Don Golledge lives in Wichita, Kan. For decades, he and his wife were regular visitors to Las Vegas. They honeymooned here in 1958. But he tells me that his most recent visit, in February, was his last.
"Las Vegas used to be one of the great destinations in the country," Golledge says. "No more! Greed has ruined a great city, which has turned into little more than a rip-off. You don't treat guests the way Vegas treats people anymore without consequences."
From Golledge's standpoint, Las Vegas is gouging its customers. He is miffed that he was charged $6 for a bottle of Coors Light, that he was charged $48 for two two-minute calls from his hotel room, that taxi drivers "seem intent on always taking you on the scenic route."
"It is one big screwing," he says.
Golledge believes Las Vegas, already facing a rough go of things in the global recession, will face even tougher times if it doesn't become a better bargain.
"Vegas has a lot of competition in this part of the country with all the Indian casinos," he says. "True, they're not Vegas, but they sure are a lot closer and cheaper. Why come that far to get screwed when I can go to a choice of 98 Indian casinos in Oklahoma?"
Golledge's observations call into question a long-held myth that Las Vegas believes about itself. This is the myth of Las Vegas exceptionalism. It holds that Las Vegas is the world's gambling mecca, unmatched and irresistible, and that no matter how many other states and nations legalize gambling and open casinos, Las Vegas will continue to draw an ever-growing crowd.
Devotees of this belief argue that Indian casinos, riverboat casinos, video poker dens and other forms of legal gambling spreading across the land are in fact good for Las Vegas. The theory is that once people get a taste of gambling in these places, they will be unable to resist the urge to "experience the real thing" in Las Vegas.
This belief has endured because there are a few ounces of truth to back it up.
First, Las Vegas remains the largest and most extravagant gambling resort destination in the world. Las Vegas-style casinos are popping up all over these days, but they can't match the concentrated splendor of the Strip.
Second, Las Vegas has, historically, weathered increased competition. When gambling was legalized in Atlantic City in the late '70s, Las Vegas worried that it would take a big hit. Las Vegas did take a hit -- the economy was in bad shape at that time anyway -- but not a big one. When Indian and riverboat casinos emerged in the '90s, Las Vegas hardly noticed, as it was enjoying its biggest boom period ever.
The problem comes when we think this exceptional state will last forever. As Golledge notes, casino gambling is readily available almost everywhere in the country today. A decade ago, most of the casinos outside Nevada were little more than dank warehouses full of slot machines. Not so today. A growing number of casinos outside Nevada have achieved a Vegas-level quality: nice rooms, good food, name-brand entertainment. They are learning fast.
Meantime, we got cocky. In the late '90s, a large portion of the casino industry decided that high-rollers were its primary focus. They built and renovated their resorts to cater to the monied crowd. The prices they charged for, well, everything skyrocketed.
Las Vegas casino companies obtained huge loans -- many billions of dollars -- to build even bigger and more fabulous monuments to the high-roller. Then the economy fell off a cliff, creating the Catch-22 in which the casinos are caught today.
It's time to lower prices. A lot of the big spenders are gone -- perpetrators and victims of the economic collapse. The casinos, responding to the changing marketplace, are cutting rates and offering bargains.
But they can't do this and pay their enormous debts at the same time. The math doesn't work. Thus, we have huge and once wildly successful casino companies teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Las Vegas overreached, and we're paying a heavy price for it now.
The experts agree: Las Vegas must put its proven knack for reinvention to work. We need the next "new" Las Vegas to complement changing economic and competitive trends. But it won't be easy, because the people tasked with this reinvention are too busy just scrambling for their survival.
The long-term answer is to find ways to persuade the Don Golledges of Wichita to come back and feel good about Las Vegas again. They won't pay $200 for bottle service in a natty nightclub, but they'll see a lounge show, enjoy a reasonably priced buffet and gladly gamble away money in the quarter slots.
This is what we do and who we are. It may not be as glamorous as some of us would like, but it's true to what got us here in the first place.