Sunday, June 7, 2009

Las Vegas – Licensing International Expo

I think I have found the epicentre of Things That Are Not What They Seem – a whole city that is pretending to be something that it isn’t. Or perhaps it’s the opposite – Things Are Exactly What They Seem – artificial worlds totally and utterly devoid of meaning. Either way Vegas is extraordinary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was my first trip to Vegas and I was there for Licensing International Expo – an annual get together for the world’s licensing agencies, licensors, retailers and IP owners. It’s usually held in New York at the Javits Centre but this year and next year it’s moved to Las Vegas, to the Mandalay Bay Hotel to be exact, which is also where we stayed for the 4 days of the expo.

The theme of the Expo was pretty much the same as it always is – how do you entice retailers to stock your merchandise, especially when retail is in crisis as it is in many sectors and many parts of the world? You can have a great tv show with a great slot, great ratings and great products – but unless you can convince TRU (Toys’R’Us), Wallmart or Target in the US, or any of the grocers in the UK that they are going to sell a lot of what you’ve got, you are always going to struggle.

For the time being we are all working for the supermarkets. It’s not ideal but it’s reality. In the UK Tesco has nearly 2,300 stores representing over 30msq ft of retail space and unless they, or one of their competitors, is carrying your merchandise you are in what is affectionately known as the specialty market – which is a much nicer but much smaller market.

But back to Las Vegas, which was the really interesting thing about this trip. The first thing that you have to get used to when you get there is the size of the hotels. They are ENORMOUS. The Mandalay Bay complex includes 3 hotels with nearly 5,000 rooms, a 135,000 sq ft casino and a 1,000,000 sq ft convention centre. It contains dozens of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues and it has an 11 acre ‘beach’ around pools with wave machines and all the other razzmatazz everything you would expect from a $950m resort. The theatre at the Mandalay Bay had the Lion King in residence, there was a huge indoor aquarium and a rock venue – The House of Blues.

The shops are arranged along ‘streets’. The Mandalay is so big that you can easily wonder from hotel to convention centre to restaurants to shops and never go outside or leave the hotel or see daylight or breathe fresh air. There was one day when I didn’t – even though I must have walked about 3 miles from venue to venue.

And each time you walk anywhere you pass through the casino. The cliché of the Vegas casinos is true – hundreds of thousands of square feet of slot machines, craps, roulette, poker and blackjack tables – and huge betting shops for sports events. People drinking, smoking and gambling 24/7. You walk through the casino at 8.00am to get to your first meeting; people are walking around carrying beer bottles or sitting at the poker table clearly oblivious to the time of day.

You can take enclosed walkways through to adjacent hotels. In the case of the Mandalay, the Luxor and the Excalibur are the conjoined monstrosities. The Luxor (Egyptian) and the Excalibur (Arthurian) are themed of course, but not as themed as the Venetian and the Paris hotels. These are the most ludicrous of them all.

The Venetian has a canal running through the main first floor precinct (its so much more than a foyer) complete with Gondolas and a ceiling painted (very effectively) to create the illusion of a sky above. Replica bridges take you to canal-side shops – the gondoliers sing to their stupefied passengers.

The lobby of the Paris is made to look like some sort of composite French city square, like Montmartre, with a casino parachuted in to sit on the cobbled streets. Again, the ceiling is painted to look like the sky and creates a truly disconcerting outside/inside parallel world that makes you want to hold your head in a Munch-like scream. Ten minutes in there is enough to make you fear losing your mind.

For me, spending the Saturday before I left for the US on the beach at Brean (just south of Weston-super-Mare) and then seeing the 11 acre ‘beach’ at the Mandalay was pitiful. I haven’t felt so homesick so early in a long trip ever before.

I guess for the 80% or so of US citizens who don’t have passports and will never see the real thing it’s less of an issue. Some people love the place – they are able to accept it for what it is and rejoice in its gaudy tackiness. I guess that for a very few – seeing Venice and Paris up close like this is as close to seeing the real thing as they are likely to get and they like it for that.

For me Vegas is as shallow and empty a place as I have ever been to, it destroys the soul and rots the brain and of course the whole purpose of the place, brilliantly thought through and executed, is to relieve you of your money, relentlessly and unforgivingly, 10c at a time if that’s your pleasure – millions at a time if you have got them.

I’m in LA now and it almost feels normal. I’m going to need some North Somerset therapy when I get back to the UK – walks on the Mendips, a trip to the Library, a day on the beach looking at real people riding real donkeys for real, outdoor fun.
Get me home ....