Are you old enough to remember Las Vegas? I’m not talking about today’s Las Vegas — tract homes thrown up like mud huts with tile roofs … traffic jams that rival those in New York, Chicago, and L.A. … and giant gaming corporations that are in total control of everything that goes on in Glitter Gulch.
When I refer to Las Vegas, I’m talking about the original Las Vegas — the one where men wore coats and ties and women wore fine dresses in the casinos and hotel restaurants. In those days, if you wanted to sit in the front row to see a puffy Elvis perform in his Col. Sanders outfit, you slipped the maitre d’ fifty bucks and were immediately ushered in and taken to a stage-side table. If you liked a touch of class with your corruption, Vegas was the place to be.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. would make surprise appearances at each other’s shows, blowing smoke rings, sipping booze, and spontaneously yukking it up on stage. Talk about the good old days — Vegas in the sixties, seventies, and early eighties was the embodiment of that phrase.
Then, along came a young upstart, Steve Wynn, who broke up the party. Many credit Howard Hughes with the corporatization of Las Vegas, but the reality is that Hughes was so drugged out in the late sixties that he probably thought he was still in Nicaragua while lying in his bed on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel.
Wynn, however, knew exactly what was going on in Sin City, and he had a vision of a very different kind of Las Vegas — a rigidly corporate desert oasis structured for the masses. The son of a compulsive gambler, the Baltimore native somehow negotiated his way into owning a piece of the Golden Nugget in seedy downtown Las Vegas.
After converting the property into a luxury hotel, Wynn mounted a full-scale attack on the Las Vegas Strip itself. He opened The Mirage in 1989, and followed that in 1993 with the Treasure Island right next door. Then, in 1998, he went to the head of the class — as in first-class — and built every socialist’s worst nightmare, The Bellagio, a structure so sumptuous that even Saddam would have been happy to count it among his palaces.
The paintings in The Bellagio’s art gallery cost more than it cost to build an entire Vegas hotel in the good old days. But long before he built The Bellagio, Wynn had already succeeded in forcing the gaming industry in Vegas to conform to his corporate-structure model.
Once he landed on the Strip, it took him just a few short years to eliminate the old maitre d’ bribery system and replace it with tightly controlled theaters where people were given only one choice: Buy a ticket for a specific seat or stay outside. Worse, he turned Vegas into a come-one, come-all town — “Bring your paycheck, and preferably as much of your dwindling savings as possible, and your whole family is welcome.”
The coats and ties are now a distant memory. In their place are sloppy fitting Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts made in Pakistan, even sloppier khaki shorts made in the Philippines, and an army of fast-food-bloated bodies parading around in them.
This army consists of everyday Americans who part with most, if not all, of their money inside the casinos, then wander aimlessly up and down the Strip in search of fun that doesn’t exist. Interesting how having your last dollar extracted from your wallet seems to take the enjoyment out of everything.
In 2000, Wynn sold his Mirage Resorts group of hotel casinos to MGM Resorts International and became a billionaire. In case you aren’t familiar with who the big players are in Vegas, MGM’s largest shareholder (through his Tracinda Corp.) is ninety-six-year-old multibillionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who has made Howard Hughes’ hotel-buying spree in the late sixties look like a game of monopoly.
What Wynn accomplished in a town where Bugsy Siegel and The Mob once called the shots is about as easy as taming a dinosaur. He got his foot inside the door through his minority stake in the Golden Nugget, then — slowly, at first — he started to manipulate the entire industry to his way of thinking.
I don’t know whether Wynn began with a grandiose plan to change the way Vegas operates or if the natural flow of events just sort guided him as things went along. But, either way, like Steve Riggio of Barnes & Noble and Jeff Bezos of amazon.com, he proved that every industry is vulnerable to resourceful entrepreneurs. Wynn’s success in bending the desert establishment to his way of thinking was a remarkable entrepreneurial achievement.
Which brings me to you. Are the companies at the top of your industry arrogant and lethargic? My guess is they are. If so, you should think about going against the grain and doing things differently — or, even better, exactly the opposite of the way the big guys have been doing them for years. But don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Instead, take action. Move quickly, quietly, and relentlessly, and you may be surprised to discover just how vulnerable the major players in your industry are.
Bill Gates snuck up on IBM and the rest of the computer industry. Google snuck up on Microsoft. Facebook snuck up on Google. And, at this very moment, there are young dinosaur tamers working out of their home offices and plotting how to tame Facebook.
Pretty exciting century we’re living in, to say the least. Be sure to make it a point not to miss out on getting in on the excitement.