Thursday 28 May 2009

Las Vegas, city of excess

Business pleasure or pleasure?

Las Vegas is a strange place, I think it's the nearest you can get to what you might imagine a parallel universe to be. An hedonistic alternate reality where society is dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, and nothing else matters. Big corporations own big hotels & casinos, theatres and night entertainment venues, all designed to separate you from your hard-earned cash in exchange for giving you some great experiences.

I found myself somewhat in conflict at first in Las Vegas; I loathe the incessant commercialism of corporate America, avoiding McDonalds or Disney as much as I can. I hate tourist tat and tourist gimmicks. So by all reasonable logic I should have hated Las Vegas - as the epitomy of everything I think is wrong with the world. But somehow I didn't. I actually really liked it. And it took me a long time to figure out why.

I think it comes down to the way that tourism operates in Las Vegas. Elsewhere, say a theme park, you'd see a lot of cheapy plasticky attractions, and ill-conceived marketing slogans that constantly remind you that while you may be enjoying yourself, your money is being extracted from you at every opportunity.

In Vegas, on the other hand, it's as if money is no object. The hotel casinos are palatial. There are stately homes and castles with less marble flooring, with less ornate chandeliers, with much smaller floral displays and less beautiful hanging artwork. Everything is built to impress, to make you feel special. And it's not just the artwork too. We went to a burger bar one day, and were treated to a choice of four different types of beef, 4 different types of bun and a selection of twelve fillings. I was asked how I liked my burger cooked. It was a burger bar run by a gourmet professional chef. Nothing you experience in Vegas is ordinary. And yet at the same time, you rarely feel heavily sold to. It's almost as if money is a taboo in Las Vegas. Just have fun, just enjoy yourself, we don't need to worry about that crude money stuff. I know there's been research carried out that shows that people behave less wisely about money when the activities they are making decisions about are more removed from cold hard cash. I think Vegas is living proof of this. It's all about credit cards, poker chips, lines of credit, and bills that you are encouraged to just sign without thinking about.

One of the most distinctive features of Las Vegas is the way that famous buildings and architectural styles of the world have been re-created. I stayed in the Luxor, a replica of an Egyptian Pyramid with a giant Sphinx in front. Throughout the hotel are giant pillars and statues and a cavernous interior. I've been to the real Pyramids of Giza. There is no question that it is a breathtaking sight and an impressive feat of engineering and at the same time, the Las Vegas version is impressive in its own way. It's almost as if it gives more of a sense of what it might have been like to be around in the time of the Pharoahs - not in a historical sense but in the sense that the place is alive and bustling and something more than just a building. It's a sense you get a lot in Las Vegas. You kind of feel like royalty, or at the very least, it makes you feel special and important.

The Venetian on Flickr
Down the road from the Luxor are the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe (at the Paris Hotel), the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline (at New York New York), and most impressive of all, are the very convincing replicas of Venice at the Venetian hotel. I couldn't quite believe it when I walked around the corner and found myself apparently on the Grand Canal. The quality of the replicas of the buildings is incredible. And the artificial canal with real singing gondoliers under a fake blue sky, indoors on the second floor of a shopping centre, has to be seen to be believed. Elsewhere in Vegas, in the Wynn hotel, there is a giant artificial waterfall, and a pair of curved escalators - if these are not impressive feats of engineering I don't know what are!

I've heard Las Vegas described as "Disneyland for grown-ups".. That's really not too far off. Instead of funfair rides and cartoon characters, Vegas has top quality shows, great restaurants, and huge bars and clubs. It's a place you can come and be a kid - spending time on just having fun - but just doing slightly more adult things.

Well, I haven't said a great deal about what I actually was doing in Vegas - helping to run the Enterprise Cloud Summit conference and liveblogging it on Bitcurrent. Nor have I talked much about the various social things we got up to - extravagant steak dinners, limo rides, dancing and drinking the nights away, and generally enjoying everything Vegas has to offer. Why? Well those things were what made the trip so enjoyable, I loved the Las Vegas party atmosphere - albeit I spent a lot more than I wanted to - but really, they're not going to be that interesting to read about. I really just wanted to share my thoughts about the weirdness and uniqueness and special qualities of the place. I did pretty much what everyone does who goes to Vegas - drank, gambled, ate well, stayed out too late and had a damn good time. If you want to see some photos you can take a look at my set on Flickr. But I don't need to go through those here. All I really want to say is, no matter what your tastes, don't write off Vegas. You just might be surprised.

I'll leave you with a quote from Norman Mailer:

"The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten storeys high."

By the way, you may also be interested to know that I have started a new, shorter blog at as an experiment in ways to get me blogging and writing more regularly. You can also access this by clicking "Blogettes" at the top of this blog.