When Misti Yang and her husband relocated from Atlanta in 2008, she was aware of Las Vegas’ perception as a place where the concept of “community” is as foreign as a blackjack table in Amish country. She just didn’t believe it was true—or perhaps more accurately was determined to prove it wasn’t true. So soon after settling in as the new kid on the block, Yang went to work as a volunteer at the Neon Museum, figuring it was a good way to meet new people and a neat way to learn (and teach others) about her new city’s history.
Then, two years ago, she came across a job posting for Yelp, the online city guide whose mission is to bring people together through the support of quality locally owned businesses and activities. Yelp was looking for a Las Vegas-based community manager, and the outgoing Yang—whose résumé includes everything from analyst for Lehman Brothers to car saleswoman to manager for her husband’s violin career—knew she’d found her calling. “I guess I just thought that a community can happen anywhere.”
Yang got the gig in March 2010, and ever since she’s been busy connecting with her community, whether it’s reviewing the newest coffee house and boutique, or offline staging her increasingly popular monthly parties.
As you know, this is a city frequently criticized for a lack of community. So are you dispelling that notion?
Yeah, I guess. People say, “Psht, Las Vegas doesn’t have community.” Well, I have an amazing community. In fact, I have a community that other [Yelp] community managers are like, “Wow, your community is so active. They’re planning their own events and getting together on their own. How do you make that happen?” I don’t really know the answer all the time; I just think that there really are interesting, cool people here who do want to be part of a community. You just have to provide them a place and an opportunity to make those connections.
What kind of challenges do you encounter here that perhaps other Yelp community managers don’t have to deal with?
The unique challenge for Las Vegas is that it is very sprawling; there aren’t really a lot of little neighborhood pockets where you can just go and see a strand of locally owned businesses, which is really what Yelp is trying to support—truly locally owned businesses. So sometimes it’s a little bit of a struggle because, to a certain extent, Las Vegas has a lot of franchises and chains, we shop at the mall. So it’s a challenge trying to figure out and support what is truly locally owned.
What’s the one under-the-radar restaurant people should visit?
Over the past several months I’ve been obsessed with Mr. Tofu, a Korean place on Spring Mountain Road. And the reason is I’m obsessed with banchan, which are the free side dishes you get when you go to a Korean restaurant—they’re like the chips and salsa of Korean food, and I love them so much. And Mr. Tofu has the best banchan in Las Vegas.
What sort of local activities does Yelp have planned for the holiday season?
We are encouraging locals to take the Yelp Shops Local Pledge to buy at least one gift this holiday season at a locally owned shop. Also, there are “Give Local” events, which are a series of complimentary gift-wrapping stations where we will be collecting donations for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, and then there will be Shop Local events, including Shop Local Sunday at Town Square on Dec. 11 and Tivoli Village on Dec. 18.
You have a degree in American studies, so what have you learned about Las Vegas history since moving here?
I think it’s one of the true American towns. It’s very much the story of mankind’s ability to triumph over the desert. The city started as kind of a halfway stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, so the train is kind of what put Las Vegas on the map. That’s mankind’s ingenuity.
All kinds of human endeavors made Las Vegas a viable place, and I still feel like it’s very easy to make an impression here if you’re someone who’s passionate and willing to put forth a little proactive energy.
You used to volunteer at the Neon Museum. What was your favorite displaced sign?
That’s a tough one, but I guess the Moulin Rouge sign. I love the fact it was designed by a woman, Betty Willis, and the story of the Moulin Rouge is very important historically in terms of the desegregation of Las Vegas. And aesthetically, it’s a very beautiful sign. The Stardust sign is also amazing, and the story behind it was one of my favorites to tell. It kind of happened because they were trying to cover up a really ugly building. So they were like, “Let’s just put this gigantic sign all across the front of it. It will be fabulous, and people will come to see the sign itself,” and that’s exactly what happened.
You know, people think of [American] history in East Coast terms, like “East Coast history; that’s history! This is where the Boston Tea Party happened.” But Vegas has history and has culture, it’s just not like anything else. But it’s there, and you just have to kind of appreciate it for what it is. People get upset, like “Oh they blew up all the buildings on the Strip, and that’s really horrible!” And I understand in one respect why it is horrible. But to me, that’s Las Vegas. It’s just this ongoing energy of what’s next, what can be, what are the possibilities? Vegas is as much about energy as it is about its buildings.
What’s your secret dream job?
I love to dance—I love hip-hop music—and I always thought it would be fun to be a go-go dancer in a club. And my husband’s like, “Uh, I don’t know why you think that’s exciting.” Because I’d get paid to dance!
How tough was it for you to build the Yelp community here?
It really wasn’t. There are a lot of locals out there who are really enthusiastic about the community and about meeting [new] people. The [Yelp] community has grown really quickly, and the interesting thing is that … it’s very much a social-networking site. Everyone has a profile, you can send compliments to each other, you can “friend” people, you can send messages to each other. Then we have all these events where they actually meet each other in person, and they become friends. And the next thing you know they’re doing things as a group on their own, like going to First Friday.
Do you promote any businesses or stage any events on the Strip?
It’s a balance. The interesting thing is when I started this job, I got the impression that the people at [Yelp] headquarters thought, “The Strip? They’re not going to care about Yelp. They’re so big and powerful that they’re not going to worry about or be that interested in us.” But what I’ve found is that the Strip is actually very, very interested in Yelp, and they want to host events. And I’ve actually had to start telling them, “Listen, I try to only do one Strip event per quarter, so you’re going to have to wait a little bit longer to get on my calendar.” Because I really strive to have my events support the true locally owned [businesses]. And while there are some casinos that are truly locally owned, for the most part, I try to maintain more of an off-the-Strip [presence].
But I love going to the Strip; I’m not a local who’s like, “Ugh, I hate the Strip; I never go there.” In fact, my philosophy is that to enjoy Las Vegas, you have to enjoy the Strip. If you come here and you say, “I hate the Strip, and I’m never going there,” you kind of have this weird disconnect. Like how can you truly love Las Vegas then? Because the Strip is so much of what Las Vegas is. So it’s important for locals to find spaces on the Strip where they feel comfortable and valued.
Where’s the one place on the Strip we’d most likely find you?
Probably the Vesper Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I love hotel lobby bars, and Vesper sits right there with this weird [scene]. People are meeting people there, they’re coming and going, people are hanging out, there are some locals there, just this amazing energy.
What’s the best hidden deal in Las Vegas?
There is a makeup place called Vanity Flair, and I discovered you can get your full makeup done—and it includes lashes—for $25. That is really amazing. So now I’m totally looking for excuses for why I need to get my makeup done.
Is there a certain business or service you don’t review just because you’re not well-versed in it?
No, but I’ll obviously qualify a review. I’ll say, “I’m not really an expert in such-and-such, but these are my thoughts.” I think as long as you qualify it, it’s still a valuable opinion. Not everyone who goes to a coffee place is going to be an expert on espressos, but they’re still going to have an experience, good or bad.
Did you have to warm up to writing reviews of area businesses?
No, because the more I thought about it, I figured this was my civic duty—especially here, where it’s easy to just go to a P.F. Chang’s—to say, “Hey, I found this really cool local place, and I want everyone to know about it.” Or I want everyone to appreciate that Spring Mountain Road is this amazing place to go and experience wonderful Asian food. Or I want people to know that we can get amazing foot massages in Las Vegas 24/7. There are all these things that people maybe don’t really appreciate or know about that make the town spectacular.
Have you ever been taken to task—or worse—by a local business for a negative review?
No. But I think it’s because there’s a way to write a negative review that’s constructive, and I’m always very mindful because I understand that for a local business owner, your business is your heart and soul. And even if it’s the blatant honest truth, it hurts to hear a bad thing about your business, and I always try to keep that in mind whenever I write a review—like this is someone’s baby; this is someone’s life, especially if you’re a small-business owner. So I try not to be overly snarky or hateful.
But it works two ways. You have to think about the business owner, but at the same time I’m offering an opinion, and while I don’t know how many people will read that opinion, there’s someone who might decide to go out this one time to a place [I recommended] and they show up and go, “Oh my God, this is terrible!” So there’s a responsibility, which is why I try to be honest while always being constructive and without being unnecessarily negative.