Stratosphere's Level 107 Lounge.

Vegas for Everyman (and Woman)

Our city’s values are changing

Back in January 2015, the Stratosphere launched a marketing campaign aiming to capitalize on people who miss the old Las Vegas. “Take Vegas Back,” declared a series of billboards. Since then, the casino has amplified that message, promoting an alternative to a Las Vegas that some say has lost its roots. According to Rachel Hunt, the Stratosphere’s assistant vice president of marketing, it was the right idea at the right moment.

“At the time,” she says, “Las Vegas as a whole seemed to be boasting about their over-the-top experiences, which come at lavish prices. Research showed us that many visitors are looking for a fun time with value. While more and more casinos were abandoning this part of the market, we saw a growing segment that was not being served.” Currently, the campaign features a robust web presence as well as magazine and TV ads. A series of videos features characters ranting against (for lack of a better term) pretentious Las Vegas. Mixologists, vapor-infused steaks, entourages—all face the friendly wrath of the Stratosphere’s everyman/everywoman.

Since 2015, Las Vegas has moved just a bit further from its value-added roots. Resort fees (which the Stratosphere, like most Las Vegas hotels, charges) have increased and paid parking has implanted itself on the Strip. Slot machines are tighter, comped drinks rarer. Meals are more elaborate but more expensive. The average visitor is spending over 42 percent more on their room since 2014.

And yet tourism continues to increase and many would say because of, not in spite of, those changes. After all, Reno offers far better slot payback percentages than even local Las Vegas casinos, but visitors have not abandoned Sin City for more northerly pastures. And if the vast majority of Vegas visitors really preferred classic, value-conscious properties, then the Riviera would have bought Wynn Las Vegas to use for its overflow parking.

But with about 43 million visitors a year, there is going to be a (big shock) diversity of tastes. Some people want a mixologist to craft them a bespoke beverage from artisanal, locally sourced ingredients. Others just need a bartender to pour them a stiff drink. And that’s not just okay—it’s good. If history proves anything, it’s that Las Vegas needs to offer more than one thing to be successful.

If the vast majority of Vegas visitors really preferred classic, value-conscious properties, then the Riviera would have bought Wynn Las Vegas to use for its overflow parking.

Gambling used to be the main draw for Las Vegas—then came the proliferation of casinos in America. Last year, only four percent of visitors to Las Vegas said they came primarily to gamble. And 31 percent—the highest proportion in history—didn’t hit the tables at all. Gone are the days when the city could market itself to groups as dissimilar as gamblers who prefer Frank Sinatra and gamblers who prefer Liberace. More than ever, Las Vegas has to be many things to many people. Some find the upper range of offerings off-putting or pretentious. That doesn’t mean that all of Las Vegas should go back to basics, but an alternative is always welcome.

“Now some Strip casino operators,” says Hunt, “have started charging gamblers for drinks, and even free parking has become a rarity in this city built on accessibility. These are some of the perks that have historically made our city so unique and hassle-free. ‘Take Vegas Back’ remains relevant because our target market segment still exists.”

The most illuminating thing about “Take Vegas Back” might be that the Stratosphere, which opened in 1996, has become representative of classic Vegas. Retro Vegas doesn’t mean that Rat Pack any more—that’s old, old Vegas. Now it means themed casinos and amusement rides. The Stratosphere might not have Dorothy and the gang from MGM Grand or the Luxor’s talking camels, but it still gives the vibe of a Vegas that was safe but not yet sanitized and offers, as Hunt puts it, “real Vegas fun at a good value.”

Odds are, 20 years from now an enterprising marketing executive will hit on a brilliant campaign that recalls the golden days of Las Vegas, when Gordon Ramsay and Cirque du Soleil were competing for Strip presence and cocktails cost less than $30 (and were served by real human beings). As Hunt suggests, there is a future for the past.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center  for Gaming Research.