The perks big-time gamblers get are legendary. Free rooms, free food, free everything. Private jets. Butler service. To non-casino people, a casino is a slightly glamorous, slightly seedy place. With thousands of dollars changing hands in seconds, it is alien to the usual, slow-paced, give-and-take of everyday life. The big rewards are part of the mystique that makes casinos, for some, seem like something out of a James Bond movie.
But those who work and gamble in casinos know that the reality is much more prosaic. While you will find jet-setting high-rollers in some of the Strip resorts, for the most part, casinos around Las Vegas—and the country—are filled with you and your neighbors.
Smaller-time gamblers play for smaller perks: T-shirts, six packs of soda, even meat thermometers. So it’s not surprising to get a Boyd Gaming promotion offering the chance to redeem B Connected players card points at the Artisan Craft Festival. It’s not the kind of perk you’d expect from cinematic Las Vegas, but it’s perfectly in tune with the reality of who actually visits local casinos.
June’s Artisan Craft Festival was hosted by Sam’s Town, in the Ponderosa Ballroom, tucked down a second-floor corridor across from the Bingo Hall. The room is filled with vendors selling the sorts of things you see at farmers markets and community festivals around the country, such as a Winder Farms booth and face painting. But there is more of an emphasis on handmade goods than usual, and the vendors are a cross-section of DIY Vegas entrepreneurs, selling everything from baked goods to sports memorabilia.
“This is about giving small businesses a chance.” – Sal Guianci
Helene Patterson, whose A Simple Time booth sells pins made from watch faces and parts, is a good example of the typical vendor. She saw jewelry made in that style and was entranced. Now she makes each piece by hand. As with many similar festivals, there are a number of jewelry sellers and candle vendors.
It might be inevitable then that Rosie Retza runs a booth called Jewelry in Candles, which features sized rings valued up to $7,500 embedded in scented candles. There might not be a better summary of what you’ll find at the festival.
The floor is bustling as vendors chat with passersby, children get their faces painted, people sign up for raffles and goods change hands. It could be a wholesome Sunday afternoon festival in any community. Outside of the name-badged employees visiting on their break, there’s little to suggest it’s happening in a casino.
Numerous vendors credit the success of the Artisan Craft Festival to organizer Sal Guanci, who is buzzing around, answering questions, delivering drinks and generally making himself helpful. For him, the festival is a chance to give back.
“Each month we benefit a different charity,” Guanci says. In May it was the VFW and in June, it was the USO; the Hawaiian Christmas in July at the Suncoast will help Toys 4 Smiles, a local nonprofit that makes and distributes toys to children in need.
Putting together the monthly festival is a calling for Guanci, whose Happy Event Productions stages the events. “This is about giving small businesses a chance,” he says, and the vendors gathered around nod in agreement. Guanci makes himself accessible—he puts his personal cellphone number on the festival’s fliers.
“Sal is like family,” says artist Deb Tsakalos, whose Funky Folk Art offers fun portraits, mostly of birds, on recycled canvas and cabinet doors. “He’s why we keep coming back.” Again, there are nods.
Indeed, the Artisan Craft Festival is very much on a family scale. With free cake, door prizes and a roster of regular vendors, it’s the sort of thing that you expect to see in Smalltown U.S.A., not a large casino. But this is Sam’s Town, which gained fame as the title of the Killers’ album released 10 years ago. Since 1979, it has catered to a local, unpretentious crowd that’s more about satin jackets and body scrubs than foie gras and caviar.
The scene in the Ponderosa Ballroom might run counter to expectations about how Las Vegas casinos reward their patrons, but the real Las Vegas often does that. “Family” business once meant bagmen carting the skim off to Kansas City, but these days it’s more likely a grandmother buying essential oils for her daughter. That’s the reality.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.