Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What happened to the Vegas we loved?

It's summer, and I biked 27 miles earlier this evening. How I love the 9 p.m. sunsets in Minneapolis. We get them for a few weeks of they year, and I take advantage of them. I have things I want to write, and will, even if it kills me. For now, here's my attempt at polishing an idea I started a few months ago, but shelved. It lacks keen insight, but here it is nonetheless.

Why do we pine for the days of yesteryear? The simple answer is that it is in our DNA to do so.

I've been going to Vegas since January 1997. I've seen a lot change in nearly two decades, but the evolution of mega-resorts on the Las Vegas strip was already underway. My first trip included three nights at the enormous MGM.

I can cite a lot of changes in Vegas over the 19 years I've been visiting Sin City. I no longer stay on the strip, and my bankroll hasn't grown as much as I'd like given two decades of professional employment.

I follow a few Vegas conversation resources, and one thing that caught my attention was a discussion on the Facebook page for the "Five Hundy by Midnight" podcast. 

A gentleman by the name of Bob Smith wrote the following: 

Last week, Tim & Michelle spent some time talking about how change is a constant in Vegas and how many of us believe it was a better experience when we first took it in, whether that was 10, 20 or 40 years ago. The comparison Tim used was how most of us think the best music happened to arrive in our teens and early 20's. That's a very valid point. However, when it comes to recent changes, there's nothing nostalgic about assessing better vs. worse.

Resort Fees: inarguably worse
6:5 blackjack: ditto
MGM parking fees: yep
Double odds at Wynn craps: worse
Reduced video poker pay tables: not better
Early check-in & related random fees: bad

Those are just off the top of my head. Yes, those who say Vegas was better "when the mob ran the town" may be indulging in nostalgic revisionism, and it makes for an interesting discussion. However, the steady march toward squeezing nickels and dimes out of every visitor is a different matter entirely. Many (most?) of the items listed above have taken hold in just the past decade. It has rapidly and permanently changed the Vegas experience for the worse. We can try to avoid these fees and gaming odds adjustments and we should. But in time, all the Strip & Downtown casinos will almost certainly fall in line, as they have with resort fees. Yes, we'll still visit Vegas on a regular basis, but with an increasingly jaded eye. Better or worse? Mostly, it's really just sad. 

I took a few economics classes in college, and I use to be really good at math. A long time ago. So here's a layman's analysis of why the good old days that Smith spoke of have gone by the wayside. 

In the 1980s Vegas had a huge advantage over the rest of the country, it was the place to go for gambling. Yes, there was Reno, and Atlantic City's casino industry was trying to put a dent into the Vegas experience, but for the most part, Vegas was a magical destination like no other. We like to think of it as a Disney World for adults. 

The thrill of hitting it big at a slot machine couldn't be matched locally, at least here in Minnesota, where I live. Gambling just wasn't a part of our day-to-day life here in the Midwest. I remember churches would occasionally run some forms of gambling under the guise of a church festival, designed to make money for the parish... and why not? Isn't that how God wants a church to be funded?

But gambling here in Minnesota, and certainly other parts of the country, began to change in the 1980s. The 1980s brought parimutuel betting to Minnesota. The poor man's Churchill Downs gave degenerate gamblers a place to prove reading the Daily Racing Form was a sweet science. During the 1990s our neighbors to the east, Wisconsin, had a handful of dog tracks for the same purpose, including one less than 30 minutes from St. Paul, one of our celebrated Twin Cities.

Lotteries weren't unheard of in the '80s, but we didn't have them in Minnesota until the late 1980s, or perhaps early 1990s. I'm quite sure Wisconsin beat us to the lottery game by a year or three, but nonetheless, both states climbed aboard that train, turning just about every gas station into a neighborhood casino. Do lottery games replace the thrill of the craps table? Not by a long shot, but suddenly there was a way to turn $1 into $100, even if the odds were lousy.

I didn't go to bars in the '80s, but at some point bars became places to gamble, under the guise of "charitable gambling," at least here in Minnesota. It's amazing how many bars host a pull-tab operation, which pays rent for its space within the bar, and an hourly wage to employees, all in an effort to make money for a nonprofit entity. 

Pull tabs are basically slot machine games played with small cardboard game pieces. (I have no idea how prevalent pull tabs are nationwide, but I assume plenty of states have them in their bars.) In the past few years pull tab proprietors in Minnesota have been able to offer the games electronically, using a tablet that players are given at the time of their purchase. 

Pull tab gaming seems to be profitable at many bars across Minnesota, even though the games seem to offer less than spectacular odds for the player. 

All of those things have made gambling a part of life in the Midwest, but as we know, the expansion of the casino industry across the United States has provided many of us from coast to coast with a taste of Vegas, sans the airfare.

In Minnesota we have plenty of tribal-owned casinos scattered across the state. Most of us live within one hour of a casino. They emerged in the early 1990s, much like other tribal casinos across the country. Minnesota doesn't allow our casinos to offer live craps or roulette, but you can get those in our neighboring states, for they have casinos, too. (I'm too lazy to research if the casinos in our neighboring states are all tribal entities. I get a sense the answer is "no" in Iowa.)

Once upon a time playing casino blackjack was a privilege, one frequently enjoyed in Vegas. I've been to casinos in California, Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, and in some cases my appearance was simply because it was convenient to drop in and survey the scene, not because I had an itch to gamble. I ate at the Hollywood Casino in Toledo, Ohio, and never gambled a dime.

Three of the six points Bob wrote about above were diminished gaming conditions in Vegas. You'd think that Vegas would want to be offer better gaming odds to attract people who can opt instead to spend a weekend at a fancy tribal casino closer to home and save the cost of airfare. But better odds aren't enough to trump the tribal casinos, evidently, so instead of offering better odds to Vegas visitors, the tourist casinos are looking at how to squeeze more out of every dollar wagered, any little way they can. The casinos are no different than most other American businesses. When your profits start to decrease, find ways to make it up, be it at the expense of your customers or your employees.

The expansion of the casino industry, and other forms of gambling, denied future generations the thrill of Vegas, at least when it comes to winning or losing your paycheck.

Plenty of people come to Vegas for conventions, sightseeing and hedonistic ambitions, and plenty of those people will gamble. But reports over the years have illustrated how the gaming portion of the casinos is now part of a multi-faceted effort to turn a profit. Gaming is no longer king, and rather than make gambling more enticing with better odds, the casinos have finally accepted that they're attracting customers who grew up with casinos in their backyards, and don't get the same thrill their parents or grandparents got from a trip to Vegas.

Enough people don't care, or know better, so they accept 6:5 blackjack or reduced video poker pay tables. And those reduced payouts are due, in part, to the fact that the casino industry is now raising generations of gamblers across the country.

Vegas has lost its luster as a gambling mecca, and the deteriorating conditions we see today are a result of that.

As for resort fees, that's obviously the result of the Internet. As has been discussed many times in the online world, resort fees are a shell game the casinos play in order to minimize the commissions paid to third-party booking services.

Regarding the other points Smith made, about parking and other fees, those go hand-in-hand with diminished gambling conditions. They're ways to squeeze more cash out of the tourist.

I'm not sure how many casinos around the United States charge for parking, but I'm guessing many don't. Casinos located in downtown districts, such as New Orleans and St. Louis, might not have free parking because the real estate is expensive and in high demand. But you won't find a casino or race track in Minnesota that charges for general parking. They may charge for valet parking, but free parking is still the norm.

Will people stop going to Vegas because of the cost of parking? Heck no. Some will change their plans because of the cost of parking, but no particular fee is likely to drive people away. Give people enough reasons and they'll throw in the towel, but new generations are awaiting their turn at the adult playground, and they won't scoff at throwing away a portion of that disposable income for a parking space, especially those who have $1,000 or more budgets for their weekend at the ultra lounges.

How would Vegas be different today if our country had never gone casino crazy and had never given tribes the keys to the casino industry? (It's not quite that simple, but we'll leave it at that for now.) If the gambling landscape of 2016 was similar to the landscape of 1976, would Vegas casinos be turning the screws on its gamblers and hotel guests?

Perhaps, but not to the degree we see today. Our nation's love affair with gambling has taken something from Vegas that Vegas will never get back: cachet.

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