TR @PH in V7

A week ago today, Planet Hollywood officially became a Total Rewards property. In my latest Vegas Seven column, I talk a little about the behind-the-scenes work that made this possible:P

If you didn’t notice anything unusual at Planet Hollywood recently, don’t feel bad: You weren’t supposed to. But behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them, a massive operation transformed the property into the eighth Las Vegas casino under Harrah’s Entertainment’s Total Rewards umbrella.

Since its relaunch in 2007, Planet Hollywood has offered players its A-list club, which, like other casino loyalty programs, lets them earn points redeemable for meals, lodging and entertainment with each dollar wagered.

Harrah’s Total Rewards does the same thing on a national scale, letting players bank rewards credits from 35 properties across the United States and Canada. Even before the Planet Hollywood acquisition, Harrah’s has been planning its conversion to the Total Rewards system.

Conversion required more than installing an update patch on a few computers. Technicians had to remove all existing systems, including the core casino management system (which tracks and records play), the lodging management system (which lets the hotel take room reservations) and back-of-the-house systems that track everything from employee hours to ordering and receiving.

via Total Rewards program expands with inclusion of Planet Hollywood | Vegas Seven.

I was able to walk the floor while they were doing the work and talk to many of the people involved in it, and two things struck me: the sheer amount of work involved and the minimal impact it had on customers.

It’s not exactly the Manhattan Project as far as major engineering efforts go, but it’s still pretty impressive.

Madder, leaner, Vegas

Since it’s Thursday, I’ve got a new Green Felt Journal for you to read in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, I talk about March Madness on the Strip:

The basketball-mad crowd covers all ages, from cigar-chomping sharp bettors in their 60s to still-in-school rowdies wearing their college colors. It skews young, however, with 20- to 30-somethings dominating in most casinos. The audience in most sports books is about 97 percent male.

The NCAA Tournament, particularly the first weekend, has become an unofficial cross-country college reunion getaway. Although many fans have moved on from the frat house or dorm television lounge and might live thousands of miles apart, they return to Las Vegas in groups of varying sizes each spring to watch the games, drink beer and enjoy what’s become the ultimate guy trip.

The tournament has become one of the biggest draws in town. While it’s impossible to directly assess its total economic impact (no one fills out a survey saying they came to town for the games), it’s acknowledged as a huge draw.

via March Madness offers peek at leaner Vegas vacation | Vegas Seven.

I used the word “crowd” three times in the story, and might have used it more, because gathering information for this story really brought to mind Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Not that I’m saying that the guys betting on March Madness are deluded, but it is March “Madness,” and there are big crowds, so I guess my brain filled in the blanks.

And there was something very compelling, but very exhausting, about the atmosphere in the books. I can’t see how anyone has enough energy to do anything but crash for 12 hours, beer and other depressants of choice notwithstanding, after a day of March Madness Vegas action. It must be all the oxygen they pump into the casino.

That last sentence, my friends, is the closest I’m getting to an April Fool’s joke this year.

Shining a light on Aria

In addition to the cover story, my regular Green Felt Journal column in Vegas Seven this week tackles one very specific complaint about Aria’s casino, the lighting:

But the thing most likely to provoke comment from casino-goers about Aria in its first three months hasn’t been Pelli Clarke Pelli’s spacious design or the cutting-edge technology of the guest rooms. It’s that the casino is a bit on the dark side.

Pre-opening press releases hyped the airiness of the building: “Soaring open spaces, ranging from Aria’s three-story lobby to its guest rooms, fill with natural light and evoke breadth and freedom.” It wasn’t surprising that guests expected a casino that looked like an Apple Store lined with slots instead of MacBooks.

That’s not what they got.

“The casino is very nice but very dark,” a visitor from Texas recently wrote on Expedia. Others have been even harsher in their assessment of the lighting. “It’s way too dark, to the point of being forbidding,” commenter Mike P. said on the RateVegas blog.

via Shining a light on Aria—finally | Vegas Seven.

This piece had an interesting evolution. Originally I wanted to borrow a light meter and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt (pardon the pun), that Aria was much darker than other casinos. Then both Bobby Baldwin and Bill McBeath conceded that the casino was too dark, so it rendered the entire exercise academic.

Still, measuring light levels would be an interesting project, maybe for another time.

And a few months ago when the Mandarin Oriental opened, I referenced the spot in front of the restrooms in the Sky Lobby being as dark as the caverns of Moria. Apparently they just hadn’t screwed in the lightblub in that corridor yet, because when I returned a few days later it was amply lit. So don’t go looking for Durin the Deathless at the MO–you won’t find him there.

Covering Aria

I had such a busy day yesterday that I couldn’t post this. It’s ironic because this article was the culmination of about a month of interviews, analysis, observation, writing, and re-writing. It’s the cover story for the March 25 Vegas Seven, about Aria’s first 100 days:

Aria, the centerpiece of the 67-acre mini city, has drawn the most attention simply because it’s the main place that people want to visit, thanks to its restaurants, bars and casino. The Crystals shopping center is only about half full. The Mandarin Oriental, by design, pursues a mere sliver of the luxury market. And Vdara at this point seems like just another finely appointed nongaming hotel—pleasant enough but nothing to inspire a trip to Las Vegas. Right now, Aria defines CityCenter.

So the question of the moment is, does Aria work?

MGM Mirage executives will tell you the overall project has been an unqualified success. “CityCenter is the single most powerful reason to have hope for a resurgence in our tourist economy,” MGM Mirage chairman and CEO Jim Murren says.

Do the numbers justify this optimism? Most metrics of casino performance aren’t publicly available, but we do know a little bit about Aria: Over its first 15 days of business, it earned $7 million in operating income, or about $466,000 a day. Its successful big sister, Bellagio, by comparison, averaged $430,000 for all of 2009. If projected out for the year, that would make Aria about 8 percent more profitable than Bellagio. But Bellagio only cost $1.6 billion to build. Aria carries the weight of CityCenter, and that’s a $8.5 billion load.

via The First 100 Days | Vegas Seven.

Even before it came out, I wanted to use this blog to talk a little about the process of writing the piece and share a few more thoughts.

I was thrilled to be asked to write the feature story on CityCenter–it’s something I’ve already written on quite a bit and probably the biggest Vegas casino story of the past few years. More importantly, my opinions about the place haven’t calcified into dogma. Each time I go there, I see things I like, things I don’t, and things that don’t make an impression either way. I didn’t have an emotional or intellectual investment in “proving” that CityCenter was a success or a failure, so I started out with a fairly blank slate.

I talked to a lot of people, both at the property and online, about what worked and what didn’t work for them as guests. But with James Reza focusing on the guest experience in his piece, most of that ended up being background. It let me ask very frank questions to the “Big 3” (Jim Murren, Bobby Baldwin, Bill McBeath), because I had a strong base of customer feedback–not nearly as comprehensive as what they have, but, I think, a representative sampling.

With Baldwin and McBeath, I focused mostly on operational issues–things like cell phones, the light levels, the parking garage, check-in times, etc. I also asked Baldwin some “big picture” questions. I asked Murren exclusively about the big picture stuff, including financing and the role of art in the project. I want to reproduce here Murren’s response to my question, “How has public art helped differentiate CityCenter,” because I think it’s significant, though it ultimately didn’t fit in with the story I was telling in Vegas Seven:

If we can begin a conversation about art, we stimulate dialogue. The world needs more talking, less polarizing. Art is a great way to begin a conversation: it’s neutral ground, something people can all relate to in one way or another. My hope is that the message of the art at CityCenter is that we care about people. There’s also a significant amount of art in the Nevada Cancer Institute (of which Murren’s wife Heather is co-founder), which sends a resounding message to patients and employees that you care about them, that you feel it’s important that they feel stimulated and inspired. There’s clearly a psychological benefit to art. Art has a calming effect, it enlivens people, energizes areas, and creates moments. That’s what the resort community tries to do—create snapshots that you’ll remember for a long time. Hopefully we create a lot of those moments here—that’s how CityCenter will be defined—when people go home after experiencing the art, those are our ambassadors.

Clearly Murren isn’t coming at the business from the angle of a Benny Binion or Jackie Gaughan. But you know what? That’s OK. Binion and Gaughan weren’t coming at the business from the angle of Bill Graham and Jim McKay. There were probably people who thought that Binion was unbelievably pretentious for putting carpet into his Horseshoe (though I doubt anyone said so to his face).

One of the outgrowths of this project was the UNLV Gaming Podcast interview with Bill McBeath. It was a chance to let the broader community see a little bit of what goes into running a casino resort–a lot of hard work.

In summary, I’m grateful to Vegas Seven for giving me the chance to ask questions and write a story that I hope gets people thinking.

Baccarat to the future at Vegas Seven

New Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven:

Baccarat first came to Las Vegas in the 1950s, but didn’t make much headway until the growth of high-end, international play in the 1970s. Caesars Palace and the Hilton led the way, and soon most casinos with any pretension to catering to high-rollers added the game.

The game has had an up-and-down ride over the past two decades. In the 1980s, when mass marketing to small-budget players replaced a reliance on a select group of high-rollers, many casinos junked their baccarat tables. In 1992, there were only 59 baccarat tables in the state, and the game accounted for about $291 million in winnings, less than 5 percent of total gaming revenues.

via Baccarat to the future | Vegas Seven.

Yes, I came up with that title. It’s because you’ve got to make sure the flux capacitor is in good shape before you start a serious game of bacc.

Gaming taverns in Vegas 7

It’s Thursday, so that means the latest Vegas Seven is hot off the presses–printing and digital. This week, I’ve got an article about gaming taverns–you know, those bars with slots in them that are ubiquitous in Las Vegas. Here’s the opening:

From Irish pubs to Mexican cantinas, it seems that every culture puts its own stamp on imbibing. The United States has generated its own share of distinctive drinking niches—tiki bars flowered in California before spreading across the country in the 1960s, and microbreweries have become almost ubiquitous.

Las Vegas has its own twist on the American watering hole—the gaming tavern. In addition to being popular places to drink, these establishments form a substantial part of the area’s gambling culture and gaming economy.

via Taverns maintain big role in gambling ecosystem | Vegas Seven.

So when people say that Las Vegas has no original culture, they’re wrong. We’re definitely got a culture. Now, it might not be one that you particularly like, but that’s another story.

While researching this story, I did some adding, dividing, and multiplying and learned the following useless factoid:

Clark County has about 1 slot machine for every 14 residents. About the same number of hotel rooms, too.

I thought it would put everything into perspective, and lo and behold it found its way into the closing paragraph.

Speaking of collateral benefits from my Vegas Seven writing, here’s one more:

In my Monday interview with Bill McBeath for the 3/25 Vegas Seven, he confirmed that Verizon cell service will be at 100% as of March 22.

So if you’re planning a trip on that date or after and use Verizon, don’t worry: everyone will be able to “hear you now.” Before then…follow Hunter’s advice and lean against the window, maybe.

This little tidbit was part of the interview for the magazine story, so it’s not on the UNLV Gaming Podcast that we recorded that same day.

Giving the little guy a chance on the Strip

It’s Thursday, which means another edition of the Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, as whether the “little guy” still has a chance on the Strip:P

Last year at around this time, “deconsolidation” was the buzzword along the Strip. MGM Mirage had just announced its sale of Treasure Island to Phil Ruffin, formerly of the New Frontier. Investment bankers and industry analysts announced that, just as the previous 10 years had seen Strip casinos swept into progressively larger corporate empires, the next era would see them splinter into smaller fiefdoms fortified by hedge-fund and private equity investment.A year later, it’s now clear that the pundits couldn’t have been more wrong. Rumors of an MGM Mirage fire sale proved immature. Harrah’s Entertainment has actually added a casino to its portfolio, having taken over the management of Planet Hollywood after acquiring a substantial stake via debt purchases.

via Does the little guy still have a shot on the Strip? | Vegas Seven.

As I promised before, this column also has my first overt Star Trek reference.

Also, only in Vegas would a multi-million dollar company with thousands of employees be considered “the little guy.”

Some other highlights from the issue:
– Nicole Lucht talks to Tony Marnell about the M Resort’s first year
–Mericia Gonzalez looks into the future of Vegas nightclubs
–Jeff Haney, formerly of the Sun, writes about HORSE at Aria. He’s a great poker writer, and hopefully this is the first of a regular series of column.
–and if you didn’t catch it last week, check out Jessica Prois’s talk about statistics with author Jeffery Rosenthal (Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities)

Tons of other great reading in there–these are just the ones that have the biggest gambling/Strip connection.

Split-level in Vegas Seven

It’s Thursday, which means another Green Felt Journal column in Vegas Seven. Here’s the crux of what I call the “split-level strategy”:

So casinos are pursuing a “split-level” strategy that harks back to the 1970s and earlier—keeping prices low for bargain hunters while pursuing high-end play at the baccarat tables. It’s not the mid-1980s approach of making a profit on the sheer margin of visitors, since it’s much more expensive to borrow, build and maintain casinos today. And it’s not the early-2000s pursuit of free-spending travelers willing to pay a premium for rooms, food and entertainment. It’s looking like a little bit of both, taken to extremes.

via Adopting the old ‘split-level’ strategy | Vegas Seven.

I talked about this strategy last week, in some detail, but I wrote this article first, so you actually read my response to what I wrote before I wrote it, if that makes sense. Not quite the grandfather paradox, but it does muddle the timeline a bit.

This is also, by the way, what I was referencing when I talked to the LVRJ about the Hard Rock’s plans to chase the Asian-American middle-upper-level roller. It is a huge potential market, but basing your strategy on targeting local players of any ethnicity is risky right now, because of obvious reverses in both employment and housing.

Having looked over the numbers even more closely over the past week, I’m even more convinced that without the high rollers spiking the baccarat numbers, we’d be telling a very different story about 2009. Hopefully I’ll get to that later today.

I went with “split-level strategy” because it sounds retro and the strategy is very, very retro. As I said, it’s totally different from what worked in the 1980s and the early 2000s, and it is risky, but given the economic climate right now, there are few other options.

Take Seven

For a while now, I’ve been dropping hints about an article on resort fees that I’ve been working on. I’ve been a little more mysterious than usual because the magazine I wrote it for hadn’t been published yet. Well, it’s out at last, in the debut issue of Vegas Seven magazine.

It’s the first in a weekly column series that I’m writing called “Green Felt Journal.” My beat is gaming and tourism generally, with a mix of current issues, historical perspective, and coming trends. It’s different from the column I write for the Business Press every two weeks, because the LVBP column is more reflective and observational, while Green Felt Journal is drawn more on statistical research and interviews.

The best way I’ve found to read the resort fee article is to go to the digital version of the magazine and flip ahead to page 34, where you’ll see the inaugural edition of the Green Felt Journal in all its glory. Vegastripping.com forum members will be glad to see that I used the topic thread on resort fees in the article, with users rockchickx51 and donnymac66 getting quoted in print. Thanks, guys!

But that’s not all. I’ve also got an essay in today’s issue about how the Wonder Pets can save Las Vegas. Yes, in all seriousness I wax philosophical on how Las Vegas should take some tips from a toddler TV show. Here’s a sample:

In a recent episode, the Pets fly to Las Vegas to aid the Rat Pack, a trio of bumbling performing rodents named Blue Eyes, Dino and Sammy who can’t get their act together. In honor of this mission, the heroes replace the mast and sail on their intrepid vehicle of choice, the Fly Boat, with a construction inspired by neon signs and showgirls’ headdresses. Just like that, the Fly Boat is reborn as the “Vegas Boat.” After departing the schoolhouse to a slot machine’s jangle, the Vegas Boat zooms past the Wynn and down into a pint-size re-creation of the Strip. There, in a makeshift rehearsal space, the Pets give the Rat Pack a lesson on working together when they dance. This works like a charm. To celebrate, they join Dino for some pasta and, though their work is done, Blue Eyes refuses to let them leave without having some fun.

Can the Wonder Pets Save Las Vegas?

Maybe I’ve been watching toddler TV for too long, but the show really says a lot about how most people view Vegas.

If you’re in Vegas, look for a copy of Vegas Seven on the street–I believe you’ll find them where 944 is distributed. [UPDATE: You can find them at 7-Eleven, Albertsons, Fresh N Easy, Whole Foods, Golds Gym, Hard Rock Hotel, the Palms, Lee’s Discount Liquor and Blockbuster]

If you don’t live in Vegas, you’ll have to content yourself with browsing the contents online. There are several great articles in there, including one about how Las Vegas is courting China.

For those of you who want to keep up with the rest of my work, I’m still writing a monthly historical column for Casino Connection, and have occasional longer pieces in Global Gaming Business–one about the mainstreaming of gambling should be out soon. In this month’s issue, by the way, there’s an excerpt from Eadington and Dolye’s Integrated Casino Resorts that is definitely worth reading. There’s also a look inside Aria’s surveillance room that is interesting, and much more.

As the Wonder Pets might say, it looks like my work here is done. How about some celery?

UPDATE: OK Schopenhauer, you asked for it. Here it is:

My favorite is the one at about 1:14. If you want a good introduction to the Wonder Pets, try this video from Parents magazine.