A little while ago, the Cosmopolitan eliminated its free wifi. After the jump, I talk about the broader significance of taking away what has already been given.
When The Cosmopolitan opened, it told us it was different. This was going to be hip, almost anti-corporate (even if it was owned by a German bank) Strip casino for the next generation. It wouldn't have holodecks, but it would use technology in ways that other Vegas casinos hadn't. iPad check-ins! Super-advanced in-room technology! And free wifi throughout the property, so inveterate Facebookers and Tweeters wouldn't have any reason to post continuous status updates.
At the time, I thought it was a great idea. As I wrote in the December 13, 2010 Las Vegas Business Press, I thought it was the first resort built for the Facebook generation:
On a more positive note, The Cosmopolitan is the first hotel-casino to position itself, from the ground up, for the social-networking generation. Its loyalty program is called the Identity Club, and it promises guests variety above all. That's something that consumers weaned on custom ring tones expect.
The architecture of the hotel-casino itself is amenable to the kind of impromptu photo-taking and video-sharing that Twitter and Facebook enable.
Free wifi was an integral part of rolling out the welcome mat to people for whom things like that mattered.
Now, it's gone. I already talked in my latest Business Press column about what that might mean. Now I'm going to take a step back and put this into the broader history of casinos giving, then taking away, freebies.
I can speak fairly strongly about this because I grew up during the Great Atlantic City Bus Wars. If you weren't around Atlantic City during the 1980s, here's the story: Atlantic City casinos then made a great deal of their money from bus people. These were folks who got on a casino charter bus in Philly or New York City and got a free trip down to Atlantic City to gamble. Often, they'd pay $10 for a bus ticket and get $10 in coin (no freeplay coupons back then) and a coffee shop or buffet voucher.
In 1988, the biggest bus year in Atlantic City history, more than 14 million visitors rode charter buses to town--about 42% of the total visitation.
When you think that the casino was paying many of these customers to gamble, you can understand why this got out of control.
One problem with bus promotions was that some senior citizens would catch the bus down to Atlantic City, get their roll of quarters, eat lunch, then sit on the Boardwalk for a few hours before heading back home. Doesn't sound like much fun but, as my grandmother would say, it's better than sitting at home. Some enterprising folks even figured out how to zig-zag a series of charters, picking up several rolls of quarters each day. For someone on a fixed income with time to kill, that's not the worst way to spend a day, particularly if you bring a book.
But that wasn't the worst part: casinos started getting too competitive, offering more and more money: $15, $20, $25. It doesn't sound like much, but, again, if you multiply it by 14 million each year, that's a considerably marketing expense that often didn't translate into play.
Around this time, a few casinos slipped into bankruptcy, and just about everyone cut back their bus marketing. People still bus it to Atlantic City (about 4 million last year), but it's nothing like it was in the glory days of bus giveaways.
The response was howls of protest--visitors had come to consider the free quarters an entitlement. Cutting them out created a lot of ill will.
Ditto for Atlantic City casinos charging for parking: once it was free, but when they started parking, there was a definite backlash.
We've seen the same thing happen in Las Vegas, as when the Venetian tightened its comping policies. Players became irate, because what they'd been getting for free was no longer free.
I'd put The Cosmopolitan wifi in the same category: now that we've grown accustomed to free wifi there, whether as hotel guests or restaurant/club visitors, we're going to be irked every time we look at our phones and see "3G" instead of that wavy wireless symbol. It'll just be a reminder that we're not getting as much out of the resort as we used to.
If you're a paying guest, I'd imagine that adding $15 for wifi to your bill isn't going to make you smile, either.
I'm certainly not disputing The Cosmopolitan's right to discontinue a service that they don't think is bringing return on investment. But when taking away what had been previously provided for free, there's always the risk of a backlash.
Judging from one Yelp comment, that backlash has already started. But looking at earlier wifi-related comments, it seems that wifi never really worked that well anyway. Maybe that was the problem, and instead of improving service the company decided to cut down on the users by charging.
In any event, when you're asked to pay for something that was once free, and that every LaQuinta Inn and Starbucks can afford to provide, it's reasonable to imagine that you're going to think less of the company that's charging you. To my mind, there's the potential for some real damage to the vaunted Cosmopolitan brand.
Or like the "digitally dead" thing, no one will really care.