A holiday weekend in Las Vegas

September 5, 2023 6:38 PM
  • Dennis Conrad
September 5, 2023 6:38 PM
  • Dennis Conrad

I recently spent a three-day holiday weekend in Las Vegas. I’d been there a couple of times since the pandemic, but on those occasions I had some specific tasks and didn’t get to root around as much as I normally like to. This time I rooted around quite a bit.

Story continues below

I exchanged a couple of hours of consulting with a former client to pay for my room and had a free beater car (named Crusty) given to me by a friend for use in roaming the area. Except for the $400 round-trip airfare from Reno to Las Vegas (fares have doubled since the pandemic), it was about as cheap a Las Vegas trip as you can make nowadays.

I stayed away from the Strip on this visit. With the holiday crowds, traffic, road construction (including the extensive road customization to prepare for the upcoming Formula 1 race), I kept my rooting around to downtown, some offbeat out-of-the-way casinos, and a couple of neighborhood joints. Here are some of my observations.

Downtown Las Vegas

I compare downtown Las Vegas (and its Fremont Street Experience) to New Orleans — lively, fun, a little seedy with lots of schlock. What I noticed that has changed downtown is that the casinos are nicer, an interesting contrast to the outside Fremont Street Experience that is schlock personified. The new Circa and the Golden Nugget are classy joints and most of the other properties have upped their games as well. The Fremont in particular has done a good job in sprucing up an old property and its new Food Hall is well done with interesting food concepts and instructive for other casinos considering this “buffet- replacement” strategy. And Derek Stevens’ Circa, D, and Golden Gate operations have done a great job of setting the vibe for Fremont Street

The Downtown Grand

The Downtown Grand is a nice, interesting, casino hotel property, two blocks off the beaten path. It has lots of hotel rooms (three towers, one less than three years old) and a small gaming operation (less than 400 slot machines). This has created some marketing challenges for the Downtown Grand over the last decade. Are we a hotel? Or are we a casino and if so, what kind of casino? Well, the Downtown Grand has begun to figure it out and siphon off some of the rivers of people flowing along Fremont Street a couple of blocks away. And it’s doing it by going against the current industry grain of squeezing customers and instead is offering them uncommon value. The DTG has a hot dog cart where you can get a Nathan’s and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for two bucks. They have a shot-and-beer special at the bar and $1 blackjack (and have gone from one such game to three; think it’s working?). They don’t charge resort fees for Las Vegas locals or subscribers to the Las Vegas Advisor. They have electronic crap games and roulette games where you can bet as little as a buck. The Downtown Grand’s value approach of “Making Downtown Las Vegas Great Again” has clearly made the small casino much more profitable and the vibe much livelier.

Circa

It was my first time to visit Circa downtown. I had questioned whether an entire casino operation could have a sportsbook serve as the hub of its operation and be the property’s calling card. Well, being there for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Las Vegas’ home team, the Golden Knights, playing in them, I can now admit that I was wrong. Seats along the three-story sportsbook amphitheater-like viewing area were packed. Many of them were video-gaming-terminal seats with players making bets at all of them as they watched the games on the huge video wall. While few casinos can match Circa’s sportsbook, they surely can learn from Circa how to leverage their book to drive business for their casino, hotel, restaurants, shops, and pool. Who said sports bettors were low-value players? Not Circa.

Emerald Island

Way out in downtown Henderson is an amazing locals joint called the Emerald Island. A friend told me I needed to go there, because it was my kind of place and give me a lot to write about. Well, he sure was right. The casino was packed on an early Sunday afternoon. The bartender was loudly discussing the Golden Knights’ recent playoff win, singing while he was making drinks and calling the obvious regular Emerald Island customers by name. There were more penny slot games than I’d ever seen in a casino. The food in the Emerald Island Grille was both good and cheap; I received a free Skillet Breakfast for earning my first 100 points. When I signed up for the Emerald Island Players Club, the club rep called a host who immediately came over to thank me for coming to Emerald Island, explain all the benefits I received as a first-time player there, tout the numerous casino promotions that Emerald Island has going on all the time, and ask if there was anything else he could do for me. Emerald Island is the ultimate player-value casino that proves “if you give it, they will come.” Look for a full description of this quirky player-focused “house of player worship” in a future CDC Gaming Reports column!

Only in Las Vegas

On this holiday visit, I noticed (or re-noticed) several things that could only be found in Las Vegas:

  • A punk-rock bowling event downtown complete with a raucous pool party and rotating punk rock bands playing. The surprise for me? Most of this crowd were 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings. I must be getting really old.
  • The classy Vintner Grill gourmet restaurant, at its upscale bar, has seven video poker machines and runs a play-$25-get-$25 promo on Sundays, creating an interesting mix of gourmet diners and advantage players.
  • The Heart Attack Grill on Fremont Street continues to thrive, with its scale outside the restaurant, Triple Bypass Burgers and Flatliner Fries, and free food for anyone weighing 350 pounds or more. Go figure.
  • A Hispanic casino, Ojos Locos, fully caters to Hispanics with attractive female bartenders at the Hooters-like bar, themed slot games, and plenty of varieties of Mexican beer. I wonder how the place is doing.

It was great fun to be back in Las Vegas and to see it thriving again. After all, Nevada is my home state and Las Vegas, and all of its tourists, are a big reason we have no state income taxes here. So while I bemoan some of the price gouging, short staffing, and maintenance needs I noticed on this holiday visit, I urge tourists to keep coming and Las Vegas casinos to show them a little more love, plus more understanding of why they come in the first place.

Earlier posts by Dennis

It’s okay, they won’t know or care!

Crazy ideas I fell for

The Blonde Elvis

How to stop gambling from being banned

What about these Electronic Crap Games?

Some overdue recognition

My top 10 casino pet peeves

Service you can trust. Really.

I Need Help!

Top 10 things casino players hate

Making lemons out of lemonade

David Kranes: The most unappreciated man in gaming

Two Dinosaurs Walk into a Bar

The magic of Barona

My Top 10 big-picture casino-industry trends

I am your customer

The Rad Bar — If I owned a video poker bar

Stop eroding player value

What? You’re still alive?