Redesigning Las Vegas
Entertainment Architecture for the Experience Economy
While Las Vegas is as popular as ever, visitors are spending less time on the casino floor. According to a recent report, gambling time now totals 1.9 hours during an entire stay in Vegas, an hour less than in 2015 and over two hours less than twenty years ago. This change is being driven almost entirely by the younger generation who are spending just 8.5 percent of their income on gambling compared to the 23.5% spent by their parents. The American entertainment industry has therefore made it a top priority to grab, and keep, the attention of the millennial market.
What does a less gambling-centric future mean for cities like Las Vegas? This month’s feature takes you on a virtual tour of The Strip to investigate a selection of new experience-driven, ‘Instagram-ready’ architecture projects commissioned by the top entertainment conglomerates. I check in with Stefan Al, architect and associate professor of Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania and author of ‘The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream’ and Rob Heiman, professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Kent State University, to discuss how the architecture of the entertainment industry is striving to keep America playing.
“The Las Vegas Strip is a vast petri dish for architectural, and societal, novelty”, says Stefan Al, architect, urbanist and author of ‘The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream’, published last year. “It has a history of innovation in entertainment architecture dating back seventy years. It pioneered the design of unique experiences, even beyond its own wildest dreams, from buildings with the world’s largest atriums to the largest dancing fountains. It gives people what they want, or seduces them into wanting things they didn’t even know existed.”
Like many contemporary American cities, Las Vegas is in a constant state of flux. However, it appears to have experienced transitions than most — in its comparatively short existence, Las Vegas has seen in the rise and fall of new resorts, bankruptcies, acquisitions and mergers. Vegas has not only witnessed, but arguably driven, some of the most prolific movements in twentieth-century architecture and culture, most notably its links with Postmodernism and Iconism. “In 1955, a casino built a glass-enclosed observation chamber at the bottom of a pool so that non-swimmers could gaze at the more energetic guests”, explains Stefan Al, “‘Where else… but Las Vegas,’ a local newspaper wrote, ‘could Mr. and Mrs. Joe Doakes of Wichita, Kansas, enjoy cocktails underwater?’”
[Vegas] gives people what they want, or seduces them into wanting things they didn’t even know existed.” — Stefan Al
Since the publication of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s seminal ‘Learning from Las Vegas’, (a facsimile edition of which has been re-published this year by MIT Press), the city has also drawn throngs of architects and urban researchers, eager to discover and learn from its architectural extravagance, simultaneously making Las Vegas the go-to model for many resorts and entertainment districts across the world. Macau reclaimed hundreds of acres of the South China Sea to build a Las Vegas-style Strip, and Singapore, a model city for urban development throughout Asia, styled its new central business district Marina Bay Sands on a Las Vegas-style resort.
Despite the economic successes Vegas has enjoyed in the past fifty years, gambling income is beginning to flatline. According to a report on the Las Vegas casino and hotel market from the consulting company HVS published in the New York Times, in 2014 gambling accounted for 37 percent of total revenue of Las Vegas casino resorts and hotels, down from 58 percent in 1990. While some games, such as poker, appear to be bucking the trend, visitor reports gathered by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority support that the percentage of visitors who gambled while in Vegas is slowly in decline. This trend has been linked to the increased purchasing power of the millennial demographic, who, according to Standard & Poor’s US chief economist, will soon account for 30% of America’s total spending power. As author Gary Green, who has spent many years researching trends in the gambling industry, wrote in a recent post, “a new breed of visitor is showing up [in Vegas] … to enjoy the good rooms, food, and shows but ―and this is where it hurts― not to gamble.”
A new breed of visitor is showing up [in Vegas] … to enjoy the good rooms, food, and shows but ―and this is where it hurts― not to gamble.” Gary Green
In his book, Stefan Al puts forward that the purchasing preferences of the millennial market are shifting the typology of new-build projects in Vegas towards mixed-use, entertainment-driven schemes over casinos, which he terms ‘integrated resorts’. Visitors can witness a growing number of celebrity chef restaurants, shows, nightclubs, designer boutiques, hotel suites, concert venues and hair-raising rides appearing on The Strip. One such project is The LINQ Promenade by Caesars Entertainment, a new open-air dining and entertainment district which combines retail spaces with experience-driven activities, unashamedly aimed at millennial visitors. This year, Caesars Entertainment are expanding the Promenade to include the ‘Fly LINQ’ zip-line, which simultaneously launches guests superman-style from a 114-foot launch tower. Developed by the team behind the High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel, the $20 million experience-driven project features ten side-by-side zip lines.
While the ‘Fly LINQ’ zip-line the first such attraction on The Strip, it is already the third of its kind in Vegas and emblematic of interventions aiming to attract a younger crowd. Speaking to the Seattle Times, Linq Promenade manager Shaun Swanger said, “it’s an efficient use of space, but it’s exciting. Our core audience is millennials […] as midnight approaches, it’ one big party.”
Back in 2009, prior to the legalization of gambling in the state of Ohio, Rob Heiman, professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Kent State University, initiated a casino management course to offer students “behind the scenes” access to the entertainment industry. Almost ten years on, Kent State undergrads still enjoy an annual trip to Vegas as an integral part of the curriculum. Fresh back from this years’ visit, and as a frequenter of Vegas, I ask what the most noticeable change in the built environment has been in the past few years. “Everywhere you see new technologies where they never used to be,” he tells me, “the gaming [gambling] component used to be a much stronger revenue stream for casinos, now you see entertainment and retail gradually taking center stage”.
While Heiman reinforces that any changes in the architecture of Vegas are very gradual, he accepts certain developments are becoming increasingly noticeable. “For example, this year students picked up on that many resorts had begun to offer more digitized attractions, but for the most part it was surface-deep. In the cabarets, other than the lighting and visuals being upgraded, many nightclub interiors were not dissimilar from those students might experience back home in Kent State”. Another change the study group picked out in their most recent trip was the growing interest in group gaming. They noticed that casinos are beginning to host video gaming tournaments, conventions and competitions in an attempt to create a social experience, sometimes referred to as ‘co-gaming’, mostly aimed at younger players.
The gaming component used to be a much stronger revenue stream for casinos, now you see entertainment and retail gradually taking center stage.” Rob Heiman
MGM Resorts’ recent transformation of a former nightclub into an Esports area equipped with an LED video wall, daily gaming stations and a streaming and television-quality production studio, exemplifies this new trend for integrating gaming technologies into existing casino buildings. Some casinos have also launched video game programs aimed at visitor groups, such as ‘Daily Fantasy Sports’, where players can win money for participating in fantasy game leagues and skill-based slot games and hybrids such as Frogger. Some casinos are also hosting video game live streams, such as a three-day Dungeons and Dragons extravaganzas.
Other multiplayer games, such as ‘Synergy Table Games’ and group blackjack, are having an increasing impact on the interior layout of casinos. As a rule of thumb, casino floors are becoming increasingly open plan and directional to accommodate for larger groups, integrated screens and projections. “This is a two-sided story,” explains Heiman, “as the casinos themselves aren’t changing drastically. They still value a lack of windows and clocks, as to have them is not in the businesses’ or possibly the patrons’, interest”. As Wynn Resorts’ executive director John Avello explained in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the company had planned a “brighter sports book with larger screens and an integrated bar [which] is more conducive to offering a social game at Wynn” for roll-out across its casinos. By 2020, Wynn also plans to offer a pari-mutuel, AI-driven virtual horse betting game which it hopes will draw in the younger generation.
The Strip began as essentially anti-urban, with inwardly oriented resorts located outside of the incorporated city of Las Vegas” Stefan Al
While interior remodelling of casinos seems for the most part surface-deep, some of the most significant changes to The Strip appear to be occurring outside, in a move somewhat contrary to decades of entertainment industry thinking. With their fingers on the pulse, MGM Resorts International have commissioned ‘The Park’ — drawing from concepts not unlike Caesars’ LINQ Promenade — for a new kind of Vegas tourist. The mile-long boardwalk, designed by landscape architect Jerry van Eyck from New York-based design studio !Melk, features an hourglass-shaped lagoon, sidewalk cafes and retail outlets, as well as a new 20,000 seat arena. The ambitious scheme is scheduled to open to visitors in 2020.
“The Strip began as essentially anti-urban, with inwardly oriented resorts located outside of the incorporated city of Las Vegas”, Stefan Al explains. “Today, the Strip is a major pedestrian space with casinos that contribute to a larger urban experience. The Park points to this recent transformation from looking in to looking out car-oriented to more pedestrian. During the days of Learning from Las Vegas, the Strip was known for its neon signs and asphalt parking lots. Today, there is a sophisticated pedestrian park, complete with sculptures, benches, stone paving, and xeriscaping featuring local plants.”
While interior remodelling of casinos seems for the most part surface-deep, some of the most significant changes to The Strip appear to be occurring outside, in a move somewhat contrary to decades of entertainment industry thinking.
As Stefan Al puts forward in his book, the responsiveness of the Las Vegas Strip to cultural tendencies and architectural reinvention is not only due to its reliance on tourism revenue as its main income stream, but also a rare urban planning situation which renders it exempt from zoning laws. “At the peak of the popularity of Western movies, casino builders welcomed guests with cowboy saloons featuring stuffed buffalo heads”, explains Al, “on the cusp of the suburbanization of America, they built bungalows with lavish pools and verdant lawns. When Disney became the world’s number one entertainment corporation, Vegas casinos built entire theme parks and a larger-than-life Cinderella castle. And when other cities built architectural icons to attract tourists, Las Vegas developers commissioned the world’s star architects.”
One might imagine the architecture of a future Vegas moving in two parallel directions. Indoors, major entertainment companies make use of new technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, to offer an increasingly immersive experience. Outside, luscious planted boulevards and outdoor street-food eateries may make you forget you are in The Strip, if it wasn’t for the shrieks from the theme park rides. Alternatively, perhaps Vegas will maintain its unique foothold in the entertainment industry by creating a new breed of geolocated gamers and blur the notion of inside and outside altogether. In Nevada, ‘unspoofable’ cell-ID location services can now check a mobile device’s positioning against a geo-fence to determine whether the ‘betting device’ is within state boundaries. It is not far-fetched to imagine this has potential be activated in an urban zone such as The Strip.
Generally speaking, Las Vegas does not appear to be losing popularity. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, so far this year hotels have boasted an impressive 93% occupancy rate. A key reason behind this — and perhaps why Vegas continues to be a fascinating place for architects to study — is its widescale adoption of the ‘experience economy’, in which companies compete for customers by staging memorable experiences (which can then be captured on digital devices). What happens in Vegas can’t stay in Vegas anymore, it is being broadcast across the world. As suggested by Stephen Al, while experience design has had an early adoption on The Strip, it is poised to have a significant influence on the built environment in the coming decades.
“Las Vegas developers have engineered a wide palette of unforgettable experiences from attending a pool party in the winter inside a climate-controlled dome to watching the Bellagio’s 40-story fountains dance to Pavarotti”, he tells me, “most buildings are essentially a conveyor belt of unique but interconnected experiences, everything is purposefully designed to leave lasting impressions, from the smells to the sounds to the architecture.”
Las Vegas developers have engineered a wide palette of unforgettable experiences […] everything is purposefully designed to leave lasting impressions, from the smells to the sounds to the architecture.” Stefan Al