Bill Hornbuckle has a classic Vegas story. After trying college in his native New England he dropped out to work at a hotel in Connecticut. Finding he had a knack for the industry, Hornbuckle migrated to the world’s premier destination for hotels—Las Vegas—and went back to school at UNLV before going to work in the casinos. Since arriving in 1977, Hornbuckle has held almost every job in the hotel business, starting out as a room-service buser and working his way to the top. Hornbuckle’s 30 years of experience working in Las Vegas led him to his current position as the chief marketing officer for MGM Resorts International, one of the biggest companies in the gaming industry.
What is one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the gaming industry?
For a couple of decades, as the industry matured, the town changed and we went from gaming-centric to, in the last decade at least, non-gaming-centric. Things like great accommodations, great entertainment, great food and beverages, great retail all made a difference. Up until the recent downturn, we were doing exceptionally well with that.
Does Las Vegas need to reinvent itself?
I think what’s important is that we continue to appeal to a cross-demographic profile. When you have an environment that needs 40 million people to successfully survive, it needs to be a little bit of everything for everyone and that’s a difficult proposition. When you spend $100-plus million for a show, the economics of that have to work. When you hire and retain world-class chefs and you spend millions of dollars on great restaurants, that needs to work. When you develop things like Crystals, and all of the world’s leading brands are represented, it needs to work independently as a business to be successful. The idea and the notion that Las Vegas could kind of rewind itself and go back to any singular proposition to save itself is probably remote. The value proposition is what Las Vegas grew up on, is known for, and now has returned. If you’re a convention attendee or corporate meeting planner or an individual coming out of Chicago, the value proposition in relative terms is like it was 15-20 years ago.
Can you imagine a time when Las Vegas isn’t relevant?
I certainly hope not. We’ve all invested a lifetime and a whole bunch of other folk’s money and our own trying to make this the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” and despite all that is going on in the past couple of years we arguably and easily can still stake that claim. I think we’d really have to falter.
What do you like about Las Vegas?
When I first came here there were 330,000 people, and now there’s 1.9 million in the Valley. It’s still a small-town feel to me. I think the creation of communities, I think the town has done a great job with that. Despite growing unemployment, despite our rank with education, it still can be a pretty positive place to live and I think people are surprised by that.
What don’t you like?
I miss the personalities that drove the buildings, drove the businesses, where they were individualized entrepreneurs who had a rich background. I miss some of that. Anytime you look at things in reverse when you’re younger it always seems bigger than life, but it felt that way then and now it’s become a very good place to come and make a living and enjoy, but it is different.
Is Las Vegas threatened by new gaming destinations?
I can remember when the idea of riverboats first came up, and we all thought we were going to go broke. What happened is it brought new people into the market. It exposed people to gaming and it exposed them to the experience and ultimately they wanted to come to mecca. I think when you look at the explosion of gaming in Asia it’s a little different. Macau will push $15 billion this year in gaming, when Las Vegas will be lucky to do $7 billion. That destination has grown to two and a half times this one, and will continue to grow. Singapore is going to be a $4 billion destination. That part of the world … they like to gamble. It’s mostly about gaming. It looks like Las Vegas in the 1970s in terms of how people react to it, but I think over time that will mature, too.
If you could talk to anyone in Las Vegas’ past, who would it be?
If I could sit down and have lunch with anyone it would be Howard Hughes, just to understand what he was thinking at the time and what he saw and what his vision was. He didn’t have to come here. He could have gone anywhere else in the world and spent his money.