Skyline view of the Las Vegas Strip. (Photo by Tom)
I was really looking forward to the Annual Meeting being in Chicago this year. I fell in love with the place when I was going to school in Indiana about ten years ago, so I was planning to visit the old neighborhoods. Plus, Singletary was out there now. And, Leslie Hall was even booked for a show when we were going to be there! The stars could not have aligned more. And then, they didn’t. By January, we were informed that, because of a labor dispute at one of the hotels, we would be moving the meeting somewhere “outside of Chicago.” I had hoped that choice of words meant that the new location would merely be somewhere close enough that Chicago could still be reachable by rental car or commuter train so I could still tour around, even if I had to now wait until after the Annual Meeting.
“Somewhere outside of Chicago” eventually turned out to be Las Vegas.
Never having actually been involved in planning the Annual Meeting, outside of our department needs, I only have a general idea of the criteria required to make the short list for location. It must be in a city fairly close to an international airport. The city should have some kind of “touristy” draw to encourage attendance. The event space(s) must be large enough to hold well over 5,000 attendees, vendors, support staff, and anyone else involved in running this thing, and accommodate over a thousand different sessions, meetings, workshops, and receptions, as well as a registration and exhibit area, press room, and temporary staff office. The venue(s) should be available for the roughly the same weekend in August we always hold the Annual Meeting. And finally, the weather shouldn’t be too terrible. With seven months left, our meeting services department had their shortlist. And in the end, Caesars Palace was the most accommodating.
The swirling lobby of Caesars Palace. (Photo by Tom)
You’re probably thinking… Las Vegas? Wot?! because I imagine that you already know what field I work in (sociology) and that you’d be expressing your astonishment about the conference location in a British accent. To which, I’d reply (in my regular American accent), “Yeah, I know! Right?!!”
Because when you think of Las Vegas, you probably think Vacation Mecca. Not exactly the kind of place for stodgy business like ours. I mean, if any business meetings should be conducted, it should be those trade show folks, right? The Pi Delta Pis to our mere Lambda Lambda Lambdas.
Did someone say meta-analysis?!!
Actually, one of the small, southwestern associations had their Annual Meeting in Las Vegas this year, back in the spring. But, we are the national association, and this would be the first Annual Meeting that we hosted in Las Vegas. We would be bringing thousands of people from all over the world to this one spot. And, we were well aware that this year would not be a typical one.
Even with all the sociological value inherent in that kind of environment, we had a lot of complaints from attendees about our location choice. My favorite was the attendee who so honestly admitted, “Las Vegas is a wonderland for a sociologist. If only I wasn’t so judgmental.” The most appalling was a video clip of an interview with a Brooklyn College professor who’s unforgiving disdain for Las Vegas made all look like a bunch of Yankee snobs. In response, a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun offered some biting advice: if sociologists don’t like Vegas, they shouldn’t come back.
The Annual Meeting is the one thing in this job I really look forward to every year. We spend most of the summer preparing for it, and in the end, it’s worth all the panics (and sometimes, freakouts) that come with trying to wrap up a dozen projects in time to present. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to get some face time with our membership, which isn’t really a substantial part of my job otherwise. Plus, I get to spend some quality time with my coworkers and former coworkers (a great time this year!), meet some of the locals, and represent Team Research.
The Annual Meeting is also an opportunity to travel somewhere on the company dime. I can’t really think of a better perk than that, except to do it more than once a year. Some of the staff almost never get a chance to leave the hotel because they’re so tied up with sessions and meetings and the like, but I spend the majority of my time working at registration, which means that my work day typically ends when registration closes for the day. That leaves a good amount of time for exploring. And, because Tom joins me on these trips (on his own dime), and he always does his homework about the places ahead of time, there’s not much time wasted figuring out where to go and what to see.
But, Vegas was never one of those places on my list of ideal or otherwise OK places to explore. I figured, I am mirror opposite of the type of tourist and consumer they are looking to attract. I don’t really gamble. I don’t go clubbing. I don’t play golf, or go to strip clubs. I don’t care much for shopping. And, I probably wouldn’t shell out a hell of a lot of money to see a show. I don’t even really drink anymore. So… I guess I could always hang out by the pool after the Meeting.
What do you mean the pool closes 8PM?! The topless one, too?!
That shake said hoof to the damn heat! (Photo by me)
On top of that, the executive staff were weirdly trepidatious in the orientation meeting a few weeks before we left for Vegas. It was as if they feared that we (and probably the junior staff more specifically) would instantly lose our senses once we got there. I think they may have reached age of Irrational Fears About Young Folks. You know, like maybe they were picturing something more like a kind of Palm Springs during an Mtv Spring Break shoot where, at any minute, a doting old professor could get slapped dumbfounded by a pair of wagging tits belong to some drunk college girl hoping to be included in the next Girls Gone Wild. (Clearly, I am too out of touch to provide more modern references than either Mtv or Girls Gone Wild).
I didn’t have favorable expectations of the majority of the Vegas Vacation crowd, either, but I was thinking it’d be something more like a mass of interchangeable Dudes reeking from a mixture of Axe Body Spray and shitty beer, and fake-tanned muffin top blonds stumbling around from hours, or possibly days of drinking. At most, we may have to step over someone passed out in the hallways on the way to our rooms? Certainly nothing we couldn’t handle, right?
One thing I did take to heart was when a senior staff member who had been to Vegas a couple of times before said that sex had become the higher priority commodity in Las Vegas. That seemed more plausible than the Mtv Spring Break titty-wagging scenario. Though, after hearing that, I expected to to walk away from Vegas completely revolted by humanity.
When another friend described the city as comically warped and seedy in a Fear and Loathing kind of way, I stopped listening to people. Though, there is something to be said for a place where your chances of committing suicide are doubled if you visit there, and for residents, reduced by 40% if they leave.
This Place Needs More Kool-Aid!
But, in the end, our first (and only) Annual Meeting in Las Vegas went fairly well (no suicides, either!). In fact this was one of my favorite Annual Meetings!
I can understand the complaints we got about having the Annual Meeting at Caesars Palace. Plenty of attendees approached the registration area winded from the long and confusing walk around the 84-acre property. The Conference Center was a separate wing of the hotel, and once there, it left little time to wander to other parts of the hotel between sessions, let alone outside at all, unless you didn’t mind getting your “fresh air” by the pool. With no escape during the Meeting, attendees and staff alike had to settle for tremendous lines and exorbitant pricing if anything was needed. And you know, sociologists can be some po’ folk! Needless to say, the policy of self-containment wore pretty thin for our staff and attendees alike. To make things worse, hotel staff and services were not great. Clearly, conferences were not a big part of Caesars Palace’s business.
Caesars Palace isn’t alone in its fierce megalomania. It is actually one of about 32 similarly massive, resort-style hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, and nineteen of those are the largest in the world. And, they aren’t hotels in the traditional sense.You don’t just book a room to sleep. These are your all-in-one playgrounds where you can fulfill your every Las Vegas vice without ever leaving the hotel if you wanted. Replete with sprawling casino floors, numerous restaurants, bars, clubs, stages, pools, spas, gyms, and even their own shopping malls, these hotels don’t just want your business, they want ALL of your business. Because Las Vegas isn’t just any other city. Chances are, if you go there, you expect to spend money, and frequently. And there a subtle and not-so-subtle cues to influence exactly that.
It was strange to be in that kind of place for work. Almost startling, in fact, to spend most of the day off in the Conference Center, only to walk back through the halls, passing guests on their way to the pool, snazzy wedding parties, bachelor parties checking in, and chain-smoking gamblers lingering by the bar.
Not pictured: shotgun-toting Angry Dad. (Photo by me)
Everything on the Strip, it seems is guided by the most basic principal of the concept of vacation: escape. It’s a four mile buffet of mostly pristine, isolated fantasy worlds that are intended to give you a sense of total escape from reality. Easier to, I suppose, in an area of almost total transience. There are adventure-themed hotels (The Excalibur, Treasure Island, and Circus Circus), miniature reproductions of other places (The Venetian, Paris, the Luxor, and New York, New York), general regional-themed hotels (The Bellagio, The Monte Carlo, Planet Hollywood, and The Flamingo), dated theme hotels (The Imperial Palace and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon), or simple elegance (The Wynn).
Ceiling in The Venetian (Photo by Tom)
These hotels are the works of art in an area so driven by crass consumption (and in an area where traditional museums and other cultural and historical sites are a bit further away). It’s not surprising to see people wandering the Strip to visit them, and there is plenty to draw their intention. You can watch a corny pirate show at night in front of Treasure Island. The Mirage has a competing Volcano show. But, the Bellagio’s Amazing Dancing Fountain show draws the largest crowds and is the most well done. You can take the kids to watch trapeze performers, ride the rides at the theme park, or play at the midway at family-friendly Circus Circus. The Imperial Palace has the world’s largest classic auto showroom; the Wynn has a Maserati dealership. You can ride a gondola around Venice or an outdoor roller coaster around New York. The Stratosphere has four more thrill rides and a rotating restaurant.
One of several segments of the Bellagio’s Amazing Dancing Fountain Show (video by kuboshin1)
There are wave pools and water slides and gigantic marble statues. The Bellagio has more than 2,000 of Dave Chiuly’s blown glass flowers on the ceiling of its lobby, a small fine arts museum, and a botanical garden that looks inspired by Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. Caesars Palace has a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The Mandarin Oriental has a replica of Claus Oldenberg’s typewriter eraser sculpture that NVV recognized from the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden in DC.
You can see live flamingos at the Flamingo and lions at the MGM Grand. The Mandalay Bay has the third largest shark tank in North America. It also has a restaurant with harnessed bartenders that repel up glass-enclosed walls for bottles of wine. There are pretentious celebrity restaurants all over, but they don’t seem to draw the same size crowds as the buffets. A trade show employee claimed to have gone to every one in town declared the Wynn’s to be the best as we waited on line to be seated at the second best (The Bellagio), where a fellow diner asked if she could take a picture of my dish of deserts. Stay away from Serendipity3 of you’re drunk or you might accidentally order the $1,000 gold leaf sundae.
Come to Vegas and the Osmonds will sing you a song. Jerry Seinfeld will tell you a joke. And, Cirque du Soleil will dazzle your eye. Yes, it seems that everyone has a gimmick, right down to the costumed strangers that line the sidewalks, ready to pose for pictures with you for a price. The place is a circus, teaming with activity. And yet, it’s such a small universe. Wander a few short miles in any direction and you’ll find just as ordinary a city as most any other in America. It’s like there’s an easy safety word that, when uttered, grants your steadfast return to reality.
Short of that, we have our temps who are hired locally.
“Where do you want to sit?” Someone asked me that as we were setting up registration this year, and waiting for the temps to arrive. “Next to the most interesting temp!”
I’ve been lucky. Four meetings and all of them with interesting temp buddies. Occasionally, you’ll find the perpetually silent has joined the ranks, like the kid we hired in Boston a few years ago who buried his nose in a science fiction novel when he wasn’t needed to hand out registration materials. At least for the sake of the staff, there’s a need for liveliness in th registration hall, let you become bored to death by the periodic lags in activity.
The temps always seem impressed with the production (“gig” or “show” in temp-speak) and the people, although I had some trouble this year trying to convince my conservative temp buddy that not all sociologists were covered in body tattoos and a million piercings.
…Just the young ones.
The temps always seem to get starry-eyed they hear that we come from DC. I guess it’s a certain romanticism about being in such close proximity to the national and international political scene, and with it, political celebrity. I sometimes wonder if they imagine that most everyone in DC works directly for the government in some giant, never-ending policy-making process. At least for a moment, though, the word “politics” invokes neither fear nor frustration, but rather, pride.
But, I wasn’t interested in talking about DC, or my job. These were people who worked in Vegas, entertaining with (or for) the stars, and those were far more interesting stories. Of the maybe ten temps that we spent the week with (there were more that worked in other areas that I didn’t meet), three came to Las Vegas for careers in showbiz. One was an old woman, probably no taller than 5 feet, who was a trapeze performer. She had me laughing to tears when she asked how people were supposed to get their job done when they worked for Barry Manilow, since he had required, by contract, that his staff look at the wall and not at him.
Two men were professional dancers, although one later became a fairly successful choreographer. The other came by way of New York, having been a regular on the Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett Shows there, before take a job offer in Vegas where he’s been ever since. I was hoping he could have told some stories about old Vegas, back when the revues were still a big draw. Now everything is Cirque du Soleil.
Another temp was British.
“Oh? Where are you from in England?” I asked, as if I’d know anything but major cities.
“Ware.” She got good mileage out of that joke.
One of my favorite shots by Tom who wrote: “You can visit shrines for beauty, shrines for gluttony and a real shrine in front of Caesar’s. Pure delight, I loved seeing this beautiful couple and wedding party in the Bellagio. That great smile on the bride’s lovely face proves real people are to be found, which really is forever fabulous.“
A short drive beyond the Stratosphere is downtown Las Vegas. I like that makes it sound like you to have to travel to another galaxy to get there, but downtown Vegas really does look and feel like another world compared to the Strip. I think of it as the Ghost of Las Vegas Past: a preservation of the glitz and glam and brown polyester of the old days. Fremont Street is the main attraction, nicknamed the Glitter Gulch for all that fabulous neon. The Neon Museum (founded in 1996) salvaged a lot of the signs from the businesses that disappeared (see below Tom’s photos of the now-defunct Silver Slipper, which is now displayed on Las Vegas Boulevard North). Some are stored in a boneyard, but there are several restored to their formal neon glory on Fremont Street.
Howard Hughes, who bought the Silver Slipper in the late 60s, feared that the government could plant surveillance devices in the shoe. (Photo by Tom)
Ironically, though, even with all that lighting paving the way downtown, the area is separated from the Strip by a demarcation of darkened city blocks, as though the downtown area was cast into the shadows, hidden from view (and memory) of those on the Strip, so as not to tarnish the pristine fantasy. But if you love kitsch, downtown is the place to go. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stop and photograph in the quickie wedding chapels (I’m told that Elvis will perform songs at Graceland Chapel, but that he is not licensed to perform the ceremony), nor see the world’s largest gold nugget (discovered in Australia) in the lobby of the Golden Nugget.
Essentially, downtown was the birthplace of what Las Vegas became. That was where the city’s first hotel was built (the Hotel Nevada, now called the Golden Gate has curiously earned a reputation for shrimp cocktail), and that hotel had the city’s first phone number. It is also the site of the first paved street and gaming license. But, despite all the history, the Strip remains the more popular of the two areas. When the gigantic resort-hotels went up on the Strip in the 1980s, the tourists followed, much to the detriment of the hotels and casinos downtown. In the early 1990s, a collective of hotel and casino owners developed the Fremont Street Experience with the hopes that it would draw tourists back downtown and create viable competition to the Strip instead of something that, despite all that lighting, would live in the shadows. With the slogan “Real Vegas, Deal Me In,” the collective capitalized on the area’s history as a source of authenticity. It binds together five blocks of hotels, casinos, restaurants, shops, and stages with an LED-lit vaulted ceiling covering the pedestrian walkway down the middle of the street. For a couple of bucks, you can zip line down the length of it.
Elliot Erwitt’s classic photo.
If the Strip were Disney World, the Fremont Street Experience would be its Downtown Disney. It isn’t the main attraction, but someplace relatively affordable and entertaining enough where you can go hang out (they have free concerts, too), though I suspect that it draws more locals than tourists.
Fremont Street, if nothing else, certainly draws more gamblers. During almost any time of day, the tables and slots in the higher end hotels on the Strip never really seemed to be doing much business. The tourists out there tend to be younger – kids in their 20s and 30s – who seem more content with hanging out by the pool, or in the clubs, or in the bars, save the few hot shots who seem to come for high-stakes play. Though, lack of gaming may also be another consequence of the Recession (Las Vegas lost out to Hong Kong as the city with the highest gambling revenue). Still, the older gamblers seem acutely aware that your odds are better in the older casinos. The Flamingo, the Imperial Palace, and Harrah’s on the Strip keep busy. And on the more affordable Fremont Street, the casinos all buzz with activity.
So there’s plenty going on in Vegas to keep even someone like myself plenty entertained (and even on a small budget). I don’t know why Las Vegas is so frequently described as seedy. I could probably believe that about Vegas maybe 30 and 40 years ago, when it was steeped in the glitz and glam of a promiscuous era, but not now. Sure, plenty of drunk, married Dudes had the nerve to keep their rings on as they chased tail around the Strip. And, you’ll probably pass about a hundred slovenly dressed men and women shoving flyers for the same Girls Girls Girls company at you, or see the yellowed ads for escort services lining the sidewalks.
I’m not really sure that any of these girls are really dying to meet you, but at least the phone number is easy to remember if you want to give it a try. (Photo by Tom)
There’s also the crass objectification of women (see Tom’s blog, “Tits Vegas”), like the topless pools and pretty female body parts so abundant in the ads, and decor, giving the Dudes plenty of Facebook photo ops. (Ads for Chippendales and its Australian equivalent, Thunder Down Under, are sparse by comparison). But on the surface, there isn’t really any kind of grotesque seediness about Las Vegas. Sin City’s real sins aren’t flaunted about in the public eye.
In the end, Vegas turned out to be a lot of fun (and many thanks to Tom, Matt, my coworkers, and the temps who made it so). My brother summed it up best: “For a one time experience as a non partier, I believe everyone should go once and see it. The hotels are magnificently done inside. It’s worth the time just to wander around aimlessly.”