Las Vegas’ “pleasure economy”: its growth, pitfalls and direction


Nevada’s economy is built on the 24-hour party, “What happens here, stays here” mantra.

Bo Bernhard, vice president of economic development at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, dubbed this mix Nevada’s “pleasure economy.” That’s what people come to Las Vegas for: shows, concerts, gambling and, increasingly, sports.

And it’s a mix that is increasingly becoming the norm for different economies around the world. For the first time, tourism now represents 10% of the global economic puzzle.

Of course, many will argue that the economy of pleasure, or reliance on it, can also be detrimental. And Las Vegas felt that after during the recession and the pandemic.

Bernard joined state of nevada host Joe Schoenmann; Alan Feldman, Fellow Emeritus of the International Gaming Institute at UNLV; Myron Martin, CEO of the Smith Center; and Christi Nelson, vice president of partner activations at T-Mobile Arena and MGM Grand Garden Arena.

The pleasure economy is actually a trademark phrase, according to Bernhard, totaling about 15% of the economy. Manufacturing, for example, is only 11%.

“The future of the economy is leaning towards Las Vegas,” he said. “In many ways, Las Vegas has become a global intellectual capital of tomorrow’s economy in sectors that are growing rather than declining.”

Martin said seeing a show at the Smith Center is all about that experience — being involved, wrapped up in “this amazing thing that’s going on around you.” In the city that “invented fun,” he said it makes them “perform better” than if they were in another city.

Feldman expanded on this, noting that Las Vegas invented the shift from buying things to buying experiences.

“We have redefined the value proposition. And there’s no escaping the fact that if you go back in time to Las Vegas, with rare exceptions, we were the capital of cheap rooms, cheap food and great entertainment. And think today how that has changed,” he said.

And there’s research behind it, Bernhard noted. Twenty-five years of research to show that money doesn’t buy happiness when it buys things, it buys happiness when it buys experiences.

Nelson said that while partying is still the main draw, there is more to see in Las Vegas and tourists are taking advantage of it.

“But now I think there’s a whole other level of intelligence,” she said. “People are starting to realize that Las Vegas is more than just a party destination.”

Although Martin said there was no literal intelligence attached to his guests, for example. The public has extremely varied educational backgrounds, he said. For Smith Center, they responded more to affordability.

“No matter what neighborhood they’re from, or what their father does for a living, [it’s] a place where they can be inspired by the arts and entertainment,” Martin said.

The opening of the Mirage helped pave the way for an accessible tourism industry, setting the standard for modern resorts in terms of size, experiences, education and price.

“The Las Vegas experience has always been dynamic and multi-layered. It’s up to the visitor which layers they want to experience,” Feldman said, referring to the property he helped start. Bernhard called the property’s opening “the moment of the light switch.”

But, diversification is always the discussion when talking about an industry.

“Do we want economic development? Or do we want economic diversification? And I think the answer is actually quite simple: yes, yes, we do,” Bernhard said.

He said to think of the role of the pleasure economy in this like Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees. For example, the NFL arena opens near the Las Vegas Strip, leading to sports medicine, leading to medical robotics, etc.

Feldman agreed, “We need to move beyond the over-reliance on direct tourist taxes, gambling hall tax sales, taxes generated on the Strip. What we need to do is exactly what Bo is pointing to. Take a peek at one of the shows, one of the events, one of the sporting events on the strip, and try to kind of look just beyond the floor or the ice or the arena or whatever.

“It’s a city that attracts more human beings to this piece of Earth than any other piece of land on Earth,” Bernhard added. “The Strip is the most visited tourist site on planet Earth. And everything that drew record levels, 42 million people to Las Vegas in a year, hatched in the brains of Las Vegas.”


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