It'll never have the steely gravitas of Atlantic City (subject, and title, of Bruce Springsteen's most depressing song), nor the convenience of nearby Indian casinos sprinkled throughout the country, but Las Vegas stands alone as a place to visit. Wags have pointed out that only two cities in America are spelled with an exclamation point: Vegas! and Sturgis!
Las Vegas' status as America's biggest gambling destination remains unchallenged, even with laws being liberalized throughout the country. Today, every state other than Hawaii and Utah offers some for-profit form of taking advantage of people who are weak at math. (Tennessee started selling lottery tickets in 2004.)
Vegas Makes a Lot of Money ... Right?
Last year, Nevada casinos took in almost $11 billion, the Las Vegas Strip accounting for about $6 billion of that. Those numbers represent 3 and 5% increases, respectively, over the past year. Are the numbers impressive? Like almost everything else in life, they're relative. Constant dollar revenues are barely where they were in 2003, which is before several major Las Vegas casino resorts even existed: Aria, Cosmopolitan, Wynn, Encore, Planet Hollywood and Palazzo, among others.
So really, gambling in Las Vegas isn't doing all that well. However, as some anonymous pundit - perhaps John Maynard Keynes - once pointed out, life is a series of short runs. The Strip is rebounding in a similar fashion to the way Wall Street has, if you're using 2003 as your base year.
That's if you look at gambling handle only, the metric that the state of Nevada has been using to determine the strength of the economy - or its most notorious component, at any rate - since the legislature decriminalized games of chance in the 1930s. What gambling handle fails to take into account is that in the 21st century, non-gambling activity becomes larger relative to gambling activity, every year.
If you haven't been to Vegas since the days when Frank Sinatra was degrading women and it was legal to smoke in any closed area, then you should know that things have changed. Just a little.
A Changing Industry
Even as recently as a generation ago, the casinos saw food and drinks as loss-leading gambler fuel. Fill them up with something cheap and satisfying to keep them awake long enough to play marginally more blackjack. Back when casinos were owned and managed by the kind of people who weren't preoccupied with the niceties of legal procedure, this business strategy worked fine. The idea of someone coming to Las Vegas for the express purpose of eating Michelin three-star cuisine, or paying four digits for an evening of nightclub bottle service was as foreign as … well, as the idea of a replica Egyptian pyramid guarded by a life-size Sphinx, or a 1,149-foot skyscraper with a roller coaster on top.
Today, however, the man generally regarded as the world's finest chef operates not one, but two restaurants in Las Vegas, one of them featuring $235 entrées. That's not for novelty dishes that no one ever orders, either. People eat Joël Robuchon's crispy soft-boiled egg with smoked salmon and ossetra caviar every night of the week. The entertainment consists of something well beyond crooners and a past-his-prime Elvis. No self-respecting hotel/casino opens its doors without a state-of-the-art production extravaganza performing in its showroom. Just one of the several Cirque du Soleil revues on the Strip cost $220 million to put together, including the construction of a purpose-built theater.
You might think all of this money is a boon for Nevada's residents, but you would be wrong.
Beneath the Glitter
Two years ago, Nevada wrestled away from Michigan the title of "state with the worst unemployment rate," and it doesn't appear ready to relinquish that dubious honor anytime soon. Even in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the state, where the gold mines are, unemployment has doubled in the last five years (although it's still far lower than it is throughout most of the rest of the state, where the gambling industry predominates.) To summarize, while Las Vegas (and Reno, Lake Tahoe and Laughlin) has enough slot machines and table games to sustain a clientele, it has too many to sustain a working population that boomed beyond its bounds in the last couple of decades. People came to Nevada with the promise of jobs, got them, and then got laid off, but loved either the climate or the lifestyle too much to leave.
Some of the most grandiose projects intended for the Las Vegas Strip in the last few years never got off the ground, or did so only in the most literal sense. Echelon Place was supposed to have risen from the ashes of the demolished Stardust, but its skeleton has lain dormant for four years. Fontainebleau officially topped out in 2008, but the construction crane that caps it remains a lonely sentinel, 62 stories in the air.
The Bottom Line
If you plan to make your living in the gambling industry, it's never been a worse time to break into the ranks of the dealers and pit bosses. However, on the consumer side of the equation, things have never been better. The dining and entertainment speak for themselves. The hotels offer amenities that rival anything in midtown Manhattan or the City of London, and prices have fallen because of increased supply. Flights are cheap and plentiful to the world's 22nd busiest airport, which sits just three minutes from the Strip. As they say in other, less capricious businesses, it's a buyer's market.