“It’s all about entertainment,” Steve Wynn was saying.
He did not hesitate to correct me as I was struggling to describe gambling as Las Vegas’ “most important industry.”
“It’s not gambling,” he snapped, “It’s entertainment…the 24-hour, 7-day a week party, the total experience that goes with a trip to Las Vegas.”
The memory of that conversation flashed across my mind recently as I studied a local newspaper feature about the importance of Las Vegas nightclubs as Macau has surged past Las Vegas as the world’s number one center of casino gambling.”
That was the story last week.
The thing is, Wynn’s correction about my view of business in Las Vegas did not occur last week or even last year.
Our conversation occurred more than 20 years ago, an era before the invention of the nightclub business as a major revenue generator and before there was much attention paid to the future potential of those casinos with the dark reputations in Macau, the then-Portuguese enclave off China’s coast.
As for multibillion-dollar casino investments in Singapore…well, where in the world was Singapore? Most Las Vegans could not have found it on a map.
That’s the way it was in 1992. Times have changed and Singapore may soon edge Las Vegas into the number three spot among world gambling centers, but the ability of Strip leaders to continue offering a world-class entertainment experience says everything that matters.
Just as it did 20-plus years ago and a quarter century before that when Jay Sarno and company were cranking a place called Caesars Palace and Kirk Kerkorian was considering what would become the first MGM Grand.
There was a huge difference in Wynn’s mind during that 1992 conversation between a city with casinos and an entertainment center. Nightclubs and restaurants led by celebrity chefs have recently led the way among non-gaming amenities getting a lot of attention.
Gambling opportunities are everywhere now but Las Vegas leaders continue to appreciate the fact that a cutting edge entertainment experience involves more than the chance to gamble.
Other Las Vegas companies – Caesars, MGM, Station, Boyd and others, have acknowledged this with their own creations beyond the gaming floors.
“Everyone everywhere has slot machines and gaming tables,” Wynn has stressed, “but the entertainment and atmosphere that surround them…that’s what creates the vitality.”
The Strip’s appetite for continuing multimillion-dollar “costume changes” continues unabated. Otherwise, it might have sunk into the depression that characterizes gaming areas where leaders are only beginning to realize success as a travel destination requires more than the chance to gamble.
The Jersey story: Do you suppose federal action to regulate Internet gaming will have to wait until New Jersey’s Gov. Christie accepts the 2016 GOP presidential nomination and reaches the White House?
I put the question to a casino executive who started to reply with a laugh before he checked himself and said, “That may not be as far-fetched as you think.”
The one-time expectation that federal action was easily within reach has all but disappeared as states like Nevada, New Jersey and even tiny Delaware have readied themselves to act as regulatory hubs.
They’re waiting now for something to regulate. Interstate agreements may not occur as quickly as some spokesmen preaching the gospel of Internet gaming’s tax-generating benefits would like to see.
There are so many varied interests that have to agree on whatever is brought to the table. The struggle to cross those hurdles is compounded by state interests that have no interest in sharing authority with Washington.
But there is good news. Internet gaming may, in the short term, become a very effective tool for Nevada casinos looking to build databases and improve laser-like marketing capabilities.
The Ultimate Poker site controlled by Station Casinos has signed up customers in all 50 states and 20 foreign countries, according to one recent feature story. If that’s correct, these are people who cannot play any of Ultimate’s games until they arrive in Nevada.
Whatever happens at the poker table, these sign-ups with their established pre-disposition to risk money in a casino, will probably be spending more time in one or more Station properties than might otherwise have been the case as they visit Las Vegas.
Timid lawmakers: Yes, state legislators can be notoriously timid, checking in with their base and testing the political winds before voting on anything that carries the slightest scent of controversy.
This insight was shared with me by a politically savvy gaming industry veteran who says he continues to be “perplexed” at the mysterious disappearance of that much discussed private entity sports bill from the agenda of the Nevada Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
“Some of the controversy – that talk of red flags,” my friend was saying, “came up relatively late in the session (after it had already been previously approved by the Senate) and Greg Brower (the bill’s Senate sponsor) did not have a lot of time to defuse things.”
So what now?
“We’ll probably see another version of the same concept in the 2015 session, which gives the supporters plenty of time to educate people.”
The measure had been proposed as a tool for taking a big bite out of the billions of dollars that are bet illegally on sports. Nevada’s handle and the taxable win this kind of wagering might have provided would have generated millions in additional taxes.
“The truth is,” I was told, “this kind of thing is probably already occurring. The state might as well make it legal, regulate it and reap the benefits.”
Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].