What happens in Vegas shouldn’t stay in Vegas – the DTP
There is one person in Las Vegas who wants to make sure what happens in Vegas actually does not stay in Vegas. Tony Hsieh, the head of Zappos, has taken $350 million from the sale of his online store to Amazon and invested it back into the older parts of downtown Las Vegas. Those investments include real estate, a start-up fund, small businesses and education.
The results are impressive. As other cities struggle to get individual development projects permitted and built, the Downtown Project, or DTP, has a growing list of quickly built projects, including a park/venue/shops constructed of shipping containers, several co-work spaces, a condo/hotel, and revitalized storefronts.
On a recent visit (courtesy of the DTP and the media & events firm Tech Cocktail), I met with many entrepreneurs, funders, Zappos employees, artists, other startups, and longtime friends who live in Las Vegas. I had structured and unstructured time to talk, listen, observe, scrutinize and tour.
It’s tempting to chronicle the big takeaways from a big place. But for me, the best parts of the trip were the small things, those “aha” moments of a place deliberately constructed for creativity and serendipity. This is a short story of the small things in Vegas and the DTP.
Lesson 1: The subscription model to people
Most press on the DTP focuses on Tony Hsieh, but in reality its about people. The idea is to circulate lots of people within DTP and set up ways for them to strike up conversations during tours, festivals, events and randomly on street corners. Instead of Walkscore, they are studying Bumpscore.
This is a big lesson for smaller (or vacated) cities wishing for out-of-reach metrics that result in a “good” Walkscore. You don’t have to replicate big city use mix, density & infrastructure. You do, however, need to be an amazing event planner. You need people to sign up, show up, share something, have a good time and ultimately return. You need subscribers to place.
Lesson 2: Leveraging events
Of course, no one does events better than Vegas. In downtown, the Freemont Experience combined revitalization with showgirl audacity to attract tourists from the strip. The Downtown Project extends eastward from that first generation of tourist-related revitalization.
But the new businesses and startups I talked to reference a particular type of tourist vertical: the trade show attendee. In picking locations, these new businesses (mostly e-commerce) pointed out that the value of Vegas comes from the hundreds of trade shows that hold annual expos. This is their customer base — resources they can easily mine right in their own backyard instead of boarding a plane each week.
Like Vegas, my hometown in the Washington DC region plays host to giant conferences. I wondered how many people (other than restaurants) take advantage of the flow of valuable out-of-towners. Imagine “idea market” pop-ups on 9th street to engage conventioneers as they pour out onto streets looking for stuff to do. While most convention planners do all they can to keep people on-site, conference hashtags break through the fortress: “Hey @xconference, come to @greaterplaces popup at 9th & L — try out our tech for your city!”
Lesson 3 — The tech crawl
During the visit, the DTP and Tech Cocktail set up a couple of events that were staggered over the course of the evening. Instead of agonizing over which of three events to attend, we could hit them all: a lecture, a co-workspace fashion show and a pod-cast party. The podcast party was really interesting because a video production stage occupies the back of a bar. The tech scene and the bar scene are the same place.
Arlington/DC/MD could learn from this. We have a big tech ecosystem, but it’s scattered. We also have bar districts that are wasted on a singular use: getting wasted. My own neighborhood (Clarendon) in Arlington, plays host to bar crawls that attract throngs of people.
Imagine doing what Vegas does and combining the two. Demos, speaker series, podcasts, lessons, drinks. The interior spaces of Clarendon’s bars are gorgeous. A tech crawl might not attract the same people who come to the bar crawls, but that’s the point.
Two issues continue to hang over Vegas: gentrification and water. DTP seems to be addressing the gentrification and relocation issue, though water in the West should be light years ahead in terms of conservation and innovation. Perhaps that’s the next great project for DTP because once Lake Mead goes dry, the lights — and computers — literally go dark.
This post also appears on Medium.