Several casinos in Las Vegas are about to charge for parking, which might just be the single biggest change the city has ever made.
I got an email from M Life (the rewards program for MGM-owned Vegas casinos that they somehow got me to sign up for with a real email address) a few days ago. Normally those get deleted or, like most emails, sit unread in my inbox until they’re pushed down by dozens of other emails, never to be seen again.
But there was something ominous about the subject line in this one. It wasn’t the standard “Your Vegas Savings Have arrived!” or “Spend Flag Day in Vegas, Free Bonus!” or “For the Love of God, Someone Come to Circus Circus.”
The subject line merely read: “Parking Update.” Yikes.
And I was right to be suspicious.
We will be instituting fees for self- and valet parking. Fees will begin to roll out at our Las Vegas hotels on June 6, 2016.
Whoomp. There it is. The MGM group just took the first slip down the slippery slope.
Free parking has always been an indispensable Las Vegas staple. Now that’s changed at MGM properties, which make up a pretty massive swath of the Strip: Bellagio, Circus Circus, Aria, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, The Mirage, Monte Carlo and New York New York.
The email went on to explain why parking fees will now exist: A $90 million parking facilities upgrade; an increase in tourism means they don’t need to offer the perk anymore (no, seriously, they used this as a reason); more cars in Las Vegas in general. The email also told me, of course, that if I earned my way up to the M Life “Pearl tier status or above,” I’ll get free self parking.
Adding a fee to something that’s always been free, then making it a cardmember perk to get it for free again. It’s airline baggage fees all over again.
There is, literally, no single way this change is beneficial to the customer. That’s obvious to any of us, but you can tell that even the MGM people realize it because they barely even make an effort to put spin on it. Their best try is: “[Our parking] rates remain significantly below those of other highly popular tourism destinations.” Well then! We should be saying “Thank you,” I guess.
I think I’m coming across a little worked up here — and probably too indignant, considering that this is hardly life-or-death subject matter — but it cuts me. It cuts me because (1) I hate to see the Vegas I’ve known and loved change and (2) this email marks the beginning, genuinely, the single biggest change that Vegas has ever made.
Why? Because it’s the first time the casinos have prioritized the nickels over the dollars, and the toothpaste can’t go back in that tube.
One of the signature elements that makes Las Vegas unique is its excess can be enjoyed by all. Free drinks while you gamble (almost nonexistent in casinos elsewhere) served 24 hours a day, even at low-limit tables and slot machines. Air conditioning blasting out of every open door. The most gargantuan non-Dubai hotels you’ve ever seen, emitting unthinkable amounts of neon light. Buffets with hundreds or thousands of food options, many of which are actually good. Incredible fountains with water that dances to music, an indoor river with gondola rides, spectacular pools. Slot machines in the airport. And, yes, free parking.
The prevailing theory behind everything mentioned above is that the casinos just want to hypnotize you, get you drunk and overstimulated — and then take your money when you gamble. (Especially if you happen to be a Charles Barkley type.) Vegas casinos make their money (1) from rich gamblers (2) from poor gamblers (3) from all the ancillary stuff, from the rooms to the restaurants to the night clubs to the $8 bottles of water in the gift shop.
But for all three of those, the main goal was: Get ’em inside and keep ’em happy. Charging for parking is the first direct violation of that ethos. It’s the first move ever that might discourage you from going into a casino rather than happily floating in, like a cartoon character smelling a fresh-baked pie on a window sill. It’s grabbing a relatively small amount of money rather than, theoretically, a much larger amount.
The parking rates are $8-$12 a day — not big money. But is the principle enough to drive people away from those casinos? And when the parking fees inevitably spread to the other casino groups — and airline baggage fees have proven they will — will there be a snowball effect? Will it make the flights to Vegas from places like L.A. or Phoenix more crowded and expensive? Will it make the insane Vegas taxi lines even longer? And, most important, how long will it be before the casinos start charging for drinks or pools — or even start regulating who can come inside and walk around?
As I was outlining this post earlier, I kept coming back to my first trip to Vegas. I’d lived in L.A. for two months, I had no job, less than $200 in the bank, but when a few of my friends were going to Vegas, I had to experience it. I had a $40 budget for the 48-hour trip.
We drove in the middle of the night, experiencing 100-degree temperatures in the desert at three in the morning, until we finally had that iconic moment of curving around the last mountain and seeing the Vegas strip blasting infinite wattage up ahead. We pulled into the garage at O’Shea’s Casino and parked for free. We walked around and just took in the Strip. We stayed at the Excalibur for pennies because someone had a connection. (Someone always has a hotel connection in Vegas.) The next night, my friend Jeremy and I sat in the Keno lounge at the Excalibur, playing $1 Keno and getting free drinks. We spent about $20 each between keno and tips, won enough to keep going, had about 10 drinks each, talked about whatever nonsense we talked about at age 22 — and it, to this day, still stands out as one of the most memorable nights in Vegas I’ve ever had.
Now the old O’Shea’s is gone, the keno lounges are gone (I’ve never played since) and soon the free parking will be gone. Beyond that, who knows what will go next. I’m sad no other broke, wide-eyed 22-year-old will get to have that night.
And obviously, on the scale of world issues, the importance of Vegas eliminating free parking ranks somewhere between “New editions of Monopoly use credit cards” and “Why does Mom get Emmy nominations?” But that’s exactly why I hate to see Vegas taking such a seminal step in the wrong direction. It’s the ultimate “forget the real problems in the world and your life and just have fun” city, both in practice now and in some of my favorite memories. And I just want it to stay that way, now and always. I want that for all the places I’ve nostalgically loved, especially as I get older and I find myself closing the book on the previous chapter of my life and entering the next. So when I see a change like this to something as seemingly trivial as Las Vegas, seeing its DNA getting fundamentally altered and contemplating the implications, it stings.
It stings a lot.