Tuesday, December 05, 2006

When it comes to my money, what goes to Vegas, stays in Vegas.

I’m way too jetlagged to return to the nominal topic of this blog, so I thought I’d vamp by offering a few impressions of Las Vegas*, a city I hadn’t visited since 1995. Inasmuch as anyone can have a bad day, in most cases I’m not naming names when it comes to the individuals or hotels at the heart of these anecdotes and observations. But they know who they are. Not that any of them is apt to read this blog, or even care one way or the other.

For a town that owes its very identity to an industry with the word hospitality in its name, Las Vegas bestowed very little of it on me.
I did succeed at prying some TLC loose from supervisory types,
but the rank-and-file workers with whom I dealt were—to a man/woman—rude, rushed and even resentful, though I can't imagine what they could have been resentful about except that their jobs forced them to interact with guests and paying customers. A typical occurrence: One night my wife and I stood in front of the Mrs. Fields Cookies concession in a very pricy hotel, surveying the extensive menu. (Mrs. Fields ain’t just cookies anymore.) After mere seconds the counter-lady said “Can I help you?” in a tone of voice that really would've been more appropriate to the question, “Can I spit on you?” But I held myself in check (this was early on, and became progressively less true as the week continued), replying good-naturedly, “Wow, there’s a lot to look at here. We’re just going to take a moment to absorb the menu, OK?” Frowning, she disappeared into the recesses of the food-preparation area for about eight full minutes. That is a great deal of time when people are standing at your counter. When I finally called in after her, she said, even more sarcastically than before, “Oh, I was just giving you time to absorb the menu.” HELPFUL NOTE to job-seekers: If you dislike people, or can’t stand waiting on them, then you should probably avoid accepting employment where you’re obliged to cater to people's needs. (The relevance of this vignette, as well as the preceding caveat, extends far beyond Vegas, of course, and applies to just about every teenager working in fast food.)

“Hey... What if we gave Disney $50 billion or so to design an actual working city…!”
You don’t have to have visited Las Vegas in recent years to know that the town has gone luxe in a big, big way. Still, the change is hard to fully appreciate without experiencing it first-hand. The public spaces of many of the newer hotels—the Venetian and Mandalay Bay come to mind—are so cavernous that if you had to traverse a similar distance in most actual cities, you’d consider taking a cab. Comfortable shoes are a must. (Permit me the mild crudeness, but I had to laug
h my ass off at the high-born women trying to negotiate some of the cobblestone streets in stiletto heels. The only ones who seemed to manage it well enough were the obvious rent-a-babes**, who, one assumes, have had a lot of practice walking those streets, as it were.) The hotels themselves are breathtaking in the scope of the themed illusions they work so hard to create and sustain: the Venetian, with its careful evocation of the famed canal city; the Bellagio, with its wider lens on Italianate design; Paris, with its presentation of, well, Paris; New York, New York, with its painstaking recreation of a city-in-miniature, faithful right down to the Greenwich Village street scene, whose sights, sounds and smells are eerily real. Overall, it’s a huge sensory spectacle…. It’s just that at a certain point I wonder: All that marble and all that art and all those arches and all those gondoliers crooning love songs as they pilot their watercrafts through the hotel’s interior waterways beneath ever-changing, achingly brilliant (faux) Mediterranean skies… Is it really worth paying six bucks for an iced tea? I’m just askin’. Which brings me to:

Nothing is included. Everything is extra.

Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, either, Vegas was a relatively cheap getaway. Because the massive revenue and tax base generated by the gaming industry supported just about everything else in town (and half the state as well), you could get a room and show for $49; the best steak-and-lobster buffets in the city could be had for $5.99. Now $49 barely covers the incidentals many hotels add to the basic room rate (i.e. the rate you thought you agreed upon) just because, well, they can. The buffets, meanwhile, average around $17 (more like $25 in the newer top-end hostelries). Yet that still isn’t enough, apparently. The materials promoting the Monte Carlo, one of the hotels in which I stayed, said a full gym and business center were “on premises.” And they were. Only, they cost $22 and $25 a day, respectively, to use. I checked around and it was the same story everywhere. Outside Vegas, I've stayed in all kinds of hotels over the past decade, from budget to big-budget, and I’ve rarely been charged so much as a dime for using the gyms and business centers. Which brings us to:

Together, we can save our planet. (Or at least our profit margin.)
The first part, i.e. sans the parentheses, was the upbeat inscription on a placard left in my bathroom in one hotel—not a new-generation glam-fest, but a Strip mainstay and hardly a Motel 6. The placard went on to explain that the hotel hoped to conserve water and spew less detergent waste into the ecosphere by changing my bed linens every other day, unless I specifically objected. Fair enough. Now, would that also explain why most of a spaghetti dinner, including quite probably the largest meatball ever made, lay in plain sight on the carpet, next to the elevator bank on my floor, for an entire day? (I like to assume it fell off a room-service plate; that is the most beni
gn explanation, and the one I much prefer, compared to other possibilities.) Methinks the operative concept here is not environmentalism but something more like “saving money on housekeeping” and “cutting staff levels to the point where you can’t really deliver optimal customer service anyway.”

In one respect, however, the New Vegas is still the Old Vegas.
You can’t walk more than 50 yards down any given stretch of The Strip without some dude extending himself part-way into your path and thrusting a small brochure in your face. Most of these brochures read more or less as follows: BEAUTIFUL NUDE MODELS, DIRECT TO YOUR HOTEL ROOM! 24 HOURS A DAY! Rest assured, this is not a euphemistic way of s
oliciting for prostitution, because that would be illegal (yes, even in Vegas, contrary to what many people think) and I’m sure that any of the beautiful girls who show up at your hotel room to model for you at 3 a.m., nude, would be grievously offended if you even suggested such a thing! (How do they get away with this?)

I am the worst gambler ever born.
In truth, I am worse with money than anyone I know,
gambling being just one aspect of the malaise. Seriously, it is laughable. “Playing the slots,” in my case, consists of deciding on what denomination bill*** I’m going to contribute to the casino’s bottom line, allowing the slot machine's intake mechanism to suck the bill in, then dutifully pulling the arm that spins the wheels, turn after turn until the money is gone. Poof, just like that. I have watched other people, including some in my family, build an entire evening of gambling fun around a single $20 bill. Ha! A twenty lasts me maybe 10 minutes, on a quarter machine. If I hit anything at all, it’s just those damn cherries in the first line, gaining me back a few quarters and thus prolonging my inexorable march to insolvency by 30 seconds.

I should not ever go to a place like Las Vegas. But my grandson is there now, and we are the very bestest of buddies. So I get on the plane....

* Which is fitting anyway, Vegas being the impressionist capital of the world.
** Let me be clear: We’re not talking about hookers in the classic, Times Square sense. We’re talking about women who look like Pam Anderson, complete with silicone, and command upwards of $1000 a night for their services; those services include hanging on some gray-haired CEO's arm as he shops, laughing at his stupid jokes during dinner, being seen with him in the first few rows of Wayne Newton’s holiday extravaganza, etc. Heavy on the etc.
*** Sadly, the traditional slot machine that accepted and dispensed actual coins is fast going the way of the push-mower. Nowadays almost all slots operate on vouchers that you insert and then—assuming you’ve won something—redeem at ATM-like machines distributed throughout the casino. Gone is that delightfully frenetic plinking sound that I used to hear around me when other gamblers hit the four red 7s. Damn them...


INCIDENTALLY, the piece on life-coaching for which I gave an extended interview to Maclean's (Canada's answer to Time or Newsweek) is finally out this week. I'm not especially overjoyed with what the writer chose to quote, out of all the material I gave her to work with. But then, neither was Selina Glater. You see, Selina? It happens to us all....


Anonymous said...

Classic! A coworker once told me (to my horror) that she and her family loved going to Vegas for vacations because of the free food at all the casinos. I don't know whether to be glad or relieved that that's no longer the case, but I agree with you that it's a crime that the slot machines have gone electronic--what's the point of that?!!

Cosmic Connie said...

Glad you're back, Steve. Sorry to hear about the changes in Vegas (I haven't been there since the early '90s). But I love the pic of you and your bestest bud.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, I'm glad you're back, and I think I actually found much in this latest post of yours that is on point for SHAMblog. It's a question of identity: how did the people in Vegas who are willing to spend so much more than they have to (for a glass of iced tea or whatever) come to define themselves as they did? You wonder, does it mean so much to them to bathe in "luxe", and be surrounded by others who are willing to do likewise, that they'll knowingly overpay for just about everything in the process? Just to keep that overblown self-image going? And be willing to put up with the lousy service in the process? I think it's a good point.

a/good/lysstener said...

And I second Connie's motion, you look adorable with your grandson!

Cosmic Connie said...

And you make a good point too, Alyssa. I have to wonder how it affects people's self-image to pay so much more for the "luxe," and yet be treated like crap by the folks who are delivering the overpriced goods and services.

And in the world of SHAM, you have to wonder about folks who pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a personal-growth workshop where part of the "growth" process is to be humiliated or at least put uncomfortably on the spot in front of a room full of people.

Anyhow, Steve, for a jet-lagged guy, you delivered a pretty entertaining and informative piece.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you all, especially for the feedback on my (grand)son. Watching his mother get him settled in his car seat for the drive to Vegas was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life (especially since it harkened back, as some of you know, to the loss of an earlier grandchild, Sophia, with whom I also had a very special bond. I wrote about that episode of my life for the July 2002 issue of Good Housekeeping).

And now I find that I must sleep....

Anonymous said...

Again I am amazed sometimes at how you turn positives into negatives, or is that your overall goal in life? I just got back from Vegas a few weeks ago and walked those same cobblestone streets and saw the same sites you describe and never gave a thought to any of this crap you bring up here. Which is to say I just relaxed and took it all in and ENJOYED MYSELF! (So you spend a few bucks for an ice tea, you're on vacation fella!) You ought to try it sometime Steve, who knows you might even like it. Then again, probably not.

Cosmic Connie said...

Well, when it comes right down to it, I know that the Rev and I would probably enjoy Vegas now -- overpriced stuff, snooty counter folk and all. Lord, do we need a vacation. (Although we'd probably like Reno, Tahoe, etc. better than Vegas.)