In the first episode Piers jets into Las Vegas – the vast neon nightspot in the middle of the Nevada Desert dubbed Sin City due to the sheer volume of drinkers, gamblers, revellers and hookers who flock there every year.
For decades Vegas has embodied the true American dream and is seen as a place where anything was possible. Piers meets the celebrities who love to party there, including Sylvester Stallone, Paris Hilton and Joan Rivers.
He takes in the extraordinary sights of the city, from the hotel shaped like a pyramid, to the one with a miniature Eiffel Tower and the one with a replica Venetian canal system – indoors. He sees the hotel with 24 carat gold-plated windows and looks around the $40,000 a night hotel suite and its sister suite which comes with a basketball court.
He meets the people who live in the city, including some of the casino bosses, who reveal how they make their money, and the town’s mayor. One Englishman’s family explain how their American dream turned into a nightmare and Piers visits the Hoover Dam to see the alarmingly low supply of water for the city.
Piers also investigates the impact the global recession has had on Las Vegas, which has so far seen three hotel casinos go bust and visitor numbers fall.
He says: “The recession swept through the city like a financial tsunami and it’s now fighting for its very existence. Can it survive and thrive again? Or will it die at the altar of its own wheel of fortune?”
Las Vegas began as a desert outpost in 1905 and by the 1950’s had captured the world’s imagination as a fun destination.
The city now has 150,000 guest rooms to choose from and is home to 17 of the world’s 20 largest and glitziest hotels – all of which are built on the four mile Las Vegas Boulevard, also known as The Strip.
Piers visits some of the casinos and sees a table with $30m dollars of money and chips laid out on it.
He visits the hotel casino specifically designed for high rollers, known as ‘whales’, who regularly spend upwards of $5m a night in the casino. The Mansion, which is tucked away from the main strip, offers a tranquil haven for the multimillionaires. Everything from $20,000 bottles of cognac to caviar is free to big gambling guests, each of whom has eight members of staff looking after them.
The Mansion’s vice president, Ly Ping Wu, tells Piers: “You don’t have to give me anything, your play in the casino dictates how much more luxury you would like to have. If you’re a good customer we’ll give you everything you want to make you happy.”
Piers meets the boss of the casino, Debra Nutton, who tells him that the ‘whales’ are mostly competitive men who gamble for the challenge, not the money.
In 2007 the gambling revenue in the city was $12bn a year, this has now fallen by 20 per cent. Debra says: “I think the recession has definitely hurt business. There was a time when you would come in here on a Saturday and would see every game full and that’s certainly not the case today.”
Piers tries out gambling in the casino – he starts with $200,000 worth of chips and opens with a win, then ends up losing $1m in just 90 seconds.
He says: “When you can lose a million dollars in 90 seconds, you can see why they’re prepared to make their guests very happy indeed. It is all about indulgence in Vegas, you could call it flashy, even cliché, but in return, anything goes.”
Casino host Steve Syr shows Piers around the penthouse suite at the Hard Rock Café hotel, complete with its own bowling alley, and explains how he draws customers to his casino.
He says: “I try not to do anything morally wrong, but if I happen to be at the airport and I’m in a limo and they think they’re going to Caesar’s and we end up at The Hard Rock, that’s been fun. I’m like a Jerry Maguire, I make the deal, ‘How much am I going to give the girlfriend shopping? Maybe your betting limits?’ If you lost $1m you only have to pay back $850,000 because I’m going to discount that to get you in. It’s egos, I’m an ego feeder.
“Here’s my goal, someone loses $100,000, shakes my hand and says, ‘God, I had a great time, when’s your next event?’ It’s the cost of entertainment, some people want to travel the world, some people want to go to Hawaii, some people want to risk money gambling.”
The city’s mayor, Oscar Goodman, who used to be a criminal attorney for the mob, invites Piers into his elaborately decorated office and Piers questions him about suggestions he’d like to legalise prostitution and chop graffiti artists’ thumbs off.
While in the city, Piers also meets some of the celebrities who love to party there, including Sylvester Stallone who tells him about his amazing birthday party with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and John Travolta.
As they gamble together, Sly tells Piers that he has always loved Vegas. He says: “I would go on the Dracula diet, you sleep all day, up all night and then you go to a fight, usually sit ring side as Mohammed Ali or Ken Norton are in the ring, and I would go in a white disco suit and the collar up – it’s embarrassing – and then you would hit all these raucous clubs, finally crash at about five in the morning, wake up at about noon, you look in the mirror and see your grandfather, ‘What’s happened? Who stole my face?’
“My wife threw my birthday party, there were so many celebrities who I never thought we would get together in one room, Arnold, Bruce, Travolta and Tom Jones. The most fun city is Vegas.”
Meeting up with multi-million dollar heiress Paris Hilton, Piers lounges with her on a hotel room bed as she tells him: “I love Vegas, I’ve been coming here my whole life, ever since I was two-years-old. Every New Year we come with my family, it’s just like Disneyland for adults. You can gamble, you can do anything here, it’s crazy. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
And Joan Rivers says she believes you’ve made it when you’ve performed in Vegas. She adds: “It’s like coming to a giant cocktail party, ‘Oh, there’s Bet, oh, there’s Elton.’”
American’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator has reportedly just signed a $100m deal to perform on The Strip for five years. Piersgoes to see him in his hotel room as he prepares to go on stage and talks about his new-found fame.
When the recession hit Vegas many hotels had to slash their room rates and were struggling to make enough to cover their debts. Several multi-billion dollar builds ground to a halt when developers ran out of money.
Piers meets Brit Robert Earle who has just opened a 52 storey hotel and residential space despite running up a $860m debt on his present hotel, the Planet Hollywood.
He tells Piers it costs $1m per day to run Planet Hollywood and the recession has been a big problem. He says: “It’s been dreadful, it’s been an unmitigated disaster, it’s caused most companies to look at their lending structure and see what they can do. It came almost overnight, it came because businesses cancelled their trips, it came because holiday makers cancelled their holidays because they had trouble paying their mortgage, America reacts to everything very, very quickly.”
Robert tells Piers that hotel casinos are returning to practices of days gone by – offering free food and rooms to draw people in.
And it isn’t just the casinos that have been hit. Piers investigates how the property crash affected the city when he meets the Brit who has lost his property business thanks to the credit crunch, and visits the development where luxury homes which were built to sell for $8m are now fetching just over half that price tag.
Piers says: “A couple of years ago Vegas was the fastest growing city in America, 50,000 people a year moved here as property and land prices exploded. It was the land of milk and honey, whatever background you came from, you could still strike it rich, but then came the credit crunch. The casinos hit problems, they shed jobs, the dream soured. Very quickly Vegas became the fastest again, but for closures, it was the ground zero of the worldwide property crash.”
When Mark McGary moved to Vegas 20 years ago he built up a business as a mortgage broker which saw him earning enough to buy six houses, several cars and a $1m designer home which he had built from scratch.
Mark shows Piers around the home which he now has to sell for only half of what he paid for it.
As well as problems created by the credit crunch, Piers discovers the city has an even bigger worry to contend with – a shortage of water. He visits the Hoover Dam where water levels are dropping at an alarming rate and could see the city without water in as little as eight years.
In spite of these problems, Piers meets the man investing billions in taking the city forward, the chief executive of the MGM City Centre, the $8.5bn project billed as ‘The Future of Vegas’. MGM City Centre is the largest privately funded development America has even seen, with 6000 hotel rooms, residential and entertainment space. It has been designed by eight of the foremost architects working in America, including Sir Norman Foster.
Chief exec Jim Murran reveals to Piers that the project recently came within two hours of bankruptcy which would have seen 9000 people out of work. Luckily the development was saved. Jim explains that the 76 acre site will feature only one casino – the rest will be aimed at lifestyle, shopping and entertainment, which he believes is the future of the city.
He says: “We believe that myopic one dimensional view of Vegas is yesterday’s news.”
Saturday, 2 January 2010, 9:15PM – 10:15PM