Are Bartenders the New Dealers?

For decades, becoming a casino dealer was a guaranteed ticket to a middle-class income, even without the benefit of a college education or long vocational training. But because of changes in technology and in the casino business itself, bartending is looking more and more like the new deal for post-recession Vegas.

The similarities run deep. Like dealers, bartenders are part of the party, watching people have the time of their lives night after night. Both jobs seem simple at first glance but actually have considerable technical, physical and psychological demands. And workers in both fields must work their way up a steep and sometimes rigid hierarchy.

Dealers typically start in smaller, off-Strip properties with lower toke rates before moving their way up the food chain, with the ultimate goal of working in a high-end casino that caters to high-rollers—not because dealers prefer hobnobbing with jet-setters over the green baize, but because those jet-setters tip more. Bartenders, meanwhile, must pay their dues as barbacks. And they’re frequently looking for the chance to move up, either for more action, more challenging mixology or hours that better suit their lifestyle.

Now here’s where the similarities end: Since 2006, the number of Strip employees working in beverage departments is up by nearly 20 percent. In the same time, the number of casino employees (of which dealers make up a significant portion) fell by nearly 12 percent. You don’t need to commission an extensive research study to determine what’s driving the switch: It’s all about money. During that same period, casino revenues fell by 9 percent, while beverage-department revenues increased by 27 percent.

Nightclubs and bars, even if they’re not owned directly by the casino, have become the public face of the resort. Hyde Lounge, operated by SBE Entertainment at Bellagio, is perhaps the best example: Late last year, this offshoot of a Hollywood nightspot by the same name replaced the stately, sedate Fontana Lounge, a space that matched the lakeside Italianate luxury that Steve Wynn thought would define the resort.

If DJs are the new stars of the scene, bartenders are the ones who make it all go down smooth—they’ve become indispensable to the Sin City experience. There are some caveats, though, to the bartender’s new place in the Vegas-as-land-of-opportunity myth. It used to be common to break in as a dealer and work toward becoming a top manager. It might be difficult to do that from behind a bar.

Even so, the rise of the bartender is significant. It says that, even as cards and dice are becoming less important, Las Vegas remains a town where personal interaction is paramount. Bartenders are increasingly becoming the front-line employees with whom visitors have their most lasting interactions.

The game might be changing, but the rules remain much the same.