Nelly was so taken by Markman’s personal tour of the resort’s suites, pools and lounges—and the way Markman juggled arrangements and handled VIPs during the bash—that he filmed the entire video for “Body on Me” at the casino.

The 27-year-old has since been promoted to Station Casinos’ director of nightlife, and it’s a job that goes a lot deeper than making stars happy. “It’s not all about bottle service and oontz-oontz-oontz music,” he says. “It’s about giving locals someplace to have fun and a great value.”

via Kyle Markman | Vegas Seven.

Kyle was not only interesting to meet, but also a legitimately nice guy who’s got a good grasp of both the casino nightlife and locals entertainment. That summer concert series should be a real game-changer.