Thursday, February 26, 2015

The $7,000 mistake

I'm too tired to write anything that requires critical thinking, so here's a simple tale from a night of gambling many years ago:

I don't remember much about this specific trip, but I remember I was at the Tropicana, playing roulette. I'm not a high stakes gambler, and I probably hadn't played much roulette in my life, but I knew the basics, I knew the payouts, I kept it simple. 

There were several of us gathered around a table, minding our own business. A guy, dressed up rather nicely, comes to the table with a lovely young woman in tow. She's dressed quite nicely, too. They didn't look like newlyweds, but they were overdressed for the low stakes game the rest of us were playing at the Tropicana. I think he was wearing a tux on this occasion.

He had $200 in cash – two $100 bills – and he placed them on the 3. He told the croupier that he wanted to bet the cash on the number, but the phrasing of his comment confused her. The woman was probably born in another country, but she didn't have trouble communicating or doing her job. She did just fine. It was something about the way he phrased his play that confused her. 

I was certain he was trying to say he wanted to make a cash wager on the number, and the way he placed his money on the felt convinced me of it. Even though he wanted to make a straight bet on the 3, he used a term (I don't remember what) that suggested he wanted to make some other type of bet. The croupier's confusion between his requested bet and his cash play resulted in her pulling the ball from the wheel. It had been spinning above the wheel when he walked up to our table, and with the croupier unable to understand his intended bet, she stopped the ball before it had a chance to drop down onto the wheel. 

The man, incensed by her action, grabbed his $200 from the table, tugged his lovely young companion by the hand and off they went. He verbally expressed his frustration as he did this. Nothing profane, he was simply irritated and made it known. All the while his female companion seemed a bit aloof and oblivious to the episode. 

All of us at the table looked at each other, equally dumbfounded by what just took place. We soon went back to our business and play resumed, the brash young roulette player nowhere to be seen.

Sure enough, the very next spin is 3 red. I don't think any of us made a special effort to bet the 3 after the guy stormed off with his $200, but we quickly realized that his premonition had come true and proceeded to look at each other, dumbfounded again.

I'm not sure how many people drop $200 on a straight roulette bet at the Tropicana, and perhaps the $7,000 payday would have been a drop in his proverbial bucket. 

This story probably dates back 15 years or more. I'm not sure about the rest of the players at my table, but clearly I never forgot this guy, his lovely young companion and the $7,000 windfall he walked away from. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Vegas future most of us never think about

Vegas visitors love to know what the latest development is at their favorite casinos.

Is there a new restaurant? Is there a new off-the-menu special at the 24-hour cafe? Is there a new show in the casino's theater? Is there a new club charging obscene amounts for the privilege of consuming alcohol while enjoying the thumping beats of an overpaid DJ?

And how do we find out most of this information when we live outside of Nevada? Thank you, Al Gore, for inventing the Internet.

My first trip to Vegas was in January 1997. I arrived in town 363 days before I would acquire my first cellphone. There was an Internet back then, but it was in its infancy. Most of us never dreamed we'd soon be perusing countless websites looking for the best Vegas deals and tips for our upcoming trip.

That was 18 years ago, which is not exactly a lifetime ago for most of us.

Back in 1997 it wasn't easy to access news and information about Vegas. Prior to my first trip, a co-worker brought back one or two of the tourist magazines from her trip. I don't remember two things about those magazines. I remember but one thing. An ad for a hair salon called "A Little Off the Top," promising haircuts from women in lingerie. No, I didn't go, but the concept struck me as hilarious. (It's long gone, I am certain, but this webpage would lead you to believe it still exists. Perhaps it has been reincarnated. A LITTLE OFF THE TOP. And yes, I'm aware a similar concept was tried inside the Plaza. I think it failed, too.)

We take for granted the fact that we can access all sorts of information, all the time, through an Internet connection. It wasn't always that easy.

Once upon a time we relied upon newspapers to deliver all sorts of information. My family never purchased TV Guide magazine, but the free TV guide in our Sunday newspaper found its way to the television every single week. Several years ago my Sunday paper stopped including the publication as part of your Sunday paper purchase, although it started selling a version of it, delivered with your Sunday paper. I can't tell you the last time I relied upon a newspaper for TV listings.

Newspapers have a harder time finding readers to pick up copies of their ink-stained pulp these days. My buddy commutes to work via the choo-choo train every weekday, and he reads a book. An old-fashioned book. Most people on the train opt for their cellphone or electronic tablet to occupy their time, he said. It's unusual to see somebody reading a newspaper, he noted.

The decline in readership of printed newspapers has had a chilling effect on our traditional news sources. That's not a secret. Newspapers don't make money off of the sale of single copies. That Sunday revenue is a nice drop in the bucket, but newspapers have long relied upon the advertising dollars to rake in the big bucks.

Twenty years ago my Sunday newspaper carried multiple sections of classified advertisements, and that was just the "help wanted" ads. There were many significant, colorful ads from car dealerships and real estate agencies, too. Today there's a fraction of those ads. That's millions, upon millions, of dollars that has been lost, and it's never coming back.

Newspapers serve the public good, but they're not government agencies or nonprofit organizations, for the most part. They're no different than the grocery stores, liquor stores, bars and casinos across Vegas. They exist to make money for those who invest in the infrastructure necessary to print them. As profits have fallen off the past 15 years, companies have tried to find ways to recapture the lost advertising revenue, and have reduced staffing in the non-revenue editorial department in order to hang onto an ounce of profitability.

Newspapers need to make a profit. Nobody invests millions of dollars into a newspaper operation in order to break even. And profitability is necessary in order to finance capital investments that ensure a newspaper's long-term viability.

I'm no financial wizard, but the recent news that the Las Vegas Review-Journal's parent company is being sold didn't exactly instill confidence in me that there's a long-term future for newspapers as we know them.

I've seen differing estimates of the population of the greater Vegas area, and I was disappointed to read in the sale of the Review-Journal that its Sunday circulation is 184,000. That seems low to me. Perhaps it's a decent Sunday circulation, but I would have bet the circulation was more than 200,000.

The article notes that the newspaper's Web site receives 10.5 million page views per month. That sounds like a lot, but one person could be responsible for 10 page views per day, multiple times per month. And plenty of those page views are going to be brief scans of headlines, and plenty of them will be by readers far from the Vegas strip. That's an important distinction.

Millions of monthly page views sounds impressive, but if the page views are free, you're not making money off of the newspaper's content. The solution is to sell advertising on the Web site, of course. As I noted, I'm no business genius, but I do know one thing, the revenue garnered by online ads is a drop in the bucket compared to the revenue generated by ads in the paper and inserts from local grocery and department stores in the Sunday paper.

There was a time when Blockbuster was a huge national chain, renting thousands of movies per day across the country. As DVDs became the dominant format for movies, Blockbuster adapted. Netflix came along and challenged Blockbuster, using a different business model. It worked, to a point, but Netflix didn't blow up until its streaming video service became a prominent part of its business model. Blockbuster never quite made the transition. The company attempted to diversify by offering a rental model similar to Netflix, and eventually it tried its hand at streaming video, but it was too little, too late. Consumers had moved on and Blockbuster ultimately went bankrupt. Today there's a few independent locations still in business across the country, reportedly, but the company is otherwise a footnote in retail history.

Just as there were video rental stores dotting the landscape of America 18 years ago, you could find pay phones in every bar, restaurant, movie theater and shopping mall. There are still pay phones, but they don't dot the urban landscape like they use to. A couple of years ago I was stunned to see a couple of them tucked away in an unusual location inside Mall of America. They use to be all over the mall.

Times change, and some industries are destined to die due to advances in technology or changing consumer preferences. Newspapers are not immune to that.

Several years ago it seemed like major newspapers were dropping like flies. The plague seemed to come to an end, but we've rapidly advanced as a society, to the point where many of us are carrying around micro-computers in our pockets. We no longer need a computer to read articles from the daily paper, we can do it on the city bus, and we don't need a wi-fi connection to do it.

The Review-Journal and it sister publications, seven other daily newspapers and 65 weekly publications in seven states, were sold for $102.5 million. I have no idea if the previous ownership was up to its eyeballs in debt or what kind of infrastructure is included in the sale. All I do know is that the sale price for all those publications seems extremely low. That suggests to me that most of them are not very profitable. And there's no reason to think their revenue is going to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Perhaps a bare bones version of the might newspaper will survive in major cities across the country. I'm skeptical. As profits dwindle there will be fewer buyers looking to invest in a dying industry. And the sale of the Review-Journal affirms my opinion.

And don't kid yourself, newspapers won't simply cease printing newspapers and switch to an online-only entity. If you want comprehensive crime, political, education and environmental reporting in a major metropolitan area, you need a substantial staff to produce it. Without a significant revenue stream to cover that cost, an online media outlet will provide a fraction of what daily newspapers are providing today.

Most Vegas tourists aren't concerned about the long-term viability of a daily newspaper in Vegas, and that's understandable. But newspapers have played an important role in their communities for generations. We'll survive without them, but our community won't be better without them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Who has Vegas insight?

To be honest, I don't have a ton of Vegas Insight.

Friends turn to me for suggestions and information about Las Vegas, as they know I've been there many times. But I don't have any special insight.

I needed a title for a blog, and I wanted something that wasn't as generic as "Vegas Talk." So after two minutes of careful deliberation, I came up with "Vegas Insight." When I found out the Twitter handle was available, I knew I had my blog's name, even if it's a bit of a misnomer.

Here's a brief biography of me and a general description of what I intend to do with my blog:

I'm a 40-something guy from Minnesota. I'm not anonymous, but it really doesn't matter what my name is for the purpose of this blog, at least not yet. Once I set the world on fire and media outlets want to profile me, my name might matter.

I have been to Vegas about 30 times since I first visited in January 1997. I use to keep a list of each trip, by month and year, and who I traveled with. I wish I had a better summary of my trips, it would be a lot of fun to look back now and then. I've written an occasional trip report for an online message forum or two over the years, but I don't make a habit of it. When I do write a trip report it's usually detailed, and devoid of glamorous, outrageous stories.

I don't spend much time on the strip, I have modest means, I'm not particularly skilled at gaming the casinos for comps and I don't have any connections that afford me VIP treatment when I'm in Vegas. I'm sure I'll write a lot about my experiences and memories in future blog installments.

I have participated in a few message forums in the past, and I will mine them for information when I'm preparing for a trip, but I've tired of contributing to them, for the most part. I haven't tired of writing, it's what I do for a living, a meager living, really, but it's all I know. I simply reached a point where I keep tabs on Vegas with some degree of regularity, and decided I needed a place to share opinions about the things I'm reading. And when I'm inspired to share a memory or story, I'll do that, too.

I've seen the Internet evolve over the past 15+ years and I know enough to know that it takes something special to make money with an online presence. I have no desire to try to turn a blog into a revenue stream. I'd be happy to accept cash in exchange for advertising, but it doesn't happen with a simple blog offering occasional commentary on events in Vegas from a guy who lives 1,500 miles away.

I'm not sure how often I'll write, but it won't be daily, or regularly. Winters in Minnesota are typically cold. Summers in Minnesota are too short, and I enjoy bicycling, and pushing myself to bicycle hundreds of miles each season. I'll write in the summer, as well as the winter, but my output will be sporadic. I expect I'll write something at least once a week, and possibly several times a week when it's cold, but this blog isn't going to be Vegas Chatter, my current favorite site for Vegas news and information. I've been reading that site for a while now, and it's the only Vegas site I turn to on a daily basis. But I do hope to expand my base of Vegas knowledge in searching for Vegas news to comment upon. When it comes to traditional news sources in Vegas, I gravitate to the Las Vegas Sun, even though it's small in comparison to the Review-Journal. Thanks to Roku I watch a few news reports each month courtesy of 8 News Now.

I write purely for the joy of writing. Some people spend an hour playing Xbox games at night. I love pinball, and I grew up playing video games, so I'd love to have time to play online and/or video games at this point in my life, but that's not a priority. I would rather spend an hour writing than trying to master a complex video game, and this blog is my latest outlet. (It's not my first, but that's another story, and not one I'm going to get into.) If I attract readers who care enough to comment, all the better. And thanks in advance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Welcome to Vegas Insight, goodbye Riviera

Welcome to my blog, a collection of commentaries and reactions to news and information emanating from one of America's great playgrounds, Las Vegas!

More about me in the days to come. Today I want to jump right into the hot topic in Vegas this week.

For the past few days there has been plenty of discussion about the future of the Riviera. The good folks at Vegas Chatter, my primary source for Vegas news, have posted information three times during the past couple of days about the future of the casino. The latest post is a confirmation that the casino is being sold and demolished as part of a plan to significantly expand the footprint of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The expansion would allow the convention center to attract far more convention business, and have a presence directly on the strip. It sounds like a great opportunity for the folks in the convention business. Chances are it'll be a huge shot in the arm for the north end of the strip, too.

Like most major business transactions, this isn't a done deal, although it's being reported as if it's as good as a done deal. Assuming so, Vegas will lose one of its classic casinos. Unlike the Sahara up the street, which ended its long run a few years ago and was revitalized with a major facelift that has underperformed by most expectations in its infancy, the Riviera will be whitewashed completely from the Vegas landscape. (Given how often I read comments bemoaning the SLS – the new incarnation of the Sahara – perhaps those who long for the Sahara's heyday would prefer if that property had been imploded.)

There's nothing sexy, or glamorous, about being the old, affordable casino property on the strip. There's a market for affordability and clean hotel rooms without bells and whistles, but that doesn't seem to play well on the strip. Old hotels can be overhauled and turned into high-end destinations, but that wouldn't be enough to draw the masses, and whales with deep pockets, to the Riviera. The Riviera has always been the symbolic end of the line when it comes to casino action on the north end. Yes, the former Sahara and the Stratosphere are further north, and not so far that walking to them is out of the question, but they don't have the convenience factor that MGM offers to guests of the Tropicana, and vice versa.

Yes, Circus Circus is across the street from the Riviera. It draws tourists for a variety of reasons. It benefits from being on the strip, of course, but I've never believed its location was crucial to its success. Circus Circus certainly benefits from having a major casino across the street, and vice versa, but these bastions of old school Vegas aren't must-see destinations for many tourists. Circus Circus has its uniqueness and a clientele that nobody else on the strip seems to have. The Riviera, on the other hand, is just a tired, played out casino that doesn't try very hard. It doesn't give the Vegas visitor a lot of incentive to visit the north end of the strip.

In recent years the Riviera lost a lot of its compatriots. The small, unspectacular Westward Ho attracted budget-minded gamblers, albeit not by the millions. Nonetheless the Riviera was the fancy alternative when the Ho crowd needed a change of pace. And if the Ho crowd wasn't in the mood to cross the street, all that crowd needed to do was go next door to the Stardust, a casino property with a similar resume to the Riviera. A major property like Stardust wasn't going to spill over substantially to the Riviera, or draw the masses to the northern end of the strip, but it wasn't going to hurt traffic on the north end. More people inevitably means more business. Unfortunately for the Riviera, those kindred casinos have been gone for several years.

And not too far south of Stardust was the Frontier, another unpretentious old school casino that drew customers similar in ideology to Stardust and the Riviera. It's gone too, and there's no Wynn or Encore that have replaced them. There are fewer reasons to head north of Wynn/Encore than there use to be.

For the past several years the Riviera has increasingly become an island unto itself. With its pending closure, Circus Circus lays claim to the island. And Slots A Fun doesn't count since it's owned by Circus Circus, and everything fun about that little casino has been choked out of it over the past 10 years, unless you came to Vegas to play beer pong in a dingy little game room devoid of atmosphere.

I think Circus Circus will survive on that island if the Riviera does indeed close down. And as much as we hate to see tired old properties die an unspectacular death, in the long run this may be what the north end of the strip needs.

Closing and tearing down the Riviera in and of itself wouldn't do anything for the north end of the strip, but having a major convention center space on the strip at this location will increase demand for lodging nearby. That's good news for Circus Circus, (although not necessarily good for its loyal customers.) And once that new convention center space is operational, developers will be trying to shoehorn anything and everything they can into the north strip area.

Perhaps that won't mean any new casinos, but there's a shell of a casino hotel towering next to the Riviera (Fountainebleau Las Vegas) with nearly 4,000 unfinished rooms. Perhaps we'll finally see that project emerge from bankruptcy. And it's only a matter of time before Resorts World Las Vegas – the newest plan for a casino where the Stardust once stood – finally takes shape. Perhaps news of a new convention center extension will hasten the construction of Resorts World.

Progress never comes fast enough, and saying goodbye to a historic casino in Vegas history is always a sad day. But given the current landscape, selling of the Riviera to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority seems like the best possible outcome.