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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Casino Experience

I'm in Reno, Nevada this week, staying at the Grand Sierra Casino. It used to be a Hilton, but they just changed it's name, I'm told. I'm not gambling, just staying here on business. The Casino had the best hotel rates --- $39 per night. Incredibly cheaper than even the cheesiest of motels. And this is one big hotel. There are hundreds of rooms on more than 28 floors. It towers into the skyline.

Aside from the guest rooms, it is one big hotel. It feels more like a mall or a convention center. There of course is the casino area, with its flashing colored lights, game tables, etc. But there is a bowling alley, movie theater, live theater, enormous sports bar, gambling bar, cappuccino bar, shopping arcade, RV park, water park, gymnastics park, health club, conference center, ballroom, condominiums, and probably a dozen restaurants ranging from a place that looks like a Subway sandwich shop (but doesn't carry that brand) to an expensive steak place.

So what is the experience when one stays in hotel on such a grand scale? We tend to think that everything is bigger in Texas. In this case, maybe not. Nevada might have the lock on big hotels. At any rate, let's take a look at the consumer experience. It is decidedly different.

I ascend to the 21st floor in the drabbest elevator I've seen in a hotel. No multi-media, no advertisements, no posters, no color. It's a dark, drab elevator. One might sleep there. If one were stuck in it, I suppose one might die of boredom! Getting off the elevator, you find yourself in a mirrored lobby that is of course, enormous. From the lobby are four different concourses into the various wings of the hotel. That hallway is lined with chandeliers. I get to my room, and it is decidedly different too.

The first thing you notice is the mirrored furniture. The desk, night stands, coffee and coffee table are black, with mirrored surfaces. The lamps are shiny chrome. The black leather wallpaper takes you back, even with a flat screen TV hanging on it. The velour couch and faux fur blankets are interesting. And when you begin to read or try to do some work, you notice that you have to turn on all of the lights --- in order to get enough light to do anything. Why does this room have to be so dark?

My goodness, even the folding luggage rack is shiny chrome. The coffee pot is new fangled and befuddling (two of my colleagues complained that they couldn't figure out how to use theirs --- and they're professional consultants!) The shower is rich marble, with a funky shower door that has a hole in the center of it! What is that about? The bathroom lights rise up from the floor. The faucet and handles look like something from the Jetsons cartoon. Mind you, it's a comfortable room and nicely appointed. But like I said, decidedly different. Decidedly tacky.

The other night I wandered into the main restaurant. It sits in a giant rotunda with two story waterfalls in it. There are five other restaurants in that same rotunda (I told you it was big). They offer me the buffet for $16.99. Okay, I'll try that. Strolling through the buffet you immediately notice that it too is large. There are many, many choices, ranging from Mexican food to soups to Italian or even the American buffet.

Now the thing is, I take a few things which look good. When I begin to eat them, I notice that they aren't. In fact, they're really not good at all. The chicken is overcooked and seems to have a lot of sugar in the batter it was fried in. The macaroni & cheese tastes grainy. I decide not to eat them. The roll is stale, the butter is runny. So I switch to some steamed veggies. They are really nice, still firm, very good.

I stroll back to the Italian buffet and get some baked swordfish and put some fettuccine with it. This looks good. Alas, I get back to the table and find that the noodles have been sitting on the steam table all week. They are not good. The sauce is salty. The swordfish is bland and tasteless. I abandon them and retreat to the dessert bar. Lots of choices here. I get samples of a couple things. A couple of them seemed almost tasty. Largely I conclude that this just isn't worth it. The grand buffet is only large --- and not really all that grand.

The next night, my boss suggests that we dine in the expensive steak restaurant. The prices are high ($32 for the smallest steak). We have three waiters who seem nice and attentive. My boss wonders aloud if we look like we are high maintenance (surely one waiter could handle us). There are two servers who "assist" the waiters. They seem confused. The food is okay, pretty good actually. The steak is pretty good. The beans are nice. The salads are nice. The club soda that I ordered arrives in a very cool glass. We enjoy our meal --- sitting in a velvet upholstered booth with two-story strings of beads all around our booth that keep moving as people walk by. It is very distracting. You get this sensation that you are dining under water. And of course, it is very dark.

We finish our meal and walk out in the rotunda, where one enters any of these restaurants. They each have their theme and their hostesses. They each have different decorations, different dishes, different uniforms on the wait staff. And then we notice it. The physical space allotted for this culinary dining mall --- has enough physical space to most likely accommodate one kitchen! So the discussion ensues. How is it that from one kitchen, the hotel can serve food that ranges from very good to very bad?

Do they look at the noodles for example, and say "Oh this gets served in the buffet, so overcook it and put salt on it." When they get the chicken ready, do they say, "This goes into the high end restaurant, so put it on a larger plate and pour a three-day aged reduction over it, with an orchid laying beside it." Why can't people in the buffet have an orchid with their chicken? Isn't it harder to serve firm, shaped butter in one restaurant, and runny butter pads in another?

This whole casino experience is a study in sociology. It's a study in humanity. The people here don't seem healthy. They don't seem happy. In the casinos they're sitting with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. They don't smile or even interact. They just sit and stare at the slot machines, feeding them money. I saw one in a wheel chair, with an oxygen tank. She was smoking a cigarette, with a drink in one hand, feeding money into the machine. I wondered how she got to this place in life. What is it that draws her to this age-of-aquarius experience?

The families in the casino look different too. Quite frankly, the only families we've seen appeared to be young. In fact, they appeared to be people who can't afford to be here. Their little kids climb over the booths and rattle the hanging beads in the restaurants. The dads sit in the expensive steak place with their ball caps on, while the wives are dressed to the nines and sip champagne. Both are ignoring their kids. They aren't smiling. They aren't talking. You wonder if they're shell-shocked from losing so much money.

Walking through the casino, surveying the landscape last night, we noticed something. The restrooms have slot machines that supposedly have a 100% payback. If slot machines are going to return 100% of what's played in them, why would you put them in the bathrooms? Nowhere else in the casino do we see such machines. And we wonder why the casino would want to make the restrooms a so much more rewarding experience.

I'm not a fan of casinos. Frankly, I just don't get it. New age tacky, indoor smokers. Unhealthy, people who don't look happy and don't look as if they're having a good time. Food that is mostly not worth it. Did I mention that the valet lost our rental car? In fact he did such a good job of losing the rental car that we had to take a cab to our client meeting yesterday morning. (He finally found it later in the day.) So service isn't really much to brag about either.

So why do they keep building these monstrous facilities? Because people keep coming to them. And why do people keep coming to them? Like I said ... I just don't get it!

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