Lessons learned from the recession in Las Vegas

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Riding the roller coaster that wraps around the New York-New York casino and hotel is 3 1/2 minutes of pure rush, looping up and down fast enough to satisfy die-hard thrill seekers.

The coaster is like the southern Nevada recession — full of scary twists and turns — but there are two big differences: The economic thrill ride has lasted longer, and it’s doubtful anyone will say it’s been fun.

If only the economic malaise could be vanquished as easily as the subject of a magician’s disappearing act.


It can’t. Just ask Steve Wyrick, a talented illusionist who has seen his share of thrills, both good and bad.

“I’ve gone through a lot of changes over my past 14 years in Las Vegas,” he said. He has performed in four showrooms and is scheduled to open at a fifth venue later this month.

Money woes from his last production, which closed during 2009 at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, plunged him, like many others, into bankruptcy.

Even the magician couldn’t pull a rabbit out of his hat.

“The bankruptcy was a tough experience for me,” he said. “Sadly, a lot of people have endured and are still going through very difficult times.”

Economist Richard Lee thinks many of his fellow Las Vegans bought into the long-held belief that the community’s boom would never bust.

“I’ve started a little slogan called ‘Exuberance Anonymous,’ a 12-step program to Las Vegas’ recovery,” he said. “We are addicted to growth. We are addicted to excess. We are addicted to irrational thinking.

“Las Vegas and its gaming and resort industry were really irrational in their thinking. They forgot about business. They forgot about bringing value to the customers.”

Lee, a vice president at First American Title in Las Vegas, said resort owners were forced to admit that they were powerless over the massive market correction. Now, he said, they’re doing the right thing: providing customers much better value for money.

“If [visitors] look, they’ll find value like they’ve probably not seen in Las Vegas in 10 years,” Lee said.

Finding a steal may require work, including some Web surfing, but the deals are there. For example, the newly opened Ravella hotel at Lake Las Vegas was offering room rates in May starting at $49 a night. The hotel was formerly a Ritz-Carlton. Suburban Henderson, home to Lake Las Vegas, took a harder hit than even the rest of southern Nevada.

“With the closure of the Ritz, within 10 days of that, you had the Casino MonteLago management team announce that they were going to close,” said Jon Berkley, the casino’s new chief executive. “It crushed all of the retail at the base of the casino.”

Given the reopening of the hotel — one of two (Loews is the other) overlooking the lake — in February, Berkley said he and a group of gaming executives decided to jump-start Casino MonteLago. It reopened late last month. New retail outlets are following.

Ravella’s rooms remain unchanged from its days as a Ritz, but there’s been a significant shift in what Marty Bertone, the property’s director of sales and marketing, called the “operational footprint.”

“Ritz-Carlton, for example, opened with 475 employees,” he said. “We opened with 130.”

“I definitely see a big improvement.... Business is returning.”

Closer to the Strip, magician Wyrick is putting the hard times behind him. He is busy rehearsing for his new production, which is scheduled to open June 29 at the Las Vegas Hilton in the same theater where Elvis once played to sellout crowds.

At 1,525 seats, the theater will be the illusionist’s biggest-ever venue. Wyrick plans to wow his audiences with new feats. In one, he moves seamlessly from the stage to inside skinny LCD TVs.

“The timing’s got to be right on the money,” he said of the illusion.

That might also apply to Vegas’ bounce back.

Besides some financial maneuvering, economist Lee says it’s all about the deal for visitors.

“You’ve got to bring value to your customer,” he said. “I think we forgot about that.”