The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas - Wow!

I have been traveling to Las Vegas for over 20 years. I have spent time in all types of properties – big, small, expensive, inexpensive, casinos that don’t exist any more – you name it. One of the reasons I continue to visit Las Vegas is that I’ve had great experiences regardless of the price point of the hotel/casino I’ve visited.

As I continue to write my travel guide, Simplifying Las Vegas, and the upcoming SLV App (stay tuned!), it will always be endorsement-free. I don’t want any property or company to influence what I write or how I present the content for my audience, average folks who want to make the most out of their Vegas vacation.

Ok – so disclaimers out of the way. I have to tell you how impressed I was with my recent visit to the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. I got married over Labor Day weekend and spent a great deal of time at the Cosmo, especially in our wrap-around terrace suite. Getting married in Las Vegas is a wonderful experience, and having a view of the Strip enhances it of course. So you might be thinking, “sure, anyone would be impressed in this circumstance.” But a wedding involves a lot of planning, a great deal of moving parts that must come together in a specific way, and a lot of help and reliance on people you don’t even know.

The Cosmo came through and then some. Before the wedding, I spent a good deal of time on the phone, speaking with everyone from the concierge desk to the kitchen to the hospitality manager. Everyone was pleasant, helpful, and insistent that we were happy and that our experience would be amazing. Once we arrived, we were impressed with everything, and everyone was extremely hospitable, even folks who did not know we were getting married. Bartenders, restaurant hostesses, pool attendants and valets were pleasant and provided an extremely high level of service.

As a boutique hotel, the Cosmo is on the upper end of the price scale. I have found with similar hotels, the old saying is true; “you get what you pay for,” but with the Cosmo, you get more. When you are on vacation, you don’t want to have to think about the little things that make a difference. You want everyone to smile and feel like your experience is the only one that matters. At the Cosmo, that was exactly how we felt.

Check in at the hotel was easy, although they need to guide people a little better on which line to stand it by the front desk. The front desk associate was extremely nice and helpful and quickly assessed our situation. We were a little early, and our suite was not quite ready, but they texted us as soon as it was, and we had our keys, which would be activated as soon as they sent the text. This meant we didn’t have to go back to the desk to get the keys – a nice convenience that meant I could put down some (losing) baseball bets before our room was ready.

The layout of the Cosmo makes it easy to get from point A to point B, and in Las Vegas this is a nice feature. The property was built on a smaller plot of land than most resorts, and it is much more vertical than others, so you don’t have to spend three days getting from your room to anywhere else you need to go. Restaurants, bars, the casino, the pools and everything else is within a quick walk or elevator ride. It is much, much easier finding your way around the Cosmo than other properties. Overall, the property is extremely clean, less smoky, and the right touch of modern and classic to make it visually appealing.

The food we had for our reception at our suite was fantastic and beautifully prepared. We even had a few leftovers that tasted yummy the next day! The day after our wedding, we spent some time at a cabana at the Boulevard Pool. It is really a fantastic space, and they were exteremly accomodating to all our requests.

My only real beef? The parking lot. You drive down to find more spaces, and each floor displays the number of available spaces, which are also indicated by little green lights above the space. However, a green light does not necessarily mean an open space, and it is difficult to navigate. However, after Labor Day, there were many more open spaces, and I got used to the lay of the land, so it was not much a problem after the first few times into the depths of the garage.

It takes a lot to make me write about an experience, either good or bad. I feel like I had to mention what a wonderful time we had at the Cosmo, how great the property is and how everyone seems to go out of their way to go the extra mile. I’d like to say “thank you” specifically to these kind folks who went above and beyond to help us:

  • Holly Myers - Hospitality and Room Service Manager
  • Kelly Zymanek - Manager- Room Service & Hospitalities
  • Nichole Lafreniere - Senior Reservations Host, The Pool District
  • Kennon Wolff - Senior Guest Services Manager

Thank you for making our stay incredible and for helping to ensure our wedding week was unforgettable!!

We’ll be back.



Tighter Slots and Reduced Comps: Casino Execs Response to Lower Gaming Revenue

I read today that the Mirage is using a voucher system to comp drinks in the casino. This is, to say the least, an unpopular idea and a really bad one. Players hate it and cocktail waitresses, who are now getting fewer tips, hate it too. Who likes this idea? Bean counters.

The current gaming revenue situation and the response by casinos is mind-boggling. I am sure number-crunching execs are looking at spreadsheets and determining that the only way they can continue to operate the casino is by cutting costs. If they looked away from the computer screen for five minutes and went down to the casino floor, they would probably learn a lot more. They need to talk to people.

They need to survey customers. Entice them to come into the casino. They need to expect more out of themselves and provide a top-notch entertainment experience for their customers.

When you make your product less attractive, what do you think the end result will be? Suppose you wanted to purchase a new smart phone. Your two options are one that offers you a quality product with a lot of free features, and one that used to be good but then decided to cut costs because not enough people were buying it. Which one would you choose?

I realize the problem goes beyond simple marketing (i.e. making casino games more attractive to put more butts in seats), but it is also much more complex than simply cutting services and saying “people aren’t gambling, so let’s reduce costs.”

My message to casino execs who tighten slots, make players pay for drinks and churn out crummy 6-5 blackjack tables is simple, however: try harder.

Please DO NOT Play 6:5 Blackjack

There is a growing trend in Las Vegas that is driving me crazy. As gaming revenue continues to decline, the games get worse. I urge you to ensure that you play at 3:2 blackjack tables when you visit Las Vegas.

For those of you unfamiliar with blackjack rules, I'll elaborate a bit. When you get a blackjack at a table, you should be paid 3 dollars for every 2 dollars you bet. So if you bet $10, your reward should be $15. If you play at a 6:5 table, you are only getting $12. That might not seem like much, but over time you are giving more of your entertainment dollars to the casino.

What's the difference, you might ask? In the long run, you lose about 8 times more money playing at a table with 6:5 blackjack. And that just stinks. And, my friends, it does not have to be that way.

When you walk up to a blackjack table, if the blackjack payout is not on the felt (and many times it is not) or anywhere else on the table, ask! If it is 6:5, ask if the casino has 3:2 blackjack. Dealers will either point you to the tables that have 3:2 blackjack, or you should play somewhere else.

Many times, casinos will offer 6:5 blackjack on single or double-deck blackjack games, or they will offer 6:5 blackjack games with lower minimums (like a $5 table). Sometimes, they will also offer goofy games (like Fun 21 or Spanish 21 or something similar) where the blackjack payout is 6:5 or, even worse, even money. Please stay away from these.

Blackjack is hard enough to win without having bad rules. There are plenty of casinos that offer good blackjack play at low minimums, including Treasure Island (TI), Stratosphere, most MGM properties, most downtown casinos and most off-strip casinos.

The higher the minimum at the table, the better the rules for the player (such as dealer stays on soft 17, resplitting aces, etc.). Also, the higher the number of decks, typically the better the rules. They are trying to thwart advantage payers, so they figure if the rules are bad at 1-2 deck games, it will keep card counters away.

For a good list of current casino rules and the house edge, check out this site:

At the very least, please, please do not play at a 6:5 table. You will save yourself some money and some entertainment fun in the long run!

Viva, Mike

IRS Proposes to Lower Threshold for Winnings

The IRS is proposing to lower the threshold for reportable winnings on slot machines from $1200 to $600. Simply put, this is a bad idea for many reasons, and I urge you to sign the petition in opposition to this proposal as well as comment on the IRS' website to say that you don't want the threshold lowered. I'll get to why the IRS' proposal is bad in a second.

First, I want to say that I'm not the type of person who complains that his taxes are too high. I don't mind paying my fair share (or even a little more than my fair share) to support the infrastructure of our country. That being said, the IRS' proposal would most likely have the opposite effect they want, which is to collect more money.

The proposal states that the threshold has been the same since 1977, so it's time for a change. It also states that there have been many advances made in the technology which will allow electronic reporting of winnings. These are their two main arguments.

It has been pointed out in several articles, including this one by Law360, that these assumptions by the IRS are false. Now, I don't play slots much, so it does not affect me personally. However, the arguments agaist this proposal are pretty strong:

* The process for filling out a W2 is not electronic, and it takes about 15 minutes for casino employees and the customer to get through the paperwork.
* There will be 3-5 times as many W2 filings, which will result in a lot more paperwork, casinos will have to hire employees, and there will be a lot more of a hassle.
* Fewer people will want to play slots, which will result in lower gaming revenue for states.

If anything, the threshold should be increased to about $4700 due to inflation. I hope that this proposal does not pass, and I hope you will join me in opposing it.


Why Elvis is still relevant in Las Vegas

Elvis Presley would have been 80 this past January. He died in August of 1977, but you would never know it in Las Vegas. There are plenty of Elvis impersonators in the city, especially at wedding chapels and in impressionist shows. Not to mention movies, Broadway plays and TV commercials which associate the King with Sin City (3000 Miles to Graceland,  the play Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the movie, and a recent State Farm ad, just to name a few).

There has also been a body of work representing the performer and his role in Las Vegas. Here's a short list:

  • The former Aria Cirque Show (Viva Elvis).
  • The current Elvis Experience at Westgate (formerly LVH, Las Vegas Hilton, and the International)
  • The King's Ransom at the former Imperial Palace (now the LINQ)
  • The former Elvis-o-Rama Museum on Industrial (gosh I miss that… it was a great museum!)

Elvis first performed in Las Vegas in 1956 at the former New Frontier. The crowd at that time was a little older and more conservative. Elvis didn't fit that mold, so the shows didn't go over that well.

In 1963, filming for Viva Las Vegas began, and that kick started his love affair with the city and, subsequently, started drawing a lot more folks to Las Vegas.

In 1967, he married Priscilla at the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood). He hung out at the Sahara. He never played at the Sands like the Rat Pack, but his impact on the city was much like theirs.

From 1969 to 1976, Elvis played a great many shows at the International (then the Las Vegas Hilton… which later became LVH and is now the Westgate).

So yes, there's a lot of history there. And as we know, Elvis was troubled late in life, and less than a year after performing the last Vegas shows, Elvis passed away. There was a time when Elvis and his impersonators were considered a sad joke. But respect for the King and his legacy have withstood the test of time. Impersonators relate a sense of fun and excitement, and people love to see Elvis memorabilia and places where he performed.

I urge you to check out the Elvis Experience at Westgate. It is scheduled to close at the end of May, and it would be a shame if you missed out on the experience.

Viva Elvis… and Viva Las Vegas,

The Best of Times, the Rest of Times

This weekend is a significant milestone this year for Las Vegas. There are three major events that will dominate the headlines:
  • Mayweather vs Pacquiao: the fight of the century
  • Riviera's last weekend: after 60 years, the casino will close at noon on May 4
  • Kentucky Derby: American Pharaoh is the favorite in the run for the roses
Big Las Vegas weekends typically revolve around cyclical events; the Final Four NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Super Bowl, New Year's, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January. But this weekend is different. This weekend is filled with events that seem taylor-made for Las Vegas. Every weekend is big in Las Vegas, but when something special is happening, it's bigger. And this weekend, it's the biggest it's been a long time.

Mayweather vs. Pacquiao
This match up is a huge deal. Big fights used to be the norm in Las Vegas, especially at the MGM Grand. But then something funny happened on the way to the ring: ultimate fighting. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has moved to the forefront in hand-to-hand (and face-to-foot) combat. It may be the natural progression of boxing - a more modern, fast-paced and dangerous sport, UFC embodies the changing landscape in a younger, more cutting-edge Las Vegas.

It seemed as if boxing was all but dead, even in Las Vegas where it was a mainstay.

But then along came the brawl to end it all. Whether or not Mayweather vs. Pacquiao lives up to its hype remains to be seen, but reports of boxing's death are greatly exaggerated.

Kentucky Derby
One of my favorite pastimes in Las Vegas is taking a break from the tables, the crowds… well, everything, and just relax in the sports book. All of the books have horse races on a few of the TVs, and I've always enjoyed placing a few bets on a long shot or an exacta. Horse racing and Las Vegas go hand-in-hand. It's a tradition to look at the racing forms and study them, putting all of your knowledge and experience into picking the right horse to cash, only to have it all fall apart when the 35-1 dog surprises everyone. If you have a system betting on the ponies, it's a lot like having a system for blackjack or roulette; it just doesn't work.

But that doesn't mean I don't try. Hope. It springs eternal in horse racing and spring in Las Vegas. I can't wait to watch the Derby this year. There's something magical seeing the race, watching history.

The Riv
The Riviera opened April 20, 1955. It has undergone many changes and has lived nine lives. I had always hoped that the powers-that-be, the folks with lots of money and good ideas, could save the Riv. But it was not meant to be. The Riv is no longer profitable and does not show any promise for the future, so it will succumb to the same fate as its neighbors, the Sahara (now the SLS), they Desert Inn (now the Wynn) and the Stardust (soon to be the Resort World). And this weekend is its last hurrah. Thank you, Riv, for entertaining us for 60 years. You deserve your retirement.

So as I think about the importance of this weekend in Las Vegas, I think about the memories and good times I have always had in Sin City. That's what this memorable weekend comes down to: experiences. People will remember the fun, the fight, the Derby and the last time they gambled at the Riv. Classic Vegas.


Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

We learned this week of the passing of Betty Willis, who designed the Welcome sign that has become the signature icon of Las Vegas, printed on everything from shot glasses to the cover of my book. Ms. Willis was 91. The sign was installed in 1959, which is ancient history in Vegas terms. The design was never copyrighted, so you see it everywhere, including on non-Vegas items.

So much has been written about the sign, the design and Ms. Willis that I don't want to restate all of that here. Instead, I've been thinking about the message on the sign: "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada."

I do find Las Vegas very welcoming. The city draws me in. A friend of mine, who grew up in England and is often jokingly critical of many things American, says "if you can't have fun in Las Vegas, then you don't know how to have fun." Exactly. There's something at every turn, every step of the way, that makes me happy that I'm there.

Now in some ways, Las Vegas is unforgiving. If you lose in the casino, there's no going back. There are no "do overs" or "Mulligans" once your money disappears. The heat can be unbearable. The clubs can be packed and expensive. Lines are long for popular entertainment venues, and crowds can be overwhelming, especially on weekends.

But the city is certainly fabulous. Las Vegas has the level of excitement that I want for my entertainment dollars. My finance calls Las Vegas "our working vacation" because we are always on the go. It's true. I don't like to waste a minute whether I am in a casino, or at a show, or walking the Strip just to see the sights.

The sign embodies all of that. To see it at night in all its blinking glory is truly amazing. But no matter what time of day or night you visit it, there are always people standing underneath it. Everyone wants a selfie, a group photo, a funny snapshot of themselves with the sign. It's a reminder that they were in the most exciting city in the world.

So thank you, Betty Willis, for capturing the sentiment perfectly and for making us all feel welcome in the fabulous city we love.


It's Tax Day: Money Matters in Las Vegas

Happy April 15th! I hope you are not preparing to write a check to the IRS today, but if you are, I hope it is because you won a lot of money in Las Vegas.

When you think of Las Vegas, you probably picture the bright lights, the fancy clubs, the posh restaurants, the cool pools and the imaginative shows. You may even think of the casinos, but statistics show that not as many of you are thinking primarily about that, even though there are record numbers of folks visiting.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, including but not limited to:
  • You can gamble anywhere. When Las Vegas and Atlantic City were the only places to place a bet, it was a different story. Now, you can find a casino on almost as many corners as you can find a Starbucks.
  • High rollers are not the target market anymore. Gary Loveman did a statistical study some years ago that proved that slot players, not whales, make up the majority of casino profits. Loveman also began toying with the idea of more entertainment opportunities in Las Vegas when he became CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corporation (CEC), the conglomerate that owns Caesars Palace and a bunch of other casinos in Las Vegas and other places. Hence the High Roller observation wheel and related shopping/dining area.
  • Las Vegas does not promote gaming nearly as much as it used to, and what used to be the "extras" to lead folks into the casinos (shows, clubs, pools, etc.) are now becoming more of the primary reason to visit. 
  • Younger folks make up a bigger percentage of the Vegas pie, and they want to party and hang out first, then maybe spend a few minutes in the casino until their dinner reservation is ready.
Throw all this and more together and what do you get? Lower gaming revenues and fewer people spending money in the casino. So is gambling dead? Nah. It's just sitting in the corner, waiting for the right casino execs to figure out how to make the most of it. Here are some thoughts:
  • With better promotion, gaming could skyrocket in Las Vegas. The troubles in Macau mean that more high-rollers could come to Vegas, which means more revenue. But for the rest of us, who don't spend $10k per hand on baccarat, casino execs could dole out better coupons, better stay/play packages, and a better overall gaming experience. Which leads me to…
  • Better games/rules. Right now, the rules stink in most casinos, and we notice. We are much more savvy consumers, and we can tell the difference between full pay VP and lousy VP, between 3-2 Blackjack and 6-5 punch-me-in-the-gut Blackjack. Make the rules better, and you will draw in more customers, and you will make more money because the house still wins.
  • Better service. I love playing games where the dealers are fun and I don't have to switch tables. I love when drink service is faster than my Corvette and even more attractive. I love when my chair is not crammed next to someone else's and I have room to get up from my seat when nature calls (because the drink service has been so good). These are not difficult things to accomplish, but they are becoming rare. They make a world of difference to players. Easy win for the casino if they have the smarts to do it right.
People want to gamble. If you look at the national statistics on gaming revenue, it continues to increase year-over-year. The idea that "younger visitors from California don't gamble" is only true if Las Vegas makes it true. So, I'm hoping that Las Vegas finds inventive ways to draw more of us punters into the fold.


Can You Really Trust Reviews?

Amazon's recent lawsuit shows that fake reviews are prevalent, and you can't always trust what you read. Fake reviews can come in different forms. Some are used to boost products, so a company gets a lot of 5 stars from people who don't own the product and have never used it. Some are used to make the competition look bad, so people badmouth a service or product and give it a low score, discouraging people to buy.

It's difficult to tell the fake reviews from the real ones, which makes purchasing an item more difficult. Some experts recommend that you ignore the 5 star and 1 star reviews and look at the ones in between. But what if a product is really great, and the majority of reviews are 5 stars? Does that mean that they are fake? What portion of them are real? How can you tell? You can't.

So you have to take reviews with a grain of salt. You can't quickly assess a product or service strictly by the number of good or bad reviews. You have to be a much more savvy consumer and do a bunch of research, especially if you are buying something expensive.

Which leads me to reviews of Las Vegas. Many so-called experts will review hotels, restaurants, shows, etc. What makes their opinions more valid than yours? Even if the reviews you are reading are from a knowledgable, seasoned Vegas veteran, you still have to keep a very open mind when reading them. You never really know if the reviewer had either a bad day or an unusually good experience for no good reason. When you are spending a lot of money on a vacation, you want to be sure you're going to get your money's worth and have a great time.

One of the major premises of my book is that reviews are too subjective, so I put the tools that you need in your hands to make decisions. Now I don't mind telling you what I like, but I make sure that you understand that it is my opinion. My 20 years of experience is just that - mine. You have to make sure that you understand all the things that make your experience something special.


Of Taxis and Ride Share Programs

One of the biggest hubbubs in Las Vegas these days is the Senate Bill 439, which will determine the fate of ride share programs (such as Uber and Lyft) in Nevada. The argument basically comes down to jobs and safety.

If you are a taxi driver in Las Vegas, your point is that Uber and friends will substantially ruin the taxi cab market in Las Vegas, thus putting lots of folks out of work. You also claim that Uber does not adhere to the same safety standards as the Nevada Taxicab Authority.

If you are Uber or other similar ride share companies, you claim that the system has worked in other cities, that it's safe (background checks, monitoring, etc.) and that an open market is good for consumers.

Is there room for both in the Las Vegas market? Perhaps. But here's the deal. When a new competitor threatens the existing status quo, then there's going to be a market shift. Taxi cab drivers can argue all they want against Uber, but eventually ride sharing is going to come to Las Vegas. Taxis have to offer something more to their customers. They've noticed that visitors want more convenience and better service, so the Nevada Taxicab Authority approved Ride Genie, which is basically an app that hails a cab and adds $3 to the ride. But to me, that's not the answer.

Taxis are already expensive, which is why I rent a car when I'm in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the base rate for a ride is $3.30, which is higher than Los Angeles ($2.85) and New York City ($2.50). Taxis have to  lower their prices and provide better service to Strip, off-Strip and downtown locations. That's a tough agenda, considering that taxi cab drivers don't make a lot of money. And, according to Forbes, taxi driver was the 4th worst job in the US in 2014. A lot of that has to do with the lack of projected growth due to... you guessed it, increased ride share programs.

So I don't envy taxi cab drivers in Las Vegas. Unless there are more creative ways to making it work, they may be a dying breed. Fighting ride share is a tough battle, so they will have to think of different ways to compete for Las Vegas customers.

What are your thoughts? How do you like to get around in Las Vegas? What do you think of taxis, public transportation, the monorail, and the potential of ride share programs in the city? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


What's Your Vegas Playlist?

Hi Vegas fans,
Last week I wrote about my favorite Vegas movies. This week, I'm thinking about music. I sometimes create a special playlist on my phone for Vegas trips. Some trips have included alt-rock anthems that I wanted as pump-up songs as I drove down the Strip or travel songs that I like to listen to as soon as I've settled into my seat on the plane.

Past trips have also included some Vegas-themed music, including Sheryl Crow ("Leaving Las Vegas"), Drive-By-Truckers ("Check Out Time in Vegas") and, of course, Elvis ("Viva Las Vegas").

This trip, I'm going to buy a bunch of songs that I don't have on my phone yet, mostly with "Vegas" in the title. Here's what I'm thinking:

  • Frank Sinatra - Luck be a Lady
  • Sara Bareilles - Vegas
  • Katy Perry - Waking Up in Vegas
  • Tennis - Vegas
  • Semi Precious Weapons - Vegas
  • David Gray - Snow in Vegas
  • Brandon Flowers - Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
  • Ray Charles - Blackjack

That's all I've come up with so far. Every trip needs theme music, whether it's a guy's get-away, a gal's weekend, a family vacation, or a romantic honeymoon. Think about the music on your favorite device. Is it Vegas ready? What is your ultimate Vegas playlist?


Vegas Movies

There are a ton of movies about Las Vegas and filmed in Las Vegas. Some are great, and some just plain stink. I wanted to mention a few of my faves here and also to say that a great way to get geared up for your next trip is to watch a movie about Sin City.

In no particular order:
  • Ocean's 11 and Ocean's 13: By Ocean's 11 I mean the remake with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, etc. The original with the Rat Pack is good, but this is one of the few times I like the remake better! These are both really fun movies about a bunch of folks who want to steal a great deal of money from casinos. Complete fiction, and they take a lot of liberties, but you have to lose yourself in them and put away your "that could never happen!" hat. I could watch these two movies over and over and over…
  • Viva Las Vegas: Elvis, cars, Ann Margaret and Las Vegas. What else could you ask for? There's singing, dancing, gambling, cars that turn over and explode (and no one seems to care) and more. Plus you get to see what Fremont Street looked like in 1964.
  • The Hangover: Ok, it's immature. It's sophomoric. It's moronic. And it's really, really funny. I say "ouch!" a lot during this move, given what happens to the cast of characters, and it has all of the elements of a disastrous Vegas weekend. You'll see costumed characters on the Strip and Downtown dress like Alan (Zach Galifianakis) with baby Carlos from this movie.
  • Casino: Sometimes, gambling is a good thing. Like when you hit your point in craps or you get a blackjack or hit a jackpot on the slots. Sometimes, it's a bad thing. Like when you get your head squeezed in a vice or your hand beaten with a hammer. Casino highlight the bad things and is loosely based on the story of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, his wife (Geri), Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, and the Stardust hotel.
  • Vegas Vacation: My luck at the blackjack table is almost as bad as Chevy Chase's, but I bet in smaller quantities so it's not as painful. My favorite scene is when Audry (played by Marisol Nichols) is hanging out with her cousin Vicki (Shae D'lyn) and friends in the Neon Museum's Boneyard. When Audry finally starts letting loose and enjoying herself by dancing on top of one of the neon signs, Vicki's friends says "She's going to break a lot of hearts" to which Vicki replies, "She's gonna break something."

Honorable Mention:
  • Bugsy
  • Rain Man
  • 3000 Miles to Graceland
  • 21
  • Last Vegas

What are you favorites? 


Stratosphere Wants Us to Take Back Vegas!

Kudos, Stratosphere!
I love your new campaign. It's a little risky because you may alienate people with lots of money, but I think it makes an important statement. One of the things I have always loved about Las Vegas is that whether you are a shmo or a super-important celebrity, there has always been a place for you. However, there are fewer and fewer places that cater to the grinds, the low rollers, the average Joe and Jane. It doesn't have to be that way.

There is no reason that properties can create a fun, relaxed atmosphere while still promoting high-end merchandise for those who can afford it. Treasure Island (TI) is a great example of this. TI is mid-strip and you can see the beautiful Mystere show or catch bikini bull riding at Gillies. The casino is small but contains many lower-minimum tables and machines; it is also very clean and appealing to everyone. Restaurants range from the posh Phil's Italian Steakhouse to the pretty simple Señor Frog's Mexican restaurant and bar. Balance - it's a good thing.

The Strat has always been more of a joint for the low roller. Perhaps being on the very northern boundary of the Strip (some say it's not a Strip property at all… but it's close) has lead to its complex of not being the Wynn or Bellagio. Or perhaps they just don't care to be a fancy-pants place. In any event, I love visiting the Strat and spending a few dollars in their casino, sports book, and moderate restaurants. I've stayed there many times, and the rooms aren't spectacular, but heck, at their prices you don't expect them to be. 

The Strat borders on a neighborhood that you wouldn't write home to momma about, but I've never had a problem. Like anywhere in Las Vegas (or any major city), you should know where you are going, you have to be aware of your surroundings, and you shouldn't walk around alone late at night.

One way the Strat could improve on its Take Back Vegas program is to reduce or remove the resort fees. These are getting obscene in Las Vegas, and while the Strat's is not as bad as mid-Strip properties, it's still around $18, which is too much.

Aside from that, I love the Strat. It is not pretentious, which is nice considering some of the trends in Vegas.

Au Revoir, Riviera

Forget for a moment all that you know or don't know about Riviera Las Vegas. Forget the punch lines, the dank casino and the dwindling crowds, the maze to get from point A to point B. Forget the butt statue.

Forget its history. Forget the fact that it was classic Vegas even before there was such a thing. Forget that it opened in 1955 and will close in May, 60 years after its debut. Forget the facade that was added in the 1980s, which most people hate. Just forget all that stuff for a moment and bare with me.

We all know that nothing is permanent in Las Vegas. Landmarks tumble, properties change hands to new corporations, and your favorite show moves from the Strip to Downtown back to the Strip overnight, then it goes dark for good. This is just the nature of Las Vegas. You get used to it. It reminds you that, like the weather in most places other than southern Nevada or California, change is constant, and there's not much you can do about it. Next year, I'll be waxing poetic over how the new Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority building in its place is so cool. Probably.

But I'd like to take a step back and just remember for a moment. Ah, the Riv and the Stardust (also gone) were my first memories of Las Vegas 23 years ago. The Riv was the first hotel my buddy Steve and I stayed at and where we had our first gambling experiences.

I recall sitting down at my first blackjack table, a nervous young man, barely out of college. I had read books about how to win at blackjack, how to pick the best tables, and so on. But in my haste I sat down at a game where the dealer pitched cards to players instead of dealing from a shoe. I had very little idea what I was doing, and it showed. After a few hands, I got up and left to find a table with a shoe, where all I had to do was bet. Back then, we gambled at $2 tables and ate like kings.

The Strip seemed bigger than life. We didn't have a rental car that trip, so we walked everywhere. In July, no less.  It didn't matter. We were young with very little responsibilities or worries at that time. No mortgages. No big car payments. No debt. In fact, I used my credit card for the very first time on that trip.

Fast forward. I've stayed and played in many places in Las Vegas, and they all have something unique, some story to tell. I'll miss the Riv, just like I miss the Stardust. Not for the inexpensive food or low-roller tables. Not for the pool (which is huge!) or the sports book. Not for the butt statue (although like everyone else, I had to put my hand on it). I'll just simply miss the fun that I had while I was there.


Simplifying Las Vegas Blog Posts - 8 Years of Fun (So Far)

I looked back at some older posts today. I couldn't believe that I've been blogging about Las Vegas since 2006. To my surprise, my first few posts have some of the same topics that are important in Las Vegas today, like money-saving tips when booking a trip, taxis, and downtown opportunities. The blog posts are important to me because they help me with my book.

My first cover in 2008
Las Vegas is very different, for sure, and when I think back to 2008, when I first published Simplifying Las Vegas, so much has changed in the publishing landscape. Back then, Amazon's Kindle Desktop Publishing program was new for authors like me.

I have learned a great deal since that first book. I've made improvements to the content, the layout, and the tips in every single book. It now takes me the good part of a year to review and revise SLV.

The latest version
Back then, I didn't know what it would lead to, I didn't know what to expect. Sure, I hoped Oprah would invite me to her show to talk about it as one of her favorite books. I would jump up and down on her couch and say "I'm in love with Las Vegas!" Never happened. But that's ok.

I'll keep writing. I think it's worth it. Forty million people a year visit Las Vegas. Now if everyone bought one or two copies of my book, I'd be doing ok. But if not, I'm still doing ok. Visiting Las Vegas and writing about Las Vegas is just one of those things I'll always do.

So if you want to support my habit, keep sending me emails, commenting on this blog, and visiting Las Vegas. Oh, and buy a copy or two of my book.


Plan Your Las Vegas Holiday

If you are thinking about a taking a holiday trip, consider Las Vegas. I did a little comparison shopping, and here's what I found on

  • The week before Thanksgiving (M-F), a flight from my hometown of Charleston, SC to Las Vegas is about $700 (well, this is what happens when you wait to the last minute)
  • The week of Thanksgiving, it goes up to $394
  • The week after Thanksgiving, the cost goes up to $545

With hotels, it's a little different story for times around Turkey Day. I looked at Treasure Island, a decent hotel in the middle of the Strip, to see what their rack rates are for the same time period (checking in Monday, checking out Friday)

  • The week before Thanksgiving, the total rate is $157
  • The week of Thanksgiving, it goes up to $205
  • The week after Thanksgiving, it goes down to $185
Thanksgiving is not far away, so you may not have time to plan a trip that soon. However, if you are thinking about a vacation around Christmas, Las Vegas can be a bargain. Here are some of my findings, again on

  • The week before Christmas, a flight from Charleston, SC to Las Vegas is about $472 (M-F)
  • The week of Christmas, it goes up to $697
  • The week after Christmas, the cost is over double at $1078 (New Year's is crowded and expensive)

For hotels, the best rates are also always the week before Christmas. These are some of the best room rates you will get any time of year in Las Vegas. Again, here are some findings from TI:

  • The week before Christmas, the total rate is $154
  • The week of Christmas, it goes up a little bit to $184
  • The week after Christmas, it's a whopping $679

Now this was a quick search. When I plan a trip to Las Vegas, I look at a lot of package deals, several websites, and research costs as much as I can. For detailed information about how to save a ton of money on your trip, consider buying Simplifying Las Vegas online.

Can't make it for the holidays? Plan ahead - way ahead. If you can book your trip 6-8 months in advance, you will save a lot of money. I know that's hard to do, but when it comes to vacations, the better you plan, the more you'll save.

Happy Holiday Shopping!

Why I'm Worried Gary Loveman and CEC Are Getting It Wrong

There is a lot at stake in Las Vegas. The economy is rebounding, the visitation numbers are way up, and new projects are springing up on the Strip and beyond.

It hasn't been that long ago that unfinished condos and casinos littered one of the most famous and expensive stretches of land in the world. Cranes stood still and girders gathered dust and rust. Hotels and casinos that didn't close had to reconsider their strategies. Americans didn't have money to pay the rent, much less to spend in Sin City.

Slowly, that has started to change. The tables have turned in Las Vegas, which has invested in very, very upscale spaces. Famous chefs, in-residence DJs, retail stores, and boutique hotels are all the rage. From the outside looking in, Las Vegas looks like it's in its prime again.

Except that this trend really doesn't make sense. Visitation is up, but gaming numbers are down. Entertainment is everywhere, but profits are nowhere. So many of the hotels are owned either by huge corporations, like MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corporation (CEC). When they succeed, everyone wins. If one of their properties isn't doing well, they have the money to fix it. They can buy up other properties that are ailing and make them new again. 

Most of these companies have investments overseas, especially in Macau, China, where casinos are soaring, which means that they can afford to lose money in Las Vegas. But they don't want to lose money, of course, and Las Vegans can't afford for them to lose money. The last recession hit residents hard. When the tourists stopped coming and the good times stopped rolling, some went into foreclosure, Some even trashed what was left of their homes.

Las Vegas has always meant risk, and not just for the folks playing slots and table games. To run a successful casino, it takes guts, luck, money, and foresight. I'm worried that the major players in Las Vegas, like CEC, have too much of the first two items in that list, and not enough of the last two.

I'm a worrier by nature, but I'm staying positive. I think there is still plenty of time to see whether the current experiments work. Hopefully, the powers that be will recognize how to turn things around if the focus on crazy-expensive entertainment fails. Another possibility is that someone else may change the game. It looks like Resorts World has everyone on the Strip, from Steve Wynn to Gary Loveman, concerned. And that's a good thing. Some healthy competition may just create more of a balance. At least, that's what I'm betting on.


Is Las Vegas a Market Leader or Playing Follow the Leader?

There are easily defined patterns in Las Vegas' storied history. To recap a few of the more modern trends:
  • Themed hotels to attract families (Mirage 1989 ~ Paris 1999) 
  • Free shows at hotels (volcanoes, indoor rain, street performers, lions)
  • High end hotels and condos (these projects started popping up behind properties on the Strip)
  • Frozen drink stands (they are everywhere these days)
  • Party pits in the casino (scantily-clad go-go dancers, complete with poles, right behind pit bosses)
And the list goes on. Once one casino opens a door to these trends, every one of them on the Strip and downtown follow suit. In a way it is easy to get a sense of "the next big thing" in Las Vegas because there is a copycat effect.

Las Vegas was in serious trouble after the economic collapse of 2008. But it bounced back, and now it is on the verge of hosting 40 million people this year. The current trend is to market to millennials, those young folks (mostly from California, in this case) with a lot of money and a penchant for looking for a good time.

This strategy seems to be working… sort of. People see the posh, luxurious hotels, clubs and restaurants and think "wow, Vegas is hopping!" And it is, if you look at raw numbers of visitors. But at the same time, many of the hotel/casino entities in Las Vegas are having a hard time turning those numbers in to stellar profits.

Caesars Entertainment Corp (CEC) is famously and publicly having financial problems, and while some of those problems are due to the fact that they are a HUGE company with about a million initiatives, part of the investment strategy is following entertainment trends in Las Vegas. For evidence, all you have to do is look at the giant High Roller wheel and the corresponding LINQ shopping venues behind Flamingo.

As another example that things may not be so good, SLS is starting to lay off its workforce. How could the hippest, newest casino in Las Vegas be in trouble already?

I wonder how many top Vegas properties are doing serious market research and finding out what sticks. These trends make the short-term money, much like a fad (think Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, of the 1980s) instead of the long-term ideas that have lasting effects (think smart phones).

The focus on trends is one of the reasons many Las Vegas hotels have put gaming on the back burner, a secondary "oh by the way" feature, and are spending their time and money on entertainment. Experts will argue that, regardless of the reasons for this (and there are many), that this is a good strategy for Las Vegas proprietors. I wonder… other than visitation numbers and the "if you build it they will come" mantra, where is the proof that this is a good long-term strategy? It's not in the numbers. What happens in a few years when the millennials start getting older and don't want to party at clubs and topless pools anymore? Las Vegas will have to reinvent itself again.

And I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing. Change is good. Be nimble to adapt to an ever-changing market and you have a better chance of being successful. I get that. But there are certainly long-term marketing strategies that hotels and casinos can also implement that will lead to financial stability. After all, I'm sure they get tired of chasing down the next big thing.


Factoring in Fun

Every day, we have responsibilities. Pay bills, go to work, pick up the dry cleaning, take the kids to practice, feed the dogs, put gas in the car. It's a list of "have to's" even if some of them we do because we love our friends and family.

When I'm in Vegas, I like fun and games. Vegas is the only place where I can forget about everything else and just have fun. When I was a kid, fun came easy through playtime. Matchbox cars, Legos, GI Joes all piqued my interest and my imagination. As I got older, I continued having fun, sometimes with "bigger kid" toys, like car model kits and sports. Now, as a responsible (well sort of) adult, I still like fun and games, but it can be harder to remember to have fun.

There is so much that I enjoy about spending time in Las Vegas. I like to sit at a blackjack table and enjoy a few cocktails. I like to roll the dice at craps and try to hit some points. If I start losing, I go hang out at the sports book and watch a game or a horse race. When I'm done with that, I'll just walk the Strip and take some pictures for the book and the website. I'll hang out at the pool or a bar and have a few drinks. I'll go to the art gallery at Bellagio or buy some souvenirs.

Whatever I do, it's my way of having fun. Even being stuck in traffic on the Strip is better than being stuck in traffic when I'm on my way to work. It's an opportunity to take pictures like this:

I don't plan everything when I go to Vegas. Heck, sometimes I don't plan much at all. I'll chat ahead of time with the love of my life, Jennifer, and my best friend Steve, who are always going with me to Vegas. Sometimes we'll plan a show or a dinner or something, but usually we just show up. And have fun. And that's the way we like it. Good, spontaneous fun. It recharges the batteries and gives you the energy you need to deal with life when you get back to the real world. The bills, the job, the car and so on will always be there. So don't forget to factor in fun.


Las Vegas: Gambling Paradise or Entertainment Capital?

Ok. I am getting a little tired of the back-and-forth.

The reports that show that Las Vegas is rebounding because they are focusing on entertainment, which is what the younger crowd wants. The hipsters from Los Angeles don't want to gamble, the experts say. They want to shop and go to clubs and eat at fancy restaurants.

Then there are the numbers. Gaming revenues continue to increase.

So hotel/casino execs have to figure out what to do. If they want a younger, cool crowd, they de-emphasize slots and tables. They focus on famous chefs and build mini shopping malls. They stick them on the casino floor and move out the gaming. But then again, they make a pretty good living off of those one-armed bandits and double-zero roulette tables.

What results is an awkward layout that doesn't really work. The spaces that were designed for casino games on the main floor are re-purposed. Coffee shops and retail stores suddenly pop up out of nowhere. Most Strip properties are in constant flux. Walk through any of them and I guarantee that you'll some some maintenance folks building something or tearing down something else.

Times change. I get that. What worked 10 or even 5 years ago may not work now. After the recession seven years ago, many wondered if Las Vegas could rebound. Major Strip projects stalled or came to a complete halt. The good times were over. The high-roller mansions behind the casinos, were not getting much business. Like a cat with infinite lives, Las Vegas came back again.

Many suggest it was because of the entertainment value, not the gaming revenue, that kept Vegas alive. Maybe. But there is still the lure of the casino. Even if visitors aren't paying as much attention to gaming as they used to, I have to wonder if they would visit at all if there were not any casinos. I have to think not. I know I probably wouldn't.

So if casino games of chance mean anything at all, I have to think that the execs would want to offer the best, especially considering that competition is high because gambling is all of the U.S. now. But Las Vegas is special. It has the combination of top-notch entertainment, four-star restaurants, amazing spas, nutty wedding chapels, clubs galore, shops till you drop, and yes, casino gambling. Las Vegas has turned up the entertainment value to draw people in, and that's great news. But it can't deny that gambling is part of the equation. And with that being said, it's time to re-vamp the casino, much like it has re-invented its entertainment venues.

I'm taking this opportunity to ask the powers that be to please, please take a close look at what you are offering in terms of slots, video poker and table games. They are getting crummier, and the spaces dedicated to them are not as appealing as they used to be. Offer some appealing games with decent player rules. Make the surrounding areas comfortable and easy to access. Have some fun with it! After all, most of us know that we're not going to strike it rich playing $5 craps and $10 blackjack. But we want to be entertained inside the casino as much as we are outside of it.

There are still some great places to gamble. During the week (daytime), you might even be able to afford to sit at a table at the Wynn, Encore, Bellagio, and TI. At night and on the weekends, it's a different story. Table minimums go up, the few decent ones are packed, the bad ones are empty, and it takes a solid week to get a drink from a cocktail waitress. Not fun.

Wouldn't it make more sense to re-think the casino operation? It wouldn't' take much, really. Spice them up with fun surroundings. Make sure dealers smile and joke with guests. Have your pit bosses and floor managers watch them carefully. I don't just mean the action at the tables, I mean the empty ones. Change that $25 table to a $15 table and see if some of those seats fill up. Once they are jammed packed, you can raise the minimums for new players.

Las Vegas, you do a fantastic job entertaining us. I love your bright lights on the Strip. I enjoy your block party and light show on Fremont Street. You have everything a major city could possibly offer. And don't forget, you have casino gambling.

Balance. It's not just good for life. It's good for Las Vegas.