Las Vegas revisited - the difference between the 80s and now

Michael Foreman reflects on changes in the city that plays host to the world's major technology conferences

Returning to Las Vegas, America’s premier computer convention city, after an interval of more than two decades was a bit of a shock. I thought I knew the city quite well, as I used to fly in on an almost annual basis at one stage.

But that was in the 1980s, when I covered the Comdex show each November for a UK computer magazine. It might as well have been a different planet.

Comdex had started as a trade-only event (the name stands for Computer Dealers’ Exhibition) but after the organisers made a decision to let the general public in, the show grew and grew. At its height, the Comdex Fall event pulled in over 200,000 attendees (by comparison, last January’s CES attracted 153,000 people) when the permanent population of the city was around half a million. Huge banners bearing the logos of Compaq, Osborne, Borland or Microsoft would adorn the larger hotels while skywriting aircraft would spell out their names in the blue desert sky. But eventually, Comdex just got too big, and it sort of imploded around 2004.

But although Comdex dominated Las Vegas when it was staged (in later years the locals called it ‘geek week’) it never quite managed to drive out the city’s bread and butter visitors – retired American couples seemingly hell bent on gambling their pensions away.

One of my enduring memories of those days was wandering back to my hotel after an industry party and being surprised by the numbers of elderly people who were still playing on the slot machines in the small hours. What’s more, quite a few of the same faces were still there at breakfast time.

The other thing that often struck me was how relaxed the atmosphere was, considering the amount of money that was changing hands. That was the effect of the mob, of course. You’d only ever catch the occasional glimpse, but their largely unseen presence was enough to enforce a form of responsible gambling, and mugging on the streets of Las Vegas was almost unknown.

Returning to the city to attend an IBM conference earlier this month, I thought I was prepared for the changes. I’d read about the population growth (it has mushroomed to 2.3 million), the new mega casinos (aiming to recreate bits of Paris or Venice), and the departure of the mob.

But I was gobsmacked by two things. First, the sheer number of security guards. They’re everywhere, in uniform (carrying guns outside the casino, without guns inside) and in plain clothes with curly wires dangling from their ears.

According to one Las Vegas native the security guards have filled the vacuum left by the mob. “Before, if you stepped out of line you might end up buried in a hole in the desert. Now you go to jail for the weekend, but they always let you out on Monday.”

The other thing I wasn’t prepared for were my fellow hotel guests, well at least the ones who were staying at the hotel on a Saturday, the day before IBM turned up.

Now it’s well known that Las Vegas casino-hotels make their money from non-room revenue – food and beverage sales, but above all, gambling. In these recessionary times the casinos have been forced to keep their occupancy rates up with near give-away deals, ‘employee reward’ packages and at weekends, they’ve even had to admit the ‘spring break’ crowd.

In Las Vegas, these spring breakers deploy in squads of four to six people of the same gender – however many will fit into a suite. They seem to spend the day patrolling the pool, the bars, and the casino, maintaining a good natured state of inebriation while keeping an eye on (but not yet joining) the squads of the opposite sex.

The young men were typically dressed in board shorts and baseball caps worn at every possible angle. Some of the women were dressed in what was effectively lingerie. At night the gender groups coalesced for in-suite parties, which often feature one or more professional entertainers. Judging by the loud cries of “Whoa!” and “No way man!” that emanated from the hotel corridors, some of the entertainment must have been quite spectacular. Apparently the tamer photos are posted on Facebook.

It’s great to see young folk enjoying themselves but it was a relief the next day when guests arriving for the IBM event took over almost the entire hotel. In a few hours the atmosphere changed completely. Room keys were checked by the guards at the lifts, the bars emptied (at least until around sundown) and the hotel corridors once again took on a museum-like tranquility.

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