Vegas’ next act? Urban reality

I REALIZE NOW how fitting it is that the billionaire godfather of mainstream Las Vegas was an agoraphobe. Not unlike Howard Hughes barricading himself in his penthouse suite, on a midweek road trip to Vegas last week I only left my gigantic hotel complex once -- and that was to take a limousine ride to see a new monster project being built.

I mean, really, that hotel had every type of service you could imagine -- shopping, restaurants, entertainment of all kinds -- and there was no reason to leave. I was in the bosom of cradle-to-grave consumerism, and from my perspective, the outside world could only bring pain and treachery. Besides, it was cold and windy.

Las Vegas is most famous for what Umberto Eco called its hyperreality, its ability to be so authentically fake. We love it for its multitude of fantasies and illusions -- because it’s a city that changes its look as often as Paris Hilton changes boyfriends, providing us with glimpses of the entertainment trends of tomorrow. And in my short, unremunerative jaunt to the city of dreams, I learned this: The next big thing in hyperreality is, well, reality.


Despite my visions of blue suede shoes and sequins, the people I ran into sported ugly ties and shoulder pads as well as ubiquitous convention passes slung around their necks. Each morning from my perch at a run-of-the-mill coffeehouse chain, the Vegas I saw was full of groggy-looking business people lugging tote bags and checking their BlackBerrys. It was a world alive with reimbursement receipts.

Tired of losing money at the machines, I figured I’d join the hordes at the closest convention. And what did I find? It was a trade show for people who put on trade shows, filled with exhibits for exhibitors.

“It’s hard to get your head around, isn’t it?” said the middle-aged Florida transplant with leathery skin who handed me my very own dorky convention pass. “You only read about everything that’s abnormal here, but Las Vegas is a normal place. But if everyone knew that, no one would want to come!”

Fake fire, waterfalls, banner stands, reusable shipping cases -- the trade show Exhibitor2007 had it all. And its theme, its philosophy, could have been applied to the city itself: When you’re competing with so many other booths in the convention of life, you’ve got to do something extra to attract people’s attention.

Vegas is the undisputed convention capital of America. In 2005, it hosted 22.6 million square feet of what in the industry are called “large” conventions, almost three times as many as runner-up Orlando, Fla. The publisher of Tradeshow Week magazine said that the numbers are proof that Vegas has shed its “Sin City stigma.” Stigma? I thought that was the point.

Word has it that the era of the theme hotel is over. All eyes are on MGM Mirage’s Project CityCenter, the $7-billion city within a city that is being designed on the Strip by some of the world’s greatest planners and architects. A limousine took me straight to the sales office, where a poster of the city’s skyline at night told me that “the future of Las Vegas is here.” And, indeed, Vegas watchers think that this massive mixed-use project could very well be the start of a major trend.

Sure, the ambitious, 76-acre venture will have a massive gaming floor, a convention center and a lineup of luxury hotels. But when it opens in late 2009, it will also have 2,700 condominiums. Its theme? Dense urban reality.

You could argue that Project CityCenter is itself just another theme “destination” a la Paris Las Vegas or New York New York, and that the residents want to live in authentic fakeness, sort of like San Franciscans. But the presence of real residents on the Strip -- a place most locals make a point of avoiding -- will likely introduce another element of reality to America’s fantasyland. In addition to Project CityCenter’s condos and condo-hotel units, 70,000 more are being planned nearby.

It’s taken me two years to finally come to grips with television’s descent into reality-based programming. But I find it disturbing that the one place in America where illusion reigned is also succumbing to the weight of gravity. Have we Americans become tired of the pursuit of the absurd and the impossible? And, if not, where are we going to build our next Las Vegas?