Party pools where deejays spin hip-hop and ladies drop their tops. Construction cranes looming over half-built, high-rise luxury hotel/condo towers. What's the latest incarnation of Las Vegas, and how is this adult Fantasyland coping with the USA's economic losing streak? Over veal parmigiana and ziti at Piero's Italian Cuisine — a Sinatra favorite and a site for the movie Casino, where some patrons still call each other "pally" — five Vegas insiders share their insights with USA TODAY.
Q: What would the Rat Pack think of Vegas today?
Tom Breitling: They might not like it. T-shirts and flip-flops and Sinatra gets spilled on by someone carrying a drink in a big plastic cup. Tim Poster: They'd hate it. Nowadays, there's nothing but rules. "Pittsburgh Jack" Franzi: Sinatra would go deal blackjack to a customer and say, "Do you like this card?" If not, he'd give them a better one. Poster: When I did that (to The Sopranos cast at the Golden Nugget), I got fined by the gaming commission. … Today, you're not going to see Michael Bublé (clowning around) at a blackjack table. (Headliners tend to head home or lie low after shows, the group says.)
Q: What other ways has Vegas changed?
Rita Rudner: All you used to be able to buy were a clock with dice hands and a mug with your name on it. Now the shopping is fantastic, and the restaurants, and the hotels! I used to hear they made the rooms ugly so you wouldn't want to stay in them and you'd go gamble. Franzi: No department made more in those days than the casino. In 1972, revenues were about 90% gambling. Now it's more like 40%. Shelley Berkley: I started working in the casinos when we were in the leisure-suit era … a whole different class of player. A lot of bus tours. Then we went through the family-resort time (in the late '80s), and thank God we're back to an adult Vegas. Vegas is an adult town.
Q: It certainly has been a boomtown, with thousands of hotel rooms still being built. Is there concern the economy will end the winning streak?
Berkley: I am concerned. I represent a couple of million people who depend on hotels and gaming in some way. We've usually been recession-proof, but (after big casino layoffs this year) our unemployment rate is a tick above the national average. And 46% of visitors come through the airport, and they're cutting flights. Poster: We're more vulnerable to recession this time around. Once, rooms were $40-$50 a night and meals were cheaper. (Now there are lots of pricier properties with higher overhead.) Breitling: We are embarking on the biggest building boom Vegas has ever seen. Some projects are stalled (due to lack of financing). It's going to be an interesting summer. People will come, but rates will be down. You are going to see great deals on the Strip, even double-digit rates (at lower-end properties). For a lot of people who felt Vegas was overpriced, it's getting more affordable.
Q: That will please folks who say they're getting priced out of Vegas because comped (free) rooms and meals are harder to get.
Breitling: What made Vegas great is when people came to town to be treated like a high roller even if they weren't one. It was an experience they didn't get anywhere else. Poster: A guy would go back to Schenectady and say, "I sat next to Sinatra at the blackjack table." They'd talk about it for weeks. Franzi: It used to be a guy could stay for a week (gambling) and never have to pick up a check. Now it's all statistics. You have to play (a certain amount of money and hours) to get comped. Berkley: When we were kids, everything was comped to get people to the tables. Now every department (at a casino resort) has to hold its own.
Q: Part of continuing to thrive as a destination is expanding your customer base. How is Vegas luring new visitors, apart from better shopping, restaurants and non-gaming hotels? Rudner: Now a lot of people come to Vegas to see a show. They want a spectacle — like Cirque du Soleil — and one where they have some rapport with a celebrity. Instead of Bette Midler and Cher impersonators, you have Bette Midler and Cher. Breitling: I think for the younger generation, their show is a nightclub and a deejay and a celebrity host or hostess. … It's getting past the velvet rope and getting a table and ordering a bottle (which can cost $500 and up). If Tim and I do a new hotel, you have to have a state-of-the-art nightclub and party pool.
Q: With all the new mega-projects, is Vegas getting overdeveloped?
Poster: I have a LIFE magazine from 1952. The headline was: "Is Las Vegas overbuilt?" Most of the answers were yes. Franzi: It's been said year after year, and they're always wrong.
Q: What's in the cards for Vegas?
Breitling: It still has the allure and a mystique that everyone loves. There are so many world-class resorts in one place. There's only one Paris and there's only one New York, and only one Vegas. Vegas has created a dreamy experience, and the question is what is going to be the next "wow" experience. I think the whole place is going to keep on growing, but the slice of gaming may go down. Rudner: In L.A., it takes years to get a movie off the ground. In Las Vegas, anything is possible (faster). There's such an entrepreneurial spirit.
Q: Meanwhile, aside from lower prices, what can visitors expect now?
Breitling: Hard times force (those who deal with visitors) to be a little nicer vs. being a little bit spoiled. It makes everyone get on their game again.