I'm very happy to present the first installment of Jeff Simpson's new column, 'Simpson on Vegas'. Every other week or so, Jeff will offer his opinions, insight and commentary. I'm looking forward to it and so should you.
This first time around - do you think that Las Vegas operators are doing enough to lure in new (and existing) customers? Where are the next generation volcano, pirate show and fountains?
Continue reading after the jump and leave your thoughts in the comments.
While Steve Wynn was building Wynn Las Vegas the developer reveled in explaining how, after building three acclaimed Strip resorts, he had finally seen the light when it came to his newest marvel.
Instead of creating fabulous spectacles in front of his property to attract attention from Las Vegas Boulevard -- the "midway," he called it -- he was investing in even more beautiful interior spaces that would delight his guests, the people who were paying for the experience.
No more Mirage volcano, Treasure Island pirate show or Bellagio fountains. Wynn Las Vegas, he said, would have hundreds or even thousands of beautiful spots inside for property guests to discover.
It's hard to find fault with Wynn's decision and its execution, as Wynn Las Vegas and its follow-on sister, Encore, have delivered as he had hoped, owning the top rungs on the city's resort ladder, with the biggest share of the baccarat market, the highest room rates and acclaim from important critics and travel rating sites.
But what has been good for Wynn Resorts may not be good for the long term prospects of Las Vegas.
The three mega-spectacles he built in front of Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio remain the Strip's top three free crowd-drawing attractions. No property that has opened since Bellagio in 1998 has invested in a free, Strip-front attraction that comes close. Sure, MGM Mirage updated the Mirage volcano, but it wasn't a new feature, just improved.
Venetian has some beautiful elements and gondolas in its canal and Paris has its small Eiffel Tower (and it charges a fee). Aladdin/Planet Hollywood, Wynn Las Vegas, Palazzo, Encore and Aria don't have any significant outdoor public features that attract the kinds of crowds Wynn's earlier attractions do. And neither will Cosmopolitan (when it opens) and Fountainebleau (if it opens).
The lack of new attractions might cause the traveling public to feel that there's not much new and exciting in Las Vegas and that they've already seen and experienced most of what the city has to offer.
Sure, there are other near-Strip attractions. For free attractions, Rio has its Show in the Sky, MGM Grand has its Lion Habitat, Flamingo has some flamingos and other wildlife between its hotel and pool, Caesars Palace has a fountain show and the south end of the Strip has the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
And Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Bellagio, Wynn, Encore and Aria have beautiful design elements that attract plenty of visitors.
And there are plenty of things paying customers can do: Go to the top of the Stratosphere for panoramic views, visit the Secret Garden of Siegfried and Roy, check out the Bellagio gallery and take a ride on roller coasters and other rides at Stratosphere, Sahara, Circus Circus and New York- New York, among many others.
But travelers need new and exciting things to spur new visits, and I don't believe high-end restaurants, retail offerings, pools, cabanas and nightclubs and ever-more-luxurious hotel rooms are enough to excite Middle America to make the trip. And make no mistake, the city, and its bottom and middle tiers of resorts need Middle America.
It's not fair to expect Steve Wynn to be the only one to build the kind of free mega-attractions that provide millions of photo backdrops and are vital to the magic of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas casino operators have a lot to fear in the near term, from a fragile recovery, an oversupply of rooms and other revenue-drivers to air capacity cuts, and it's hard to imagine many operators will think they can afford to worry about a long-term decline in the pizazz that spurs folks to book a trip to the Strip. But operators with a significant investment in the city and in its older and middle-tier properties (MGM Mirage and Harrah's, I'm looking at you) should think about investing land and money in attractions that keep people coming back.
A giant ferris wheel -- offered up by plenty of planned projects but yet to be built -- would be a great addition but wouldn't be free, nor unique. I think free attractions have a strong appeal. And while a new arena might entice a pro sports team and keep important events (National Finals Rodeo, for one), it wouldn't attract tourists on its own. What the city needs are new, spectacular and free attractions, and I worry that the recession, the high price of Strip land and the general "me first" mentality of operators will prevent any operator from springing for the cost.
I don't blame Steve Wynn for tiring of being the only operator willing to pay for fantastic free attractions, but his extravagance at Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio helped fuel an incredible period of increasing visitation. Beautiful hotel towers and resort design elements are wonderful, but aren't enough to fire up Middle America.
At the same time Wynn called his competitors "accountants" he described himself and Caesars Palace and Circus Circus creator Jay Sarno as "carnival barkers," hotel owners who lured folks from the Strip's midway into their tents.
Las Vegas needs a carnival barker. It doesn't have to be Wynn, but it has to be someone.
I worry that Wynn has retired his megaphone and his competitors lack the insight or the inclination to invest in something that will also benefit the competition. And that's too bad.