I love talking to the cab drivers of Las Vegas -- well, most of them, anyway. The good ones are outgoing, chatty, and interesting; the really good ones are opinionated and let you know exactly where they stand, mostly on local issues. They get good tips. (Then there are the bad ones, who spend the entire ride telling you how put upon they are because people aren't tipping them enough... They get reasonable tips, as long as their driving skills don't leave me white-knuckled.)
During the five days I was in Vegas, at least three drivers told me that Vegas was in a financial hole. The guy who drove me to the airport was especially eloquent; he explained that one of the reasons things were worse than they used to be is because, as I said in my last blog post, the latest fashion for hotel/casinos was high glitz and high prices.
It used to be that people could come, get a cheap hotel room, have a steak dinner for very little, and then spend their money in the casinos and shows, he told me. Now, the prices of the rooms have gone up and the cost of a meal has skyrocketed, due to the fact that most hotel restaurants these days are independently owned and high-maintenance, many pushing fancy foods and famous chefs. So people are finding that they have to spend their money on accommodations and food, and have a lot less to drop in the casinos. As a result, the casinos need to make up the difference by charging more for rooms and bringing in more expensive outside vendors, and the cycle goes on.
The cabbie also lamented the fact that ordinary people - who used to make up a large proportion of Las Vegas' customers - now visit casinos and walk past shops filled with extremely high-priced merchandise that they couldn't possibly afford. This, he asserted, makes them feel bad, subverting the idea of Las Vegas as a vacation spot.
In short, he said - as did one or two others - Las Vegas has priced itself out of its former glory days as a place for working-class and middle-class people who enjoyed gambling to go and pretend, for a short time, that they were well-off and important. The rich, he shrugged, have other places to go.
You know, in writing this I've just become a bit embarrassed. It's not as if I ever really liked Las Vegas. When I first went for the Comdex trade show in 1993, it was all new and weird. My colleagues and I would go out after the show and walk along the strip, watching the volcano go off outside the Mirage, giggle at the elaborate costumes and decorations in Caesar's Palace, and then do a bit of judicious gambling. We'd have dinner at one of several restaurants without worrying about going over our expense accounts. It was fun.
Now, it's different. I thought perhaps it was me: that I had gotten older; that I wasn't hanging with a large crowd of friends and colleagues; that the overwhelming size of CES and the number of evening events had made it impossible to take the time to explore the city. But when I expressed this to several colleagues - and to one of the cabdrivers - they said that no, it was different. The "fun" hotels were getting seedy. It was difficult to find a reasonably decent place to have a middling expensive meal, never mind a good cheap one. It wasn't the same - and it wasn't getting better.
I'm not a gambler. I'm not fond of the way Las Vegas earns its money by persuading people to pour their money into what is essentially a black hole. But because I go there once a year, and because I've come to like some of the folks who work there, I feel bad for them and hope things can get better.