My first trip to Las Vegas

I am part owner of a company that just launched in January called Golden Delicious Apps. To get a feel for the market in the coming year, my partner Greg and I went to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show 2011.

We liveblogged the whole thing which you can read at our company blog.

But I’ve never been to Las Vegas before, so I wanted to give others who might not have experienced “Sin City” or “Lost Wages” or whatever other cutesy name you’ve heard, my impressions.

We took a cab from the airport to Harrah’s, where we stayed for six nights. It is in a good location (mid-strip and adjacent to a monorail station) was reasonably priced (I’m told) and had a nice, clean casino.

Observation #1

You can guess the relative age of a casino by how high the ceiling is. They just keep getting higher. And often, they’re painted to look like the sky.

With a big football weekend coming up as well as CES and the Adult Entertainment Expo, we heard that several hotels had filled for the first time in more than a year. A cabbie told us that unemployment was 20 percent and condo developers were cutting prices in half. We passed one condo development that offers residents free meals. Huge billboards advertise “Live here, eat free.”

We entered a town that really needed us there.

After checking in at CES, we strolled around the casinos and along the strip. Every other block contained rows of people handing out tiny cards advertising escort services. They were relentless without being pushy, if that’s possible.

An interesting aside: A week or so after we left town, a tourist made national news for suing one of these services. He paid for a lap dance ($150) and unnamed “sex act” ($120). He later claimed she didn’t stay for the full hour and when he reported her to the police, was reminded that prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas and pushing this point would likely lead to his arrest.

Every casino had a theme, a player’s club (get $5 in free slot play!) and special places tucked away for high rollers.

At Harrah’s, for example, they had Flavors, a buffet that boasts lots of different ethnic food choices as well as traditional buffet fare. There was a special door for VIPs (those who gamble enough to join the diamond or platinum player’s club). Once inside we all sat in the same dining room and ate from the same buffet. Does it really matter which door you go in?

In Vegas it does.

It was odd seeing so many people smoking in public. You can smoke in the casinos and bars. There are women in fishnet stockings walking the floor selling cigars and cigarettes. It was surreal. That being said, never once did I feel like the smoke was bothering me. the air filtration systems these hotels use must be amazing.

Observation #2

Aside from the hooker trading cards, Vegas isn’t all that sleazy. There are no strip clubs on the strip, for example. Instead, you have men offering free limo rides to the clubs and free drinks when you get there. What they don’t explain is how you pay for a cab back to your hotel after you’ve handed all your money to Kandee with a “K” and two “Es.”

There are big digital billboards for shows that seem like they might be a little sleazy, but they’re sterilized versions. Vegas is a family destination now. It’s still a little rough around the edges, but it isn’t like what you see in the movies.

Speaking of which: everything I knew about Las Vegas before arriving, I learned from movies.

High rollers are high rollers because they have money, not class:  “Ocean’s 11,” “Casino,” “Bugsy.”

There is an ugly dark side hidden away from the tourists: “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Showgirls”

No one is going to beat the casinos: “Vegas Vacation.”

My gambling was limited to a couple of sessions at the craps table at Casino Royale (the only place to find $3 tables). I managed to double up on a $20 bet and turned around and gave it all back to them the next day. I placed a couple of bets at the sports book. I contacted Badger to get his advice, since he watches nothing but the NFL channel and listens to nothing but sports radio (and NPR). He gave me four picks  and told me to bet $20-$50 on each one. I put $10 on the Saints (-10) against the Seahawks and the Colts (-2) over the Jets. Sure things, right? I quit betting after that. Finally, I played about $20 in a Star Wars-themed slot machine, which was a lot of fun. I can see how people can get sucked into these things and spend an entire day.

I think my favorite casino was Planet Hollywood. It seemed to be lively even on a Tuesday night. The Belagio and the Venetian were both gorgeous, but like much of Las Vegas, it seemed like I was looking at a patina of luxury, instead of the real thing. Traffic on the strip is a nightmare, but the city installed several pedestrian bridges to make it easier to get around and the monorail was quick and efficient.

Observation #3

In the casinos (but not the sports book) as long as you’re gambling, cocktail waitresses will come around and offer free drinks. The service is better in some casinos than others. At the Casino Royale, for example, during my 30 minutes at the craps table, I was offered at least three cocktails. At Harrahs, not quite so often. Cocktail waitresses dress in uniforms that show off cleavage. That’s just a Vegas fact. Some places show more than others, but all of them show cleavage. This is not always a good thing, as even women somewhat past their prime wear the same uniforms as their younger, more voluptuous counterparts. In some places, there was a disturbing amount of leathery, wrinkled cleavage.

Observation #4

It takes all kinds. It was BCCS weekend, so the place was crowded with football fans. At one point, I hit the elevator button and it opened pretty quickly. Inside were a black couple making out in the corner and an old man in an LSU baseball cap. The old man was hitting the “close door” button before I was even on the car. I heard him mumbling “Are we going to stop at every floor on the way down?” Irritated by that, I said “Well, you’re going to stop at my floor.”

By and large, Las Vegas is a great place to go for a long weekend. Six days, however, is a bit too long. The town has a way of adjusting your perceptions, so that you’re not totally certain what is a reasonable price to pay for things. Tourist traps are like that, but it’s cranked up to 11 in Las Vegas. Everyone wants a piece of the money you bring to town and if you leave with more than you came with, they know you’ll be back to give it all away. If you leave empty handed, they know you’ll return to double down. The town was built on the backs of men and women chasing their losses.

It was a great trip and I’m glad I went. I hope to go back, but I don’t hold any illusions about striking it rich. Much like the lottery, it only works if you play and I can’t bring myself to risk enough to make much of a difference. That’s my best advice to anyone planning a trip to Las Vegas: plan on doing things other than gambling. I saw a woman risk and lose $10,000 on the roulette wheel. She didn’t even blink. Trust me, unless you can do that, you’re not going to make a splash in Vegas.