Thursday, April 7, 2011

How Responsibly Do Casinos Want You To Game? Not Very.

Yesterday, I needed to look up when the Monte Carlo offers free gambling lessons for an upcoming update of my Random House/Knopf guidebook of Vegas. I went to the resort's website, then clicked on the tab for CASINO and found myself on a screen with many options.

This one intrigued me:

Huh. What exactly is a "Responsible Gaming Tour"? I clicked on it because I thought perhaps it would lead me to the dates and times for those free lessons. Knowing the rules of the games is certainly one way to play responsibly, no?

Well, no. When you click on that, you end up with this:

When you click on this video, you watch a lesbo-erotic scene at a craps table where sexy ladies score big on a bet.

That looks like FUN, right? Winning, duh!

OK. So imagine this. You think you might be an addicted gambler and you want to know more, and the first thing you see are the words "HIT THE CASINO." Awesome! Then, after being inserted in this girl-on-girl fantasy of gambling, you scroll down below to boilerplate about what a phenomenally altruistic place the Monte Carlo is. A variation of the the same screed appears on every MGM Resorts site that provides a responsible gaming section -- the sites for Aria and Circus Circus don't even bother, which is interesting -- and what is there is very poorly written, self-congratulatory hooey.

Go look for yourself; the first 260 words of the 400-word copy block is all about the things the resort does to combat problem gambling. Only near the end -- almost as an aside -- do they stick this little bit of useful intel:

If you feel you need help, please call the following 24-hour confidential national hotline:
Nevada Council on Problem Gambling 1 (800) 522-4700

Yeah. They're really trying to help you.

I became curious, so I went to see what the other casino sites do on this score. The results were fascinating and surprising. The Mirage, MGM Grand and New York-New York were reasonably straightforward and appropriately understated...

...but some of the others offered imagery that defeats the message. Mandalay Bay and Luxor, for instance, think happy hot babes aptly illustrate compulsive gambling... did Hooters, although it's hard to understand why Hooters couldn't do a better job on this, uh, front:

I like how the Bellagio seems to suggest that the addictive-inclined may find alcohol a wonderful alternative to putting the college fund on the Steelers:

There's also the having-fun-and-getting-lucky approach of MGM Grand Detroit, Stratosphere, Foxwoods, the Tropicana, Treasure Island and all the Boyd resorts:

The Excalibur also seemed to imply compulsive gambling could lead to a happy relationship...

...although maybe they're making a subversive remark about this woman's impaired judgment seeing how her alleged paramour also appeared here:

The Caesars Entertainment properties all feed to the same place where, evidently, gambling makes you very happy and royal flushes are yours for the taking:

The trouble with Caesars is their sites don't even offer a responsible gaming tab under the heading for casino information. Instead, you must scrape the bottom of each resort's site to the fine print. Here's the whole Caesars Palace homepage...

...and way, way down on the bottom, look at what you find:

The Boyd properties pull the same gag:

Like MGM, the most important thing to Boyd and Caesars about responsible gaming is . . . how great Boyd and Caesars are about responsible gaming. Of the 2,200 words of blather on Caesars' site, it takes 900 before they get to what you should do it you think you're an addict. And even then it's all about them, see:

In 1995, Caesars Entertainment helped fund the creation and start-up of the first national helpline (1-800-522-4700) for problem gambling - providing callers with counseling and direction to local assistance in any state. Our funding to assist local health service agencies, councils, and seminars continues yearly through funding efforts by our corporate office and casino properties. Knowing gambling problems can potentially reach the "other side" of the table, Caesars Entertainment provides confidential counseling assistance for employees through our Employee Assistance Program.

Gosh, aren't they just the noblest?

The Palms and Cosmo don't dress up their RG sites. Look how plain and unadorned they are:

Meanwhile, the art on the Wynn site is at least appropriate, showing some manicured shlub forking over his dough...

...and this guy in the Station Casino image doesn't look like he's enjoying at ALL.

Still, in all these cases, links to various entertainment and gaming options -- where you'll find happy images of lucky, sexy winners, no doubt -- are right there next to the wet-blanket message. Can you imagine a site for information about alcoholism that has links to all the best brands of beer and the nearest saloon? Or a sex addiction site adorned by images of really hot, undressed men and women? Or an overeaters anonymous site with fried chicken-and-Doritos wallpaper?

I do appreciate the simplicity of the copy on the Palms' page. This is all there is, and perhaps all that's necessary:

For most people gambling is entertainment
For others, it can be a serious problem. Report a problem.
Gambling is exciting, entertaining and should be fun, but for some it’s a serious problem.
If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, please call 1.800.522.4700 or visit the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling at

Two examples of better efforts stood out from my survey.

First, Borgata in Atlantic City. This is interesting because it's co-owned (for now!) by MGM Resorts, which does a poor job of providing Web information and often packages it with such defeating imagery, and Boyd, which makes visitors pull out a microscope to even find the RG link. The Borgata's RG tab is still hard to find -- the link is tiny and at the bottom of each page -- but then there is this pop-up:

There's a lot less of the we're-so-awesome crap; it's just straight advice on what to do and how to define problem gambling. But more importantly, it's disembodied from the rest of the site. Plus, they make it easy to print out, too. It's as if someone's thought about this or something.

But the folks who do this the best and most sincerely are . . . the Las Vegas Sands. I know, that shocked me, too. They make their RG section so prominent on their homepage that Google shows it as a top option...

...and they seem to have considered what sort of art to display with their message:

You wanna be that despondent fellow? I sure don't.

What's more, there's some brief blah-blah about what Sands does but much more prominent is the hotline phone number right there for where to call. And rather than littering the page with all sorts of advertisements and links enticing you to do the activity that you're concerned you can't stop doing, you see this rail instead:

Check it out. This is how it ought to be done. Given that LVS CEO Sheldon Adelson actually once told me that there's no such thing as gambling addiction in Asia, I'm further impressed that there's information and an organized program available specific for Macau and Singapore. Then again, Adelson's wife is an addiction specialist, so maybe it's her influence.

Bottom line is that it's clear from the material that MGM, Boyd and Caesars, among others, view this primarily as a feel-good public relations tool rather than information that could save someone's life. If they were serious about this they would:

* Skip all the yappity yap about how responsible they are and lead with how you can get help
* Make sure visitors don't have to hunt too hard to find the information on every page of their sites
* Choose imagery that does NOT whet one's appetite to do that which the visitor is attempting to abstain
* Set up a page separate from the rest of the site without alluring links

I didn't intend to do all of this -- I got on a kick and couldn't stop -- but I think this is a pretty important matter. Anyone who has ever had an addiction knows how hard it is to stop. If the casino industry actually wants to be taken seriously, they need to fix this today. Otherwise, their next "Responsible Gaming Week" will be a farce.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Show is UP: Top Of The Stratosphere

You read the column, now hear the conversation. Stratosphere CEO Frank Riolo offers a candid, in-depth assessment of one of the most beloved and distinctive of Vegas landmarks. Also, hear Carolyn Goodman correct the record on Oscar Goodman's drinking and listen to me foolishly complain about not being able to lay money on Butler from my iPhone. Hah. Enjoy. Click on the date below to play or right-click to save the show. Or you subscribe -- for free -- in iTunes or Zune and you'll always get it first. -sf

April 5: View From The Top Of The Stratosphere

The announcement of the closure of the Sahara means a lot for Vegas historians and enthusiasts, but it also will have some consequences for one of the city’s most notable landmarks, The Stratosphere. As that resort turns 15 years old this month, it finds itself increasingly isolated north of the Strip right when new management has been spending millions to clean it up and modernize it. We’ll hear in this episode from Frank Riolo, the CEO of the Stratosphere’s parent company, American Casino and Entertainment Properties, about what’s in store for the fifth tallest structure in America. Will there ever a casino at the top of the tower? Why did Steve Wynn scream Riolo? And what does Riolo wish he could ask the ghost of Bob Stupak?

In Banter: Getting to the bottom of Oscar Goodman’s drinking, looking at legalizing sports and mobile gambling, Expedia’s new loyalty program and Steve & Amy’s Liberace adventure.

Links for stuff discussed:

Steve's Tablet Mag piece on the Jewishness of the Goodmans
Norm Clarke on Britney’s potential Vegas headlining gig
Reviews of Charlie Sheen in Chicago and Detroit
Steve’s AOL News piece on the efforts to legalize web poker in Nevada and several other states
Liz Benston’s cool first-person piece on the Leroy’s online sports betting thing in the Las Vegas Sun
Budget Travel has details on Expedia's new rewards program
A Twitpic re: Bellagio Furniture in L.A.
The Stratosphere and ACEP's home pages
A Sun piece on the Stratosphere renovations
Steve’s LVW column about Gladys Knight

Hating Myself For Liking Terry Fator's Gay Puppet

If the question a few weeks ago was whether I was capable of giving Criss Angel a fair shake even though I'm not a fan of his off-stage antics, this week's piece proves that talent actually will win me over most of the time. I went to "Believe" for that earlier column trying my best to give it a shot, but I went to Terry Fator last week determined to dislike it. And then I didn't because Fator may be square and corny, but so I am. Here's this week's Las Vegas Weekly entry. And, for the record, since readers seem to like it when I give grades, I'd now give Fator's show a B+. -sf

Finding the fun in Terry Fator’s gay puppet

This was supposed to turn out differently. I had planned this column out weeks ago, knowing precisely how I’d react and what I would have to say. All that was left was to find the gory details that would entertain and appall all of you.

I’m allowed to do this. Yes, reporters are expected to be unbiased, but not columnists. We can make assumptions, bring our personal baggage to bear, set out to prove our hunches correct, make arguments and take sides.

Still, sometimes reality presents itself and we must admit we were misguided. We must, however painful and embarrassing it may be, acknowledge that we had it wrong.

So here goes: I love Barry Fabulous.

Read the rest at LasVegasWeekly.Com

The Mayoral Primary & The Race of The C.G.s

As I pretty much anticipated in last week's AOL/HuffPo piece, it's Carolyn Goodman versus Chris Giunchigliani in the June 7 general election for Las Vegas Mayor. And it'll be a bruiser, if the remarks found in my AOL/HuffPo piece this morning are any indication. With Chris' amazingly tight 15-vote win over Commissioner Larry Brown for second place, it's pretty fair to say that the controversy generated by Mrs. Goodman's remarks to me probably energized Giunchigliani's folks just that tad more that put her over the top.

As I did with Carolyn Goodman, I plan to sit down with Giunchigliani for an in-depth conversation about her life and background soon. And lest anyone in the Vegas press wonders, all indications are that this race is of great interest to the large audience of tourists who read this blog, our podcast and my Twitter stream. The Carolyn Goodman interview quite quickly became one of the top-downloaded discussions I've posted in The Strip feed in at least a year.

Speaking of which, a few folks now tell me that when they try to download the Goodman interview, they're only getting a three-minute file. I'm really not sure why that is, or why some people are having no trouble while others aren't. However, at the very bottom of this post is a nifty little widget on which you can play the show. I just discovered this page and it's not our actual show site -- trust me, we don't have 0 subscribers -- but it's another way to hear what we have to offer. As you can see to the right, the file is absolutely nearly two hours long.

So it was certainly interesting stopping in last night at the various campaign events. I hadn't had any contact with either Goodman since all of this hullabaloo broke out, and the first thing that happened was Mayor Goodman pointed at me and bellowed, "You! You're no good!" I took it in stride, but he made a few more derogatory snarks about "stupid blogs" and grabbed a few campaign volunteers to quiz them on their views of the DREAM Act. His point was that most people aren't versed in such political minutiae; I reminded him that most people aren't vying for major public office, either.

Anyhow, Goodman chilled -- or at least I was undeterred from quizzing him about the race -- although there were a few remarks about "whacking Friess." Later I sat down again with Carolyn and she gave me this remark:

"The political world is all about bits and pieces and people taking shots and taking things out of context. That's the name of the game. If you don't like the fire, get out of the kitchen. If you know what's inside, those things don't penetrate, and you know things are not true."

It was pretty clear what she was getting at, and both Goodmans made that charge in veiled or direct ways during my time over there. Then, a little later, we had this exchange:

Goodman: I have a 10 o'clock appointment, no I have an 8 o'clock appointment, I have a manicure, very important. Downtime for me. And then I have an appointment with the media group here to plan what kind of media we want to do going forward for the next couple of months.
Friess: You're not going to take any time off from campaigning?
Goodman: Oh, I love this.
Friess: You love what?
Goodman: Oh, I love campaigning. I have loved it.
Friess: Really?
Goodman: Yes, I've really loved it. I have met so many fabulous people that are working. They're so awesome, they're great. And I've loved it. And any time there's a jab or somebody takes something out of context...
Friess: I didn't take anything out of context.
Goodman: Oh, are YOU guilty!
Friess: No, I just know...
Goodman: Yeah? Hey, look at this! Oh my gosh, you look so guilty.

At that point, her attention was turned elsewhere and it was a lighthearted exchange. And while I'm not surprised by the standard-issue notion that she felt her words had been twisted, I want to remind everybody of two facts:
  1. The exchange was published verbatim and in context online.
  2. The audio of the conversation was posted in full for all to hear.
Nothing was taken out of context. But this is how politicians do it. Mrs. Goodman claimed she isn't a politician, but blaming the media is a hallmark that she's learning very, very quickly.

One more thing. I got a little accidental screen time on Fox5...

...while sending out this tweet.

Here's the audio widget for the Carolyn Goodman interview:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is Cosmo Cooling Off?

Our old pal Robert LaFleur of Hudson Securities is back with another entry in his weekly Vegas rate tracking effort and there are some interesting indications that the well-received Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas may be starting to cool off just a tad.

Every week, LaFleur marks down the asking rates for basic rooms on Wednesdays and Saturdays over the coming three months. This way, he can see from week to week and over the course of the three-month period who is raising and dropping rates and by how much.

Among his findings:

* Cosmo lowered its rates on nine of the 17 dates checked in April and May and raised them on one day, 5/14, by $10. Among those changes, the rates for 4/9 and 4/27 plummeted more than $100 a night. You can click on the chart above to enlarge it and look for yourself. It's fun.

* Cosmo had far too low expectations for its own rates prior to the opening. When March rooms went on sale in November 2010, the weekend average was $276. The same rooms if booked in March cost $432, a 56% surge.

* Bellagio remains firmly ahead of Aria on price. This past Saturday -- amid a busy Vegas weekend with the ACMs and the NCAA Final Four -- Aria nonetheless slashed rates $110 to $269 while Bellagio raised them $70 to $299. That means that the prior week, the MGM pricing braintrust thought people would pay $379 for Aria rooms but only $229 at Bellagio. Apparently, they were quite wrong. It's almost as if they were using some pricing psychology to shunt guests towards Bellagio, which MGM owns 100%, instead of Aria, which it only owns half. Hmm.

* Meanwhile, Cosmo asked $395 for rooms on Saturday night. That's almost $100 more than Bellagio and $126 more than Aria.

* Asking prices for sad, stranded Vdara were knocked down for 11 of the 17 dates checked in April and May. On some Wednesdays, Vdara rooms go for as little as $105.

LaFleur also provided some interesting discussion of the impact of resort fees. MGM Resorts now has them at all their properties, having added Bellagio in January. Why do they do this if it so annoys people? Well, MGM will include the resort fee revenues in its first quarter earnings and that should help the company realize more than 10% growth, LaFleur predicted. MGM brass themselves have said if they had included resort fees during the fourth quarter of 2010, they would have announced a 2% increase in revenue rather than the 2% drop. That's big money.

By the way, LaFleur provided this handy guide to Vegas Strip resort fees, with the caveat that different hotels "provide" different amenities for their fees:

BREAKING: The Goodmans are JEWISH!

Those of you who listened to the Carolyn Goodman conversation that was posted in the podcast feed over the weekend might have wondered what my obsession was with her Jewish upbringing. Truth be told, I'm highly unlikely to ask Brian Sandoval how he takes his communion wafers or Harry Reid if he's wearing his magic underoos, so what gives? And yet, Carolyn spoke in detail about making gefilte fish, right?

Well, I don't ask anything without having a reason, and this time it was for part of a lengthy profile of Mayor Oscar Goodman that appears today in Tablet, a popular website devoted to Jewish issues. You may recall I also profiled the poker-playing Mizrachis and Rep. Shelley Berkley for Tablet last year.

There's not a lot in the piece that local Las Vegans or careful Vegas-watchers may not know, although Carolyn does debunk the myths surrounding Oscar's drinking and there are a few other tidbits therein. Check it out if you wish.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Strip is LIVE Tonight!

We're back tonight at 8 p.m. PT for The Strip with our conversation with Stratosphere CEO Frank Riolo who discusses the Sahara closing, whether there'll ever be a sky-high casino at the property and whether the Stratosphere is still part of The Strip. You can watch Miles and me and listen via UStream by going here:

Our new studio is working out pretty well thanks to so many generous donations, and here's what it looks like at the moment. You're welcome to join us, of course! Or wait for the podcast version, probably out on Tuesday. That's your call!

One minor programming note: We'll start playing the interview at about 8 p.m. PT. Miles and I will probably start the proper live show at about 8:30 p.m., pending the outcome of the Butler-UCONN game and when Miles gets home from work. See ya later!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Very Mayoral Sunday In The Media

As my pal Amy and I ran our April Fool's errand to L.A. on Friday, the Vegas political blogosphere became engulfed in reactions to the excerpts I posted from my Thursday interview with Carolyn Goodman, the wife of Mayor Oscar Goodman and the frontrunner to replace him.

The Las Vegas Sun's Delen Goldberg wrote a piece on it for the Web and blogger Justin McAffee likened it to the Sarah Palin-Katie Couric moment in 2008 when Palin was flat-footed in response to reasonable questions about current events. Q Vegas' Chris Miller chased down Goodman for a re-affirmation that she doesn't want the state to repeal the domestic partnership law, too. And Jon Ralston's column today on the Sun assesses what Goodman's answers say about her competency as a candidate. (The only place this hasn't been covered? The R-J, whose City Hall scribe spent time on Saturday with Mrs. Goodman and evidently didn't ask. Odd.)

But wait, there's more! MUCH more. First, the entire interview is now available as a podcast so you can hear for yourself what The Good(man) Wife is all about. Obviously, the full measure of any candidate ought to be a lot more than a few controversial or unprepared remarks so listen and decide on your own. Click here to have it play or right-click here to download the LONG conversation and listen at your leisure. After the primary, I hope to do a similarly thorough sit-down for the podcast with her general election opponent.

Meanwhile, my AOL News/Huffington Post Politics piece on the race went online today chock full o' barbs and snark from and towards Mrs. Goodman. In particular, the exchange between County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani attempting to minimize Goodman's role in the formation of the Meadows School and Goodman's slap that Chris' childless life is empty and politically obsessed is a sign of the shape of things to come if these two face one another after Tuesday's primary. It's already getting some buzz, although blogger Christine Kramar is a little off the mark inasmuch as Carolyn Goodman didn't produce any children from her womb, either. Carolyn and I, in fact, delve into how and why she came to adopt her four kids in our Thursday marathon.

Finally, if you just haven't had enough about Las Vegas' mayoralty yet, Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith today has a wonderful column about his lunch on Thursday with the three living mayors and ex-mayors, Ron Lurie, Jan Laverty Jones and Oscar Goodman.

* * *

P.S. There's now a Carolyn For Mayor poker chip in the prize vault for The Strip Podcast. If we select your correct trivia question, it could be yours.