For Las Vegas locals, enjoying free parking on the Las Vegas Strip is right up there with spectacular shows, free cocktails for slot machine players and breathtaking desert sunsets. It’s virtually a right that comes with residency.
So the decision by MGM Resorts International to begin charging fees for parking at its 11 Strip hotels starting in the second quarter of this year is only slightly less controversial than a tagger defacing the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.
But it’s also a decision the company has studied for a long time, and not a snap decision. One of the largest gaming enterprises in Las Vegas would not make a call like this without anticipating the consequences.
Here are the basics: The company will build a brand-new, 3,000-space parking garage near the Excalibur hotel-casino. That will cost $54 million, and serve attractions including the new T-Mobile Arena.
In addition, the company plans to upgrade its existing parking garages with new technology that makes it easier for motorists to find a place to park. Signs will tell people how many spaces are left on a given floor of a garage. LED lights above spaces will alert drivers to open stalls, avoiding the frustrating hunt for a space in a packed venue. And ultimately, people will be able to check their smartphones to find out if a given garage is empty or full before they leave the house, so they can plan accordingly.
But no amount of new technology is going to ease the sting of people — especially locals — losing something to which they feel they’ve become entitled: free parking. (A company representative last week reminded the public that those “free” garages actually cost millions to build and maintain, with the company absorbing the costs.)
While we can appreciate the wails of protest, we’re compelled to point out a simple fact: At its heart, charging for parking is a business decision. And as with any business decision, the risk and the rewards will be determined by the free market.
If the people complaining about having to pay for once-free parking actually follow through on their threats to boycott MGM properties over the issue, the company will feel the pain in its bottom line. Other casinos, by contrast, will see an uptick in business as their free lots fill with new customers.
On the other hand, if the outrage doesn’t translate into action — if customers simply add the parking fees into their entertainment budgets — then MGM’s decision will be redeemed by those same market forces. (In that event, look for other casinos to follow suit, either to recover their own costs or to prevent savvy drivers from using free lots while visiting nearby casinos that are charging to park.)
Either way, however, the emotional and cultural turmoil that has been unleashed by MGM’s decision shows that Las Vegas has reached the end of an era, and is a helpful reminder that no commodity in this world is ever truly free.