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Las Vegas is broken – can it be fixed?

Posted: 01.19.04

Friction—n 1: a state of conflict between persons [syn: clash] 2: the resistance encountered when one body is moved in contact with another—Las Vegas doesn't get it; they should make it smoother for visitors

We had been warned. Richard called and said the airport was a mess and to get there two or three hours before the flight. So we got there two and a half hours ahead. On a normal day (if one can use the word normal and Las Vegas in the same sentence) we could go to the airport one hour ahead of the flight and have 20 to 30 minutes for a cup of coffee by the gate.

When we got there the line to the ticket counter was wrapped six times, so we went to the first-class line, which was wrapped three times. Then after wasting 20 minutes, including five with a scam artist who offered to get us through the line for $20 each, I finally found an open e-ticket terminal and was able to print out our boarding passes—we headed for the security line, which should take, worst case, 10 to 15 minutes, and is represented by the white dashed line in the map below.

LV Airport
Our path was the red dashed line

As you've probably surmised, our trail was a bit different (see red dashed line trail). We were routed out to the parking garage, then turned around and routed back to the entrance of the departure hall, then in and out of the corridors and finally to the security point. Most of the time we were two people wide and in some places four wide. It took us two and half hours to get to the security gate so we got to the gate 10 minutes late, and the pilot decided not to delay the flight. She was justified in not delaying it because it was full with all the people who missed their flight before it and people had connections to make.

We too were put on a later flight, and it was an Airbus A320 with a seating capacity of 150. In the past UAL used a 757 on the Las Vegas to San Francisco route. That plane seats 200+. The use of the smaller plane during CES shows more lack of planning for such a major event, causing the people at the airport to pile up and "take a hike." While we waited in line at the desk after our missed flight we repeatedly saw people being told they would have to wait until tomorrow. They had less mileage point seniority than we did.

And, take a hike we did. The distance of the normal white line is about two football fields total, 200 yards or 11% of a mile. The wrap-around tour was about 800 yards or almost a mile. Not that walking a mile, mind you, was a big deal, but after the treks from one end of the convention center to the other, three or four times a day for the last four days, which is a distance of about a mile each way, we were already tired and actually had blisters on our feet.

Las Vegas
We walked from the far extreme distant right to the far left and back three or four times a day.

We had paid our walking dues and just wanted to go home. And why was there such a delay at the airport? We were told it was due to heightened security. It wasn't. It was due to too many people. The airport just doesn't know how to adjust to capacity changes. And even though they knew, and were gleefully happy about the 125,000 people coming to town for the conference, the most planning they can think of is to put a couple dozen more taxis on the road—which, yes you guessed it, clogs up the roads so no one can get anywhere.

Likewise, coming in to Las Vegas was a familiar, and annoying, scene of confusion as travelers waited in long cab lines.

One night, after our back and forth trips in the convention center, we had to walk to the hotel because the line for a taxi was from the left to the center of the above picture, and there were no taxis. No taxis? Why not? They were stuck in traffic, that's why not. The distance from the convention center to the Venetian hotel is about two miles, and it took three-fourths of an hour walking briskly. We actually kept apace with the cars on the strip—our feet hurt, but the fact that the cars were going even slower kept us going.

LVmap Las Vegas is a town that can't cope with success. When the bubble popped and Comdex collapsed, and 9-11 kept people from traveling, the shows at L.V. were a manageable 50 to 75K people and the city was almost destroyed. CES's success took us back to the ugly days of 1999.

The town has been building a monorail to offload the traffic, and although it was supposed to be running by CES, it wasn't. (The green section between the northern tip of the airport, next to the MGM, and Sahara Ave, next to the Sahara hotel, has been constructed.)

Adding to the problem are the companies that have off-site meetings in the hotels. To visit such a company takes at least two hours, half of it traveling to and from the convention center. This is not a good use of one's time. And, as competition for suites increases, the companies that are late to plan end up in the Four Seasons or Mandalay Bay at the most southern tip of the strip.

Las Vegas is attractive for a big show like CES or the former Comdex for a couple of reasons. The convention center is huge, a 3.2-million-square-foot facility with over than two million square feet of exhibit space, 144 meeting rooms (more than 243,000 square feet), and a grand lobby and registration area of more than 225,000 square feet. The Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is the third largest convention center in the U.S. (Orange County now has 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space, making it the second largest convention center; McCormick Place in Chicago, which clocks in at 2.2 million square feet is still the king.)

LVCC is located within a short distance of more than 100,000 guest rooms, so there's usually a place to stay, and more are under construction.

The weather is pretty good most of the year.

And there are lots of things to do if you like to gamble or watch women take their clothes off. There are also some golf courses near by and rides into the desert.

The city is designed to take money away from its visitors. Everything is a la carte. Want a taxi? One to two dollars for the guy that opens the door for you. Want to ride in the taxi? It's the fare plus another tip. Want your bags carried? At least a dollar per bag. To be fair this is not too different from other cities with the exception of the taxi door opener. But in Las Vegas if you order room service there is a service charge, a tax, a delivery charge, and you're expected to tip the deliverer. A good seat in one of (the many) nicer restaurants can be had with $20; otherwise you may have to wait a few minutes at the bar for your reserved table to become available—it usually becomes available after you've ordered a drink. The people who work in Las Vegas don't get paid much and supplement their pay, if dealing with the visitors, with tips. This results in a very friendly and polite group of service people, including the taxi drivers.

All in all it's not a terrible place to be if you have to attend a giant conference like CES, it's just an impossible place to get around in and to get in and out of. When you arrive at Las Vegas you have to stand in a wrap-around line for about 20 to 30 minutes while taxis are brought up. Often when you arrive at the hotel, among the same crowd that was on the plane, you have to stand in long lines to register. And when you check out there are more long lines. The hotels try to accommodate these loads by having a dozen or more cashiers and check-in people, but it's never fast. Faster than the airlines, but not speedy.

But the entrance and exit to/from Las Vegas is the worst. It gives you a bad impression and sets the tone for cynicism and criticism during your stay as you gather evidence of the abuse you are suffering in the hands of unspeakably stupid people who seem surprised to see such crowds in their airport, hotel, cab lines, and restaurants. The departing crunch just finalizes the case against Las Vegas and all of its environs and habitats, and you leave wishing, or planning, to never come back.

The next conference at LVCC is NAB in mid April. Ninety-thousand people came last year and this year they are hoping for 110,000, approaching that of CES and IBC in Holland. The monorail should be working by then, but not from the airport, that will take several more years. The monorail I am told will cost $7.50. At IBC in Amsterdam, and CeBIT in Hannover the trams are free during major conventions if you have a convention badge. The trams run frequently and are full. I expect the monorail, with its fee charging to add more friction to the process and delay one's progress. Las Vegas just doesn't seem to get it, if you're going to be convention town, then you've got to make it easy for the visitors to the convention to get around.

Therefore, in order to survive Las Vegas, we've made some rules for ourselves for NAB.

  • No appointments in the same half of the day in different halls (i.e., north hall in the morning or all day, or south hall in the afternoon).

  • No appointments at hotels on the same days as there are appointments at LVCC - we're planning a "hotel tour day."

  • No appointments on the last day—we plan to go to the airport four hours early and set up camp.

  • No appointments on the day of arrival—we need all the time we can get to get a taxi, get to the hotel, and then check in.

The press room at CES was pretty good this year, although like everyone else the organizers seemed surprised by the volume of visitors, so the coffee ran out fast, and unless you had Auschwitz-level survival skills you couldn't get a sandwich. But there were power strips under every table, and even intermittent Wi-Fi. And if you looked you could find Ethernet cables for the tethered folk from the backwoods. The conference, to its credit, gave out reporters' notebooks, something you can never have too many of, although I do prefer the ones that have stiff backs that Pinnacle and PR Newswire used to give out.

Last and far from least, we'd like to thank, once again, TOSHIBA for saving our backs and arms, Las Vegas may not get it about making life easier on the visitors, but Toshiba sure does. Each year at CES Toshiba has been kind enough to provide a wheelie bag (that converts into a backpack and has a special pocket for laptops) for the press. This has proven year after year as a godsend as you innocently or willfully collect brochures, CD, toys, tchotchies, regalos, geschenk, T-shirts, and demos. We'll be taking ours to NAB and other places, and if Toshiba gets some advertising out it, all the better for them. We're grateful.

So can anything be done to make a visit to a big show in Las Vegas smoother, can it be fixed? Not without some outcry and push by the folks who make the show happen, CEA and the exhibitors. CEA has to take the lead, and the exhibitors have to back the organization.

If people don't come to the conference because it's too hard to move from point A to point B, and all they do is waste time trying to travel, CEA will lose, and therefore Las Vegas will too. Comdex succeeded in driving away its exhibitors and visitors with stupid policies and not recognizing who they were working for (thinking it was the other way around that the exhibitors and visitors were obliged to the conference).

CEA has to make the mayor and chamber of commerce, the airlines, and the hotels understand that the visitors coming to CES are there to do business not wait in lines. CES has to threaten to go to Orange country or Chicago, or DC maybe to get the city fathers attention.

Las Vegas has a lot invested in LVCC; it's at risk if it's too hard to visit.

And as for the suites at the outlining hotels, they should be outlawed. Only Computex of the big shows uses hotel suites and they are in the Hyatt that is next door to the convention center. If suites are needed they should be limited to the Hilton. Providing a limo to/from a suite meeting is nice, but it doesn't eliminate the time lost sitting in the limo.

Are we going to have to:

Just say NO! to Las Vegas conventions?