Las Vegas Notebook - The Strip, Shrimp, and Data

As I continue to unpack all that I heard, learned, and experienced at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Conference in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I’m still amazed by the city itself. The energy of the place is remarkable – of course a result of its carefully crafted and marketed image as America’s playground.

 The Stratosphere Casino, Hotel, & Tower. Pro tip - if you say you're just going to the bar, you can ride the elevator up for free. Tell 'em Jack sent ya! (don't tell them this).

The Stratosphere Casino, Hotel, & Tower. Pro tip - if you say you're just going to the bar, you can ride the elevator up for free. Tell 'em Jack sent ya! (don't tell them this).

On my last day at the conference I took the elevator to the top (well, almost) of the Stratosphere Hotel tower, 107 stories, and was stunned that the city’s lights seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon in all directions. Having lived in Arizona for a few years amidst a lifetime in the northeast, the spread of southwestern cities will still never cease to amaze me. Sustainability does not appear to be a priority.

A quick anecdote - when I was in my 20s I traveled to Vegas for the first time. I landed at 6am, but my friends were not getting into town until early afternoon. Faced with a half day alone in a new city ripe for exploring, I walked from the airport to the Encore hotel with my bags, a distance of at least 3 or 4 miles. The sun was just rising as I headed towards the Strip with planes roaring overhead, surrounded by nothing but vacant lots and chain link fences. Activity seemed to increase as I neared Las Vegas Boulevard, until I finally saw a human soul - a man getting arrested at 7am behind the MGM Grand.

 Pictured: not really what happened.

Pictured: not really what happened.

This is a place like nowhere else – but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Now back to this year's conference. The sheer scale of Vegas entertainment was driven home when I attended a session at NCPH on a folklore project that explored the lives of the tens of thousands of hotel and casino workers who work in the city. Heavily unionized and protected, the industry represents a path to the middle class and stability for immigrants and domestic residents alike. Roughly 1/3 of the entire city workforce takes this opportunity and works in hospitality. Subcultures abound as different ethnic groups grab a foothold in an industry that takes good care of its workers.

 If you look closely, you can see me carefully placing my mortgage payment on red.

If you look closely, you can see me carefully placing my mortgage payment on red.

The bigger takeaway I had was the numbers that the panel members rattled over. They ran through these at the very beginning of their panel discussion, one right after the other, and instantly hooked the entire audience. I wrote as fast as I could, and I’m sure I missed a few, but in no particular order:

• The city of Las Vegas hosts 21,000 conventions or conferences every year, bringing almost 7 million people into town. On any given day, there is theoretically at least 57 events full of people “in town for the conference.” In retrospect, I’m not surprised that nobody ever cared enough to give my lanyard a second look.

• There are 150,000 hotel rooms in town, and on any given night, roughly 90-95% of them are occupied.

• The city consumes 60,000 pounds of shrimp per day. By my math, that’s (very) roughly 1.5 million shrimp every twenty-four hours, or 17 a second.

• People wager $6.5 billion on The Strip every single year. This sounds like an awful lot, but there are estimates that Americans wager around $10 billion a year, illegally, just on the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

• The aforementioned MGM Grand is a typical Vegas hotel, and it employs 9,000 people, while its parent company MGM Resorts employs 52,000 across the city.

 Bubba, brace yourself, but have I got a place for you.

Bubba, brace yourself, but have I got a place for you.

The scale of this operation is essentially beyond comprehension, but it can begin to be understood via these quick hit facts. This type of easily digestible quantitative information is also the logic behind the popular infographics that you might have seen at any number of museum exhibits – components that quickly provide context and scale to buttress interpretive structure.

Not only can these numbers dazzle and provide fodder for both conversation and for Instagram, but they serve a key interpretive purpose by allowing visitors a contextualizing snapshot of content. Cultural institutions of all sizes should be on the lookout for these fast facts that can really grab the attention of visitors and leave them hungry for more.