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PAUL'S POINTERS: PAVED PARADISE & PUT UP A PARKING LOT

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

Some say change is inevitable. That much is true. However, experience has taught me that all change isn't necessarily good. With that in mind, this month I'm going to talk about some changes taking place in Las Vegas, namely on the once fabulous Las Vegas Strip. If you haven't visited Las Vegas in over a year, or even if you are a local that doesn't visit or work on the Strip regularly, you may be in for a surprise next time you pull into one of the casino properties there.

TAKE A TICKET PLEASE OR WATCHING THE WHEELS

Many of the casinos on the Strip are now charging patrons to park each time they visit. This "news" isn't really new and began last year. MGM Resorts International led the way with a mid-January announcement that they planned to spend $36 million on parking upgrades at their various properties and venues. Here's an example of the kind of thinking that paved the way for this paid parking phenomena: "The parking process is our customers' first and last touch-point with us. Our guests expect and deserve an enhancement to this aspect of our resort experience," Corey Sanders, MGM Resorts International Chief Operating Officer, said in a news release. "We've taken into account our customer feedback and carefully planned these improvements to address some of their most common concerns - challenging navigation and difficulty finding available spaces. We acknowledge that this aspect of our resort experience can be improved, and we're taking an aggressive approach." I don't know how many of you were asked to provide feedback on this topic and voted for a $10 parking fee just to visit one of their properties, but I certainly didn't!

Fast forward to the present and MGM's so-called "aggressive approach" has spread like kudzu growing on the side of a Mississippi state highway. In May the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas became the 23rd property on the Strip to charge customers to park at its resort. By doing so, it joined a list of properties that includes twelve owned by MGM Resorts International, eight owned by Caesars Entertainment, and two Wynn Las Vegas resorts that charge some form of paid parking. If you don't mind parking your own vehicle, the Wynn's parking garage is still free, but they do charge a fee for valet parking. Like Wynn, Caesars announced at the end of last year that they would begin charging customers to park. That idea went operational in April. For the moment, local residents are allowed to park for free by scanning the barcode on the back of a Nevada driver's license. MGM allowed locals to park free much of last year before "re-evaluating" the situation and deciding it was in local folks' best interest to pay like everyone else.

PLEASE NOTIFY ATTENDENT OR BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, YEAH!

"So what's the big deal with paying to park? You're just going to spend the money or lose it gambling, right?" That's a dangerous mindset, but it is out there and exactly the attitude the casino bosses and decision makers want you to have. They've shown time and again they don't respect you or their other customers by dealing 6:5 blackjack games; tightening video poker and slot pay tables; reducing comps; and even trying to get around giving free beverages to gamblers in some joints. Charging to park is a slap in the face and should be taken as an insult. I always rented a car when I visited Las Vegas and that move more than paid for itself. However, if I had to pay to park at my hotel or at a casino ($10 or more) I visited regularly, my logistics costs would soar and the car could actually become an economic liability. Of course I'm a big fan of voting with my feet and my pocketbook, so I would choose to avoid those properties that charged me to visit (which I regularly do downtown and on the Strip). Gambling is a tough racket, for fun or profit, and being negative before you make your first bet sure doesn't help.

For the record I rarely visit any of the Strip properties except for a meeting, work assignment, or with out-of-town friends and family. I left the Strip properties, or they left me, long ago for other reasons. I'll admit, it is fun to play tourist and there are still some wonderful sights to behold along the way, but the gambling options are pretty much unplayable. As bleak as the current parking situation has become, all is not lost - yet.

There are several casino properties on the Strip that do not charge to self-park. On the far north end there are the Stratosphere, SLS, and Circus Circus that charges for valet parking only. Further south Wynn and Encore also charge for valet service only. Next door, the Venetian and Palazzo remains free to park, as does Treasure Island across the street. Caesars Entertainment properties dominate the Center-Strip area with Caesars Palace, Harrah's, Flamingo, LINQ, Cromwell, Bally's, Paris, and Planet Hollywood under their ownership. As mentioned above, if you have a Nevada driver's license, you can still park free at these properties. If you don't, Casino Royale offers a free alternative. On the south end of the Strip the Tropicana offers some relief from the MGM stronghold on the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevards that extends all the way to Mandalay Bay. If you are willing to walk just a bit, Hooters is my preferred parking spot on the south end.

THAT'LL BE $12 OR THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS, ONLY SOLUTIONS

This is the section where we get creative. I provided some casino properties that offer free parking in the previous section, but what else can we the people yearning to park free do? If you are hanging out with me, bring your walking shoes. I like Hooters for the South Strip, but recently bit the bullet and picked up an M-life Rewards MasterCard from the MGM folks. This credit card automatically entitles the holder to M-life Pearl players' club status. One of the perks is free parking at all MGM properties. This saved me some cash recently when my I played host to a visiting family member and took them to the Bellagio Conservatory and the Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues (HOB). A good friend recently worked a 7-day trade show at Mandalay Bay and he and a close co-worker friend of his met offsite each day. They took one vehicle and used his Pearl card obtained via the MasterCard to park free each day. They each saved $12 in parking fees for seven days versus the alternative. That's $168 between them! Another credit card isn't the answer for many of you, and I was in the market for a second credit card. With no annual fee, this presented a viable option for me. However, the interest rate on my card is 20.24% (criminal isn't it?), so DO NOT carry a balance if you go this route. Mine is a backup to my primary card and will be used sparingly and paid off at the end of each month it is used.

If you are not a NV resident and want to visit properties near the center of the Strip, some free options include the nearby shopping destinations such as the Fashion Show Mall, the garage for the Miracle Mile shops (Planet Hollywood), or The Shops at Crystals (Aria). Another option is Trump Towers across the street from the Fashion Show Mall. Park there and walk across into the mall and then out onto the Strip. Be sure to verify the garage hours if parking at non-casino locations such as Fashion Show Mall.

If you want to check out MGM-owned casinos on the west side of the Strip, there's a free tram that runs from Mandalay Bay (it's near the HOB) that stops at the Luxor and Excalibur. MGM also offers a free tram that runs from Monte Carlo to Bellagio with stops in between. On the east side of the Strip, the monorail offers service from MGM all the way to the Las Vegas Convention Center with numerous stops along the way. The Monorail isn't free, but it's much cheaper than taking a cab. Check the tourist magazines for discount coupons. Also, I've heard word-of-mouth that multiple-ride tickets purchased at the Convention Center are less expensive.

I'll admit walking in the sweltering Las Vegas heat probably isn't a good option this time of year; or if you are dressed up for a night on the town any time of the year, but it is an option during cooler temperatures. Some casinos near the Strip that offer free parking and a relatively short walk are the Tuscany, Westin, and Ellis Island for the center-Strip destinations. Earlier I mentioned my go-to, Hooters, for a gateway to the south-end properties.

There are plenty of casino options that offer viable alternatives to the Strip casinos only a short distance away. The Orleans is southwest of the Strip on Tropicana Boulevard; while just west of the Strip on Flamingo are the Gold Coast, Palms, and the Rio. The Hard Rock isn't far from the Strip to the east, but recently downgraded most of its blackjack offerings. It's still a good visit if you are a rock n roller like me; just don't bother bringing your gambling bankroll.

Speaking of casino options off the Strip, many offer shuttle service to the Strip. These can be good options and are often included in your "resort fee." Be sure to confirm pickup times and locations, especially once you get away from your hotel or car at one of these properties. Some of the casinos that offer shuttle service to the Strip include the Gold Coast, Orleans, Palms (for hotel guests only), and the Rio. Sam's Town on Boulder Highway and the Silverton and M Casino, both south of the Strip offer shuttle rides. Sam's Town also has a shuttle that goes downtown. Out in Summerlin, west of the Strip, the Rampart Casino at the J W Marriott offers Strip service.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

This month I took a look at the paid parking virus that is spreading up and down the Las Vegas Strip. There are now 23 casino properties that charge their visitors to park in some way, shape, or form. I have some personal experience with the MGM properties and the fees have been $10-$12 during the day and rising to as much as $20 during special events. I'm not about to try to quote every parking fee structure, but my goal was to inform you that the fees are out there and the number of properties instituting this "money grab" policy is increasing. I encourage you to check the websites and pick up the phone for the latest details before your planned visit to any of the properties mentioned above; then change your plans and tell them why. If you have a players' club card, ask if that entitles you to any relief. I failed to mention it above, but both the MGM and Caesars' properties are free for the first hour. This is ideal for running quick errands like getting your sports bets in or cashing last night's winning tickets.

The genie is out of the bottle and it's probably wishful thinking to believe these parking fees will go away. However, I encourage each and every one of you to think long and hard about supporting the properties that impose them. For the most part, the casinos at these properties are severely lacking, but there is still an economic impact to be felt if we minimize or flat-out fail to spend our hard-earned dollars (and certainly bankroll) at these establishments. Be sure to let supervisors, hosts, and anyone you come in contact with know that you are upset about the parking fee policies. Send emails and make calls to complain. Never fail to ask about having your parking comped at check-in and check-out if staying at a property that charges hotel guests to park. In the meantime, get creative and use some of the alternative options I presented in the previous sections. Plus, Uber and Lyft might be viable options for you as well. Also, don't be afraid to put on some comfortable shoes and walk a little. It's better for you than playing games with poor payouts!

Too many of the casino companies now consider themselves entertainment companies, so let's treat them that way. There is lots of competition in the broader entertainment marketplace and when you start looking closely at what the Las Vegas casino-resort "entertainment havens" are offering and the price points, well it just doesn't add up for many (most) of us. There are plenty of other options for entertainment and certainly plenty of other gaming options in the Las Vegas market, as well as, across the country. I bet they don't charge to park in Tunica or in Biloxi. The folks on the Las Vegas Strip seem hell-bent on killing the golden goose of gambling that made Las Vegas great to so many of us and a destination recognized around the world. However, like the song says, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

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