The Lessons of Adaptability Learned at Rome in the Desert

As I write this, I am deep inside the expansive halls of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. I’m here for a convention, just as 5 million other people come to Vegas for every year. If it weren’t for the clock on my laptop, I would have little idea of whether it is day or night. I’m sitting in a comfortable chair. Amenities abound. Restaurants from some of the world’s greatest chefs are within footsteps. The shopping goes on forever. Parking is plentiful and free. Show tickets are expensive but offer something you can’t get anywhere else. All paths lead to the casinos; pumped with oxygen and pulsating with action like a massive train station that sucks you in and demands your attention (and money) before sending you home.

All of these logistics are intended of course, continually refined over the years to maximize profits by constantly seeking to perfect the user experience.

Regardless of your opinion of the town, there are only few other examples of the American ability to adapt and reinvent than Las Vegas. You need only to get to a high floor of one of the hotels and take a look around to see the living timeline of innovation:

  • What seems now like the impossibly small stalwart casinos of “downtown” that were the heart of the action when U2 walked the neon-filled streets and proclaimed “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” just 25 years ago
  • Up to the “old strip” spectacles like Circus Circus with its pink big top and the Stratosphere’s monster tower
  • To the ever-larger amusement and destination-themed resorts like Luxor, New York-New York and Paris
  • On to the merging of destination and luxury in the Bellagio and the Venetian
  • All the way up to the design-conscious, hyper-luxury, super-hip current darlings like the Wynn Las Vegas and MGM’s City Center

Each resort is its own landlocked cruise ship made expressly to appeal to the hearts, minds and wallets of certain demographics, and all survive and flourish by being adaptable — opening and closing attractions with not a second thought if they aren’t pulling their weight and moving on to the next idea. And those that don’t survive? There’s no fading away in Las Vegas, only going out with a bang.

Interestingly, Caesar’s Palace has been particularly resilient in the face of Las Vegas’ many transformations. It has five towers, each bigger than the last. Its shops have adjusted with the times, as have its restaurants and entertainment. Yet it also has the cachet of a popular culture classic — a place where Evel Knievel jumped the fountains and failed, and his son Robbie jumped and succeeded, Rain Man counted cards, Ross and Rachel got married and Alan and the Wolf Pack woke up with Mike Tyson’s pet tiger. It has been able to survive and flourish on the same plot of land for almost 50 years.

So why talk so much about a 50-year-old casino in the middle of the desert when you work for a software company in the old south? Because it may hold the keys to innovation and longevity. Here are some loose rules of running a successful casino that just as easily apply to running a successful technology brand, or really any brand.

  • Focus on the experience: If luxury is your stock in trade, be as luxurious as you can manage while still being accessible.
  • Give people what they want: Many companies see creativity and service as opposing qualities. Henry Ford famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The implication is that creativity of any kind is art, and art is an expression of self. Well, Las Vegas is creativity and commerce, and its resorts excel at making the proverbial faster horses and better machines. A prime example is Caesar’s decision to open the Forum shops in 1992. At the time, shops weren’t plentiful in casinos, but once they were opened and visitors had a place to spend their gambling winnings — or not gamble at all and spend all of their money on shopping — and still go home happy seemed like a brilliant and deceptively simple innovation. Service-oriented creativity isn’t always immediately obvious, but at its best it becomes nearly immediately essential once it’s implemented.
  • Nurture Your Core: The casinos that survive have a similar “classic,” or at least consistent, experience to that of Caesar’s Palace. Have the best service, or the best food, or the best spa, or all of the above — something that you can maintain over time so that people will return again and again.
  • Adapt or Die: One of the greatest mistakes in business is sticking with a bad idea for too long. We want to try to turns things around to get a return on investment. Or, very frequently, we stay with bad products simply because we paid a lot for them. In Las Vegas, if something doesn’t work, it’s gone. That kind of adaptability has helped it survive through more than its share of financial hard times and the loosening of gambling restrictions around the country and around the world. It hasn’t been without its additional struggles, but having a core yet being able to change within the framework of that core has led to many successes on “The Strip”.
  • Know a Good Thing When You See It: On the other hand, we tend to easily stop nurturing the ones that work simply because we’re sick of them. Celine Dion has been performing at Caesar’s in the theater built for her off and on for more than a decade. She’s not my style but she is the pinnacle of entertainment for enough people that she’s likely drawn billions of dollars in revenue into Caesar’s palace. Up the road at the 20-year-old MGM Grand, they’ve built a new nightclub (again) and secured the best DJ’s in the world to set up residency, because that’s what their clientele expects of them — consistency framed as innovation. Both of those approaches are ideas you stick with for as long as they work — but not a second longer.