Just got back from a four-day convention in Las Vegas. It was a microcosm of what Vegas has become. Like Las Vegas Boulevard, one block to the West, the entire LV Convention Center was filled with suits and multimillion-dollar booths blasting how great they were, numbing your senses.
I once lived there, from ’93 to ’97, as the city’s population grew from 800,000 to 1.2 million. As the city increased in size by 50 percent over four years, it was a grand time to have been in Vegas. Everything was fresh and new, and everyone was from somewhere else. I opened a business there, and eventually met my future ex-wife. I went to new restaurants and saw many of the greatest heavyweight fighters ringside–when boxing was also cool.
From my second-story patio, about one mile west of the Strip, my poker buddies and I would watch the Dunes, Sands, Hacienda, Landmark, and other hotels implode to make way for junk-bond financed billion-dollar monstrosities. The philosophy was “bigger is better.” Within a few years of the mid-nineties, it became clear that Vegas, once a sleepy hideaway for SoCals to escape and be adults for a weekend, had become the antithesis of what made it cool.
When I was twelve, my father took me to the Desert Inn (now the Wynn/Encore), gave me a $40 allowance to play the midway at Circus Circus, and after taking me to see Neil Sedaka or Bill Cosby, he allowed me to order room service while I sneaked the fleshy pre-Jubilee “Hallelujah Hollywood” on a new cable station called HBO.
To call it the greatest thing to ever happen to this 12-year-old would be an understatement. But what I remember more was hanging out with Dad at the restaurants and pool. It wasn’t just fun, it was cool. Adults were dressed to the nines. The crooked-nosed casino host (right out of Goodfellas central casting) called me ‘Sir.’ There was respect. By the way: My Ricochet profile pic is from that trip.
Almost two decades later, when I lived there, there was a sense things were changing. MGM went “family” before realizing visitors couldn’t carry their kids around and gamble. Mirage, still a fun spot, was clearly a corporate-run casino.
So we got our fix of old Vegas by heading to Binions, The Golden Gate, or Vegas Club downtown, but then that started to change. Boardroom marketing hacks decided to put a light-bulbed roof over Fremont Street. We locals howled in disgust (“local” meant you had lived there at least one year). They were taking away the last of the fedora days!
Twenty years later, Vegas is marketed as “cool.” But it is just a conveyor belt of masses shuffled from overpriced buffets to overpriced shows to similar casinos to overpriced shopping. There are about 40 million visitors to Vegas each year. Thats 110,000 new visitors each day who are assaulted with “corporate cool.”
City Center (the once almost-bankrupt collection of new high-rise glass hotels) reeks of the bland, depersonalized ubiquity that Vegas is now. The hotel designers must have worked on Hollywood’s recent spate of dystopian futuristic movies. The only thing missing from Aria (a City Center hotel) are teenage malcontents who will ultimately rise up against their corporate overlords. The building sorely needs John McClane’s “Nakatomi treatment.”
Some entrepreneurs apparently feel the same way. They’ve taken the initiative and tried to bring back classic Vegas and the Rat-Pack theme. The SLS Hotel, which sits on the former site of the Sahara, wants you to know they are bringing back the cool, with fedoras on their billboards. The marketing of cool feels artificial and desperate. A good friend told me the hotel won’t make it.
When a person keeps telling you they are cool, you know they are trying too hard to impress you. And that really isn’t cool.