Reading this article by Virginia Postrel, I started thinking about how “inconspicuous consumption” might translate on the Las Vegas Strip. Then I got back to work. But then I figured I should share some thoughts with the rest of you. Here’s just the most relevant part of the article, which you should read in its entirety at The Atlantic:
Virtuous or vulgar, what all these items have in common is that they’re invisible to strangers. Only your friends and family see them. Any status they confer applies only within the small group you invite to your home. And the snob appeal Brooks pokes fun at corresponds to the size of the audience. Many friends may see your Jacuzzi or media room, but unless you’re on HGTV, only intimates will tour your master bathroom. A slate shower stall may make you feel rich, but it won’t tell the world that you are. As peer groups get richer, the balance between private pleasure and publicly visible consumption shifts.
Russ Alan Prince and Lewis Schiff describe a similar pattern in their book, The Middle-Class Millionaire, which analyzes the spending habits of the 8.4million American households whose wealth is self-made and whose net worth, including their home equity, is between $1 million and $10 million. Aside from a penchant for fancy cars, these millionaires devote their luxury dollars mostly to goods and services outsiders can’t see: concierge health care, home renovations, all sorts of personal coaches, and expensive family vacations. They focus less on impressing strangers and more on family- and self-improvement. Even when they invest in traditional luxuries like second homes, jets, or yachts, they prefer fractional ownership. “They’re looking for ownership to be converted into a relationship rather than an asset they have to take care of,” says Schiff. Their primary luxuries are time and attention.
The shift away from conspicuous consumption—from goods to services and experiences—can also make luxury more exclusive. Anyone with $6,000 can buy a limited-edition Bottega Veneta bag, an elaborately beaded Roberto Cavalli minidress, or a Cartier watch. Or, for the same sum, you can register for the TED conference. That $6,000 ticket entitles you to spend four days in California hearing short talks by brainy innovators, famous (Frank Gehry, Amy Tan, Brian Greene) and not-so-known. You get to mingle with smart, curious people, all of whom have $6,000 to spare. But to go to TED, you need more than cash. The conference directors have to deem you interesting enough to merit one of the 1,450 spots. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a velvet rope.
As for goods, forget showing off. “If you want to live like a billionaire, buy a $12,000 bed,” says a financial-planner friend of mine. You can’t park a mattress in your driveway, but it will last for decades and you can enjoy it every night.
Heading back to the Strip, if you are insecure about your wealth, you waste $15K by spraying expensive champagne around a nightclub. If you’re not, you spend $15K for a luxury suite with butler service.
If I have the time to do the serious research, I’d like to really write something about conspicuous vs. inconspicuous consumption on the Strip, because in recent years there has been a real shift towards the latter. In the 1990s, the best parts of the hotels were open to public view: the Mirage’s volcano, Bellagio’s lake, and, even older, the Frontier’s neon sign. Wynn LV was the first to save the best part for the paying guests: only they can really appreciate the Lake of Dreams.
And the real attraction for Wynn or Bellagio–or anything that’s planned–isn’t so much what’s happening in public, where people can see you, but the rooms, which are private.
Is this a sign of the maturing Strip market? A signal of a larger American cultural shift? I don’t know yet, but with luck I’ll have the time to look into it…must investigate further.