Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My #VegasHalloween itinerary

For the fifth time in seven years I will spend Halloween night in Las Vegas. (Three weeks from now Halloween will be over.) Damn, I wish I was having as much fun on Halloween night when I was in my 20s.

I have a lot of plans for my visit to Sin City, and not all of them will come to fruition, I know. Here's a rough list of things I plan to do during my time in The Meadows.

Halloween fun: I haven't been to Las Vegas Haunts since 2011. I plan to see their show again, as they do a nice job. They have two mazes, one is a hotel, one is an asylum. During a recent conversation I had about their attraction, I came to realize that they should have redesigned their haunted hotel to pay homage to the Riviera after its closing two years ago.

 I also plan to stop by the Freakling Bros. Triology of Terror when I get to town, as I have a thank you gift for them, given the hospitality they showed my group last year.

Halloween night will be spent downtown. Yes I will have a costume. No, I won't be the "Macho Man" Randy Savage again this year.

Lunch with a friend: It turns out two friends will be in Vegas during my trip. Rachel will be arriving the same day I do, and will be staying at Luxor. Karla will arrive after Halloween and will be staying at Mandalay Bay. Since I'm staying at Tahiti Village, south of the strip, it should be easy to meet up with them on the sound end of the strip for lunch. Karla will be there for all of 48 hours, so there's a decent chance she won't have time to meet for lunch, but you never know. There's something magical about seeing friends in Vegas when your trips coincide.

Magic: There's one show on my itinerary for this trip, and that's Xavier Mortimer's Magical Dream. It comes recommended by the folks at Vital Vegas. (It's one guy.)

Art: My girlfriend was not with me last Halloween, but she was intrigued by Seven Magic Mountains, so we'll probably take a road trip south to visit the site, and use it as an excuse to have lunch at Steak 'n Shake. There's only one in Vegas, and it's at South Point. I love that place, and I can't get it in Minnesota.

I'm also planning to visit the Wheel of Misfortune. A peculiar art installation in the desert which I didn't know anything about until I read about it at Vital Vegas.

My trip will include visits to plenty of my usual properties. I'll play cards at the Orleans at least one night, I'll eat cheap food at Ellis Island a couple of times (with coupons) and I'll spend a few hours, at least once at the Pinball Hall of Fame. When I'm in Vegas, it's the one thing I must do. Hard to believe I've never finished my blog post about it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Vegas will never be the same

Exactly 48 hours ago I was sitting at this computer, reading tidbits about the Vegas massacre online, wondering exactly how bad it was.

I watched overnight coverage of the situation for two hours. I was on fumes at work all day Monday.

Plenty of people have shared thoughts about the chaos, theories about why it happened, conspiracy theories on what actually happened and sentiments of resilience.

I live in the Minneapolis area. I live less than 10 miles from Mall of America, one of the largest malls in the world. It was built to be that way 25 years ago. And since Sept. 11, 2001, it has been carefully monitored as a potential target of terrorism, not unlike Las Vegas.

Whether a perpetrator is a foreign terrorist with a vendetta against America or a U.S. citizen determined to cause domestic chaos, popular gathering places are a magnet to such people. Safeguards have been in place for years, but we all know that there's a limit to how much any shopping mall, sports venue or city can do to prevent a mass casualty incident from happening.

I was talking with a police officer months ago, an officer I know well. I told her that I'm certain a mass casualty incident will occur at the mall in my lifetime. It's not a matter of if, but a question of when. She agreed. Law enforcement agencies prepare for such events, never knowing exactly how they'll unfold, but expecting that they will at some point.

Vegas has been cited as a terrorism target by the fear mongers that spout hatred. Likewise Mall of America. I haven't been anticipating a mass casualty incident in Vegas, but like Mall of America, I expected it in my lifetime. I never imagined an incident on the scale of what unfolded late Sunday night in Sin City.

There will be plenty of rhetoric in the weeks and months to come about how we prevent the next Vegas massacre from happening elsewhere. It seems plenty of us agree on one thing, when it comes to gun control, nothing will change. I'm not sure greater gun control would make a difference in the future of our country. It wouldn't prompt an increase in mass casualty incidents, and perhaps it would prevent one or two from year to year. But at the end of the day, we'll never put an end to the gun trade, legal and illegal, and we won't see an end of terrorism, mental illness or whatever it is that drives mass casualty incidents in our country.

Four weeks from right now I'll be wrapping up my Halloween in Vegas celebration. I'll forget, for the most part, what happened on that horrific night at the beginning of the month. I'll enjoy my evening, and not worry about my safety. I'll be thankful I've never been personally affected by any of the mass casualty incidents that have scarred our country. I'll go back to life as normal, even if I'll never forget.

I can decide what should or shouldn't be done for the betterment of our country. But the reality is that I personally cannot resolve the issues that plague our country and prompt mass casualty incidents. All I can do is pray (and be thankful) that I never have to endure or live with the pain associated with experiencing a mass casualty incident, or lose a friend of family member because of one.

For those whose lives will never be the same because of the Vegas massacre or other such incidents, you have my deepest sympathy.

I will enjoy my time in Vegas, and I won't change the way I go about my business because of one horrific night. But I will think back to that night for the rest of my life, and will always remember the sorrow associated with it. For me, and many others, Vegas will never be the same.

Friday, September 8, 2017

How I spend my time when I make a solo trip to Vegas

I didn't intend to take the summer off when it comes to writing about Vegas, but that's what happened.

I'll have a few thoughts to share in the weeks to come, as forthcoming trips always inspire creativity. I'll be spending Halloween in Vegas again this year.

This morning I responded to one of the many online discussions about the merits of traveling solo to Vegas, and wrote enough that it should be memorialized here. (I need to keep my answers short and sweet when it comes to online forums.)

Here's a slightly edited version of what I posted: 

There was a time in my life when I wanted to go to Vegas, and friends claimed they wanted to go to with me, but wouldn’t pull the trigger. I got tired of waiting for somebody to travel with and realized that Vegas is a city I knew well, and that I could find enough to do without somebody to do it with. My first solo trip wasn’t inspired by online discussions about the merits of traveling solo to Vegas. I had no idea it was such a common thing to do when I made my first trip.

I wasn’t getting comps, but I could afford to go solo if I was frugal about my accommodations.  I wish I had better records of my solo trips regarding when I went and where I stayed. My first solo trip was more than 10 years ago. I stayed at Westward Ho. Pretty cheap for a handful of nights, and just fine. Zero complaints about my room, and more than adequate as I didn’t have to impress anybody. (My most depressing solo stay was four nights of a six-night trip at Vegas Club. The room was almost free, and included a Friday night, so I didn’t care. But I really had to stick to the “I only sleep and shower in my room” mantra. I do appreciate a decent room for a morning of relaxation during a multi-night visit.)

I have made a handful of solo trips since the early 2000s, although not since May 2012. (My one solo night last fall doesn’t count; I was with friends for the first four nights.) I have stayed downtown, off-strip and spent a couple nights at the Riv several years ago. Location dictates some of the things I've done on solo trips, naturally, and a Halloween 2011 trip changed things forever as I needed a rental car to do some of the things I had planned. From then on, I became a rental car guy.

So what have I done, and what wouldn’t I do again?

I don’t dine anywhere fancy or trendy. Personal preference, even though solo diners have been known to eat at the bar at finer places. I stick to the cafes and simpler places… paying for atmosphere or fancy service isn’t of much enjoyment to me if I’m not sharing the time with somebody.

It it's pool season, I'll spend time soaking up the sun and reading. Being solo at the pool can sometimes be a bit lonesome, but if you’re there to relax, relaxing solo shouldn’t be too painful.

Gambling is often a solo activity, so when you do, it shouldn’t be a big deal. You just won’t have a friend or loved one to hug moments after you hit for $1,199 on the slot machine.

I go for five nights minimum when I go, and am not compelled to gamble every day. I need time to see and do things outside of the casino. I use to be into geocaching, so sometimes I scouted out places I could access for geocache searching, be it on the strip or elsewhere nearby. I always make sure to find my way down to the Pinball Hall of Fame, which is a great place to spend time solo.

I recommend solo travelers find something they're into and finding a way to check out the local scene. Is there a craft brewer that’s not at Neonopolis? I went to Hop Nuts a few years ago, a bit far to walk from Fremont St., but a short cab ride or Uber from the Plaza, right on Main Street. 

Collect comic books? Check out a local shop. (Alternative Reality Comics on Flamingo, east of the strip, is a great one, and another short Lyft ride away.) 

If you're there during sporting events, particularly football season, find a local bar where fans of your favorite college or pro team congregate. My friend did that a couple of years ago during the NCAA hoops tournament and ended up going to a Wisconsin Badger bar twice, and met a former Green Bay Packer while he was there. 

If nothing else, find one of those smaller, secondary museums or points of interest that your drunk, gambling buddy would never want to waste his time seeing. This is your chance to visit the Burlesque Hall of Fame. (And it’s close to Hop Nuts.)

When I have a rental car, which is just about every trip these days, I take one of my days or evenings to go see something I haven’t seen before. This might not make sense for those who are only in town for three nights, but I have enjoyed driving north to Valley of Fire, more than two hours northwest to Rhyolite, a “ghost town,” and up Mt. Charleston. Getting away to see something is a great way to spend a day, and there are ways you can do a few things like that even if you don’t rent a car.


What I wouldn’t do: Go to shows solo. I did that several years ago, when Caesars had its all-access pass for 48 hours. I used it to see a bunch of secondary shows in the CET empire. I paid a little over $100 and got good value out of it. I deliberately waited until close to show time to take my seat, even when I had claimed a ticket 30 minutes or more prior to the show. The seating arrangements made it awkward occasionally to have to sit there minutes before the performance. Crime? Not a chance, but just not as much fun to see a show and not have a friend to chat with before or after. Yes, I chatted with people sitting next to me, but it wasn’t the same as being solo at a blackjack table.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Vegas: Fun for the whole family, sort of

The Five Hundy podcast Facebook page has a rule about not discussing the merits of children in Vegas, as it will never end, and few poeple will change their minds on the topic. I tend not to get heavily vested in such discussions elsewhere for those reasons.

Thie topic came up in another Facebook group discussion recently, and I provided some food for thought to lobbyists on both sides of the aisle. Here's an expanded, edited version of that:

Vegas is not a family-oriented place, yet at the same time there is plenty for families to do in the Vegas area. The Dirty Circus amusement park would not survive if it relied upon adults only, I'm certain.

There are plenty of shows and attractions that are family friendly. Mac King's magic show is a perfect example. And there's nothing adult about the attractions atop the Stratosphere, other than you may need to be with a parent to ride them, or perhaps have more courage than a parent to ride one. The Ethel M (chocolate factory) tour and outdoor gardens couldn't be less about Vegas. The Pinball Hall of Fame is fun for all ages. Plenty of attractions at Excalibur are designed with children in mind.

Is Vegas the first place I'd think to take a child? Hell no. I wouldn't want to explain to my child why there's a giant rolling billboard on the strip showing a hot babe in a tiny outfit, with the promise she can be at my door for just $69. I wouldn't want to parade my child past porn slappers, even if they were to respect the fact I have a child with me and not try to pass off a handbill. (Unlikely.) I wouldn't want my child to see the realities of alcohol and homelessness on display nightly at the Fremont Street Experience, no matter how much fun that zip line appears to be.

Reality: I've stayed at the Orleans and watched plenty of girls young enough to be my daughter walk around the property. They were there, along with their parents, for some sort of big cheerleading competition. I'd rather not see that, but who I am to tell the Orleans how to run its business, or tell the parents where they should or shouldn't travel to spend money on their child's oh-so-important cheerleading competition? There are likely hundreds of youth-oriented events all over the Vegas area, filling casino hotels, each year. Shame on those hotels, they're as guilty as the parents who drag a 1-year-old child through the Orleans food court at 2 a.m. (seen it) and the parents who are walking a 4-year-old child down the strip at 1 a.m. (seen it).

Another reality: Disney parks are designed for kids, and it costs an arm and a leg to spend a day there. Vegas ain't Disney, by a long shot, but I wouldn't be surprised if part of the appeal of Vegas for families is that with planning and care, you can see and do a vareity of things at less of a cost than a trip to Orlando. That doesn't mean people shouldn't take their families to Disney, but I can see reasons why folks would give careful consideration to Vegas as a family vacation destination.

Sad reality: Many folks bring their children to Vegas and don't seem too concerned about what they're exposing them to at an early age. That's because we live in a Jerry Springer society. And that's not going to change.

Yes, some consider it a crime to bring children to Vegas. And for a variety of reasons, people are continually guilty. Likewise those casinos that you love and adore are catering, in some fashion, to those families you loathe. They want you, the hedonistic big spender, and the family of four, to all co-exist on the same property. No, not all casinos, obviously.

I don't usually say much about the topic, which finds its way to forums and message boards on a recurring basis. I'm not smarter or better than any of you. (And I have no children, for what that's worth.) I've obviously thought a lot about both sides of the coin, and can't damn either side.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Paid parking in Vegas: Where are the apples?

I’m like many others, I don’t like paying for something that has been free for decades, especially when there’s no meaningful reason for charging the fee.

Therefore, I’m irked by the idea that casinos along the Vegas strip are charging for parking. I think the MGM conglomerate initially tried to sell the idea that paid parking would offset all sorts of improvements to their parking ramps, etc., but I’m not buying it. It’s simply a cash grab that many people will tolerate, as far as I’m concerned.

The fine folks at the Vital Vegas blog (it's still one guy) pointed out today that paid parking is now in effect at the Cosmopolitan. Everybody else along the strip is in on it, so it's only natural that Cosmo is, too. I'd argue the folks running the Cosmo need to be at this point, otherwise their parking is going to be overrun with cheapskates like me, if it wasn’t already.

Scott, the CEO, editor, reporter and photographer of Vital Vegas, points out that paying for parking is the norm in major cities across the United States. He's right. But his logic is a bit flawed. Here's how:
He wrote, “While parking fees are annoying, they are becoming the norm in Las Vegas, just as they are in other cities.”

I would expect to pay for parking when I go to Harrah's in downtown New Orleans. I would expect to pay for parking if I were to go to one of the downtown St. Louis casinos. I’ve been to both, but I didn’t have a vehicle in my possession during those visits.

I expect to pay for parking in downtown New York. I expect to pay for parking in downtown Chicago. I expect to pay for parking when I go to a Pirates or Steelers game across one of the three rivers in downtown Pittsburgh. I even expect to pay for parking when I go to downtown Toledo, Ohio, for a Mudhens game.

There’s usually adequate parking to accommodate those parking in a major downtown, but it comes at a premium. Downtown New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and many others cities were first developed as the central business district for a trade area, long before people were driving cars, which it seems like about 80 percent of adults do these days. (That’s a wild guess.) I suspect these downtowns weren't developed with the anticipation of thousands of cars flooding in and out of them every day. Ask Mrs. O'Leary, whose cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire of 1871 (allegedly), what a car is. She's tell you it is part of a train.

Downtown New Orleans and downtown St. Louis were established long before they had major casinos, so I expect to pay for parking. A free parking ramp for a downtown casino would a nightmare, without a doubt.

When I go to a Native American-owned casino in Wisconsin, I park for free. Even the one near downtown Milwaukee had free parking the last time I visited years ago. (And it still does.)
Casinos in major downtown areas will need to charge for parking. Free parking in a major downtown, with or without a casino, is hard to come by most days. Casinos built in the middle of nowhere, such as casinos I’ve been to in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota, do not. They’re casinos built away from major downtown districts. When I shop at a suburban Target store, I don’t pay for parking. When I gamble at an outlying casino in the Midwest, I don’t pay for parking.

So how does this apply to Vegas? The casinos on the strip aren’t in a downtown district. Granted, they weren’t nearly as big when they first sprouted up along a desert highway in the 1950s, but they managed to expand and provide parking for decades without much of a problem. Nothing about that has changed in the past two years.

Yes, real estate around the properties is far more expensive, and harder to come by, but there wasn’t exactly a shortage of parking when the fees were instituted, despite the fact millions of people visit the strip each year.

It may be the norm to pay for parking in a downtown district, but applying that logic to the strip casinos, which developed and redeveloped without difficulty thanks to the fact they aren’t in downtown Vegas, is flawed.

Yes, there’s a cost of maintaining the parking ramps, and providing minimal cleaning and security within them. Target stores can maintain their parking lots without charging a fee. Same goes for my grocery store. I’m not convinced the casinos are unable to do so.

Scott makes a good point about parking. We pay for it elsewhere, why let it ruin our trip to Vegas? I agree. And it doesn’t affect me much, as I spend so little time on the strip these days. Fortunately, the casinos I stay at, either off strip or downtown, provide free parking or validated parking for me as a hotel guest. (I typically rent a car in Vegas.)

But his comparison of paying for parking in Chicago versus paying for parking on the Vegas strip is not apples to apples. There’s evidence that people are staying away from strip properties because of the parking fees, but in the end that will wash away, much like the outrage and boycott of casinos that charged “resort fees.”

Whatever fees a casino charges, we need to add it all together and compare it to other cities. Is the cost of a weekend in Vegas a good value for a person driving in from California when the room rate, resort fee and parking fee are added together? Probably when compared to downtown San Francisco.

But we shouldn’t normalize these fees simply because they exist in some other form elsewhere around the country. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How to succeed in business without really trying: SLS edition

If you hang around with enough Vegas rubes, you're bound to hear somebody profess their love for Ellis Island, a small, hole-in-the-wall casino that has two things going for it: Location and affordability.

There is nothing glamorous about Ellis Island. It's reasonably clean, has a decent variety of slot and video poker machines, a few table games, a small sports book and restaurants. It would do just fine as a locals casino three miles from the strip. But tourists from every outpost of the United States will profess their love for it. Why? For starters, it's easily accessible. 

It's not on the strip, but it's a short walk off the strip. It's behind Bally's. That makes it easy for the tourist to access. I'd argue that its location is detrimental to attracting locals, as locals are less inclined to deal with the hassle of going near the strip, typically. There's no shortage of places to gamble, big and small, all over the greater Vegas area. 

But it's just offset enough from the strip that locals frequent the joint. Ellis Island has the best of both worlds, it seems. 

So it has a good location for its modest footprint. And it is a favorite with gamblers near and far for its cheap eats and drinks. 

It's no secret, the 24-hour cafe has some of the cheapest meals you'll find around, and the food is pretty good. And then there's the barbecue joint that's open for dinner only. Great meats at a good price. 

Drinks at the casino bar? Not ridiculous, because the casino bar is nothing trendy or precious. And they brew their own beers, which are always cheap. It's not my favorite micro brew, but they have decent beers, and the price is right. 

Add in frequent food and drink promotions, great incentives and kickbacks for the gamblers and karaoke every night of the week, (the appeal of which I have never understood,) and you have a hopping little casino that shows no sign of slowing down. And they're adding a beer garden.

What does this have to do with SLS? 

I've wondered why nobody with a strip property tries to cater to the downtown crowd. Yes, the Bellagio and its well-coiffed customers are dumping millions per day into the property, and who doesn't want to cater to that crowd? 

I sense that the loss of low-roller joints along the strip have helped drive people downtown. And I've said that Tropicana should find a way to offer the best of both worlds within their classic casino. It won't translate to record profits, but give people a reason to go out of their way, and they will. Brew beers and sell them cheap, a la Ellis Island and downtown's Main Street Station , and people will find their way inside the building. 

Early today the fine folks at vitalvegas.com (it's one guy) reported that SLS, formerly the Sahara, was in a position to be sold. Within hours news broke that it is indeed being sold. Changes are expected at SLS. The name may revert to Sahara, for starters. 

I started this blog in early 2015 when it was announced the Riviera would be closing. I wrote something about the fact that the north end of the strip was basically dead. The Sahara property has never been the epicenter of the strip, and yet it persevered for decades, only to shutter six years ago and re-emerge as the glitzy, isolated SLS a few years later.  

I don't spend much time on the strip, and the fancy new SLS doesn't hold much appeal to me. They put a lot of effort into making it a more upscale, younger skewing destination, and none of that speaks to me. I'm not younger, and there are plenty of places to spend more for a meal than I'd spend at Ellis Island. 

They tried offering entertainment that would attract a young crowd, and I'm not aware that they failed to do so. But that alone doesn't pay the bills. 

Vital Vegas has noted, by tweet I think, that SLS had recently started to market their gambling to locals through some sort of promotional kickback. Locals aren't the most coveted demographic, but given the challenging location, shouldn't enticing the local crowd have been part of the marketing strategy early on? 

It's unreasonable to think that you can run a major casino/hotel in Vegas and expect only the prettiest of the pretty people to darken your doorstep. And if you're on the wrong end of the strip, such as SLS, you'd better find a way to cater to multiple crowds. 

SLS is too big, and too much has been invested, to turn into an oversized Ellis Island. But it's simple economics, I swear. If you accept that plenty of plain folk, like me, don't want a celebrity chef experience while on vacation in Vegas, and can offer them something they can't get everywhere else, such as the barbecue dinner at Ellis Island, you might get them to find their way inside.

Give me, and many people like me some other incentives to spend a few hours, such as plentiful $5 table games, (which I can find off the strip at Orleans, for example,) and reasonable drinks that aren't "crafted" by a bartender, and suddenly I'll be getting discounted room offers to stay at SLS during a future trip, which I'm likely to accept. Happily. 

How do you think the Orleans earned my loyalty? 

SLS is never going to have the benefit of location. It will be decades before we see a continuous line of developed properties reaching SLS, and probably not in my lifetime. 

Without the benefit of proximity to Bally's, the solution is obvious, give gamblers a reason to show up, and give them a reason to stay, whether they're the young, EDM loving crowd (for those too old to know, EDM=noise) or the Ellis Island loving gamblers that kept the Sahara afloat during its final years. 

Bellagio ain't going to offer a $13.99 barbecue plate in any of their restaurants. And Ellis Island isn't going to serve an $18 handcrafted cocktail any time soon.

The future of SLS shouldn't be an either/or proposition. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Could Vegas casinos go dry?

It seems unlikely that we'll see a day when comped cocktails at Vegas casinos are no longer a thing. But the booze doesn't flow as easily as it use to.

We are in an era where casinos are using technology to monitor your gambling and dictate when you are permitted a comped drink. Some folks have shared stories suggesting that it's not a big deal if you're serious about gambling.

We're also in an era where most comped cocktails are made with cheap, generic liquor rather than quality products you buy at the liquor store.

And to top it off, people are increasingly willing to pay obscene amounts for craft cocktails from bartenders who allegedly have an art degree of some kind. If people are willing to fork over more than a McDonald's employee earns in an hour for one single-shot mixed drink, why not bleed everyone and his sister when it comes to passing out drinks around the bar?

Perhaps the day will come when gamblers will pay the low, low price of $2 for a beer at the blackjack table. I'm not entirely convinced.

The following is an edited version of a comment I made on Facebook regarding the suggestion that free drinks may be drying up in Vegas casinos. (I have a bad habit of writing short novels when I contribute to a Facebook discussion. I need to stop doing that.)

--------------------------------------------------------

I can't imagine all free drinks being cut off for all gamblers any time soon. The casinos will become more stingy down the road, but c'mon, that "Captain" they're serving to the $5 blackjack player downtown ain't costing the casino much money, especially since they're serving Admiral Nelson in place of the Captain.

If they ever get to the point where they stop serving free booze, the casinos might as well pull out the gambling and start offering more beer pong for the millenials. Plenty of people don't drink when they gamble, but the end of complimentary cocktails will essentially be telling gamblers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and everywhere else not to bother bringing their gambling dollars to Nevada.

The end of free drinks will be the nail in the coffin people profess is coming. Paid parking isn't helping drive traffic, fake fees and taxes at bars on the strip aren't helping drive traffic and the erosion of modest, low-cost meals at casinos isn't helping drive traffic. For every person who wants to pay extra for everything on vacation, including $50 a plate for dinner, there are two other people who won't.

Can Vegas price out the low roller and survive? The strip properties seem determined to find out. (I keep trying to tell the folks at Tropicana that they need to counter this mentality, but they won't listen.)

And by low roller, I don't mean cheap people who won't spend a buck. I spend plenty in Sin City when I travel, but I'm not interested in paying $18 for a precious cocktail "crafted" by a millenial, or being gouged other ways just because I'm on vacation and I'm not supposed to care about money.

There's a reason why business is as good as I've seen it downtown during the past 20 years, and it ain't that awful Imagine Dragons skit high above the pedestrian mall that's putting asses in the video poker seats.