Monday, November 26, 2012
"Las Vegas nocturne: Monet and the Cirque du Soleil
(Part 2 0f some advice for visitors to Las Vegas)"
by Alastair Rickard
In the first part of this series (column No. 220, posted Nov.22, 2012) I wrote about the actual role -- as distinct from Hollywood movie myth -- of the mobster Bugsy Siegel in the origins of the Las Vegas Strip of hotels and casinos.
When Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the history of modern Las Vegas, built the Mirage Hotel in 1989, then the magnificent $1.6 billion Bellagio Hotel (centrally located on the Strip) in 1998 followed by Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 and its sister establishment Encore in 2008, he set the upscale standard for Strip resort hotels.
In the Bellagio Wynn included an art gallery where he displayed his own extensive collection. A major work in Wynn's personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 nillion. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However, while showing the painting to some guests including ABC broadcaster Barbara Walters, Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting. No surprise, the sale was cancelled. The painting was repaired for $90,000 but is considered to have lost considerable market value.
After Wynn sold the Bellagio to the MGM chain the art gallery was maintained as a space for special exhibitions and is now called the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. It is not a particularly large space compared to a major public gallery but it does bring in interesting special exhibitions which change periodically. These are arranged with various galleries, especially the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the MFA). To some extent the presence of the Bellagio Gallery as a public attraction on the Las Vegas Strip seems almost as odd as would be a string quartet as featured entertainment at the Palomino Club on Las Vegas Boulevard North..
Last year Pat and I attended "A Sense of Place: Landscapes From Monet to Hockney" at the Bellagio and it was worthwhile viewing. Currently and until Jan. 6, 2013 the Bellagio Gallery is devoted to a special exhibiton called "Claude Monet: Impressions of Light". I would not be surprised if the exhibition's time at the Bellagio was extended a bit.
The current Monet exhibition is presented in partnership with the MFA Boston from whose large collection of Monet paintings came this exhibition of 20 of his works (although none of his Giverny 'water lillies') plus eight works by French painters Corot, Signac, Pissarro and Boudin.
Here's a trivia question: who was the only French Impressionist to have exhibited work in all eight Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris? Answer --- not Monet, which might well be the most common answer but Camille Pissarro.
The works in the exhibition at the Bellagio are particularly good at showing the evolution in Monet's style and subjects from the 1870s through the 1890s. Monet remains a much admired painter for very good reason as these paintings demonstrate. He remains Pat's favourite painter and he is a painter I, because of her, have come to appreciate much more than I once did.
If you are in Las Vegas and have an interest in art, don't miss the Monet exhibition at the Bellagio.
The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil entertainment empire has become the leading supplier of big name 'permanent' shows to the major hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. So successful have Cirque shows been (Cirque's first Vegas show "Mystere" opened in 1993 and is still playing at Treasure Island Hotel) that big hotels have had huge theatres designed to house the new and highly engineered Cirque shows like "O" at the Bellagio, "KA" at the MGM Grand and "Love" at the Mirage.
There are seven Cirque shows playing in hotels on the Strip -- the official name of which is Las Vegas Boulevard and is not actually located in the City of Las Vegas per se. For the opening more than two years ago of the new Aria Hotel in the massive City Centre development Cirque came up with an Elvis Presley themed show called "Viva Elvis". After various teething problems the Elvis show opened officially on Feb 19, 2010. Pat and I saw it when it opened in preview in between attempts to 'fix' it. (see our review of this show on RickardsRead.com, column No. 72: "Elvis: stumbling back to Vegas", posted Jan.7, 2010).
We did not like the show much and it was no surprise to us that this Cirque "Viva Elvis" show was a bit of a failure, never coming close to reaching 'permanent ' status and, after having audiences that declined to 30% of capacity, was closed on Aug. 31, 2012. Trying to combine less than faithful versions of Elvis' hits as background for glorified Cirque acts did not work well: not enough Elvis for aging Presley fans. I daresay an elaborate Elvis Presley tribute show at the Aria or even the Hilton (where he had performed in Vegas) would have been greeted with more sustained enthusiasm at much less cost.
The Aria Hotel had demanded from Cirque du Soleil a show to replace "Viva Elvis" to present in their large new theatre. Cirque du Soleil complied. It has now replaced its Elvis show with a show it claims has already toured and played to audiences exceeding 1.5 million: "Zarkana". It opened officially on Nov.1, 2012 and seems to have been well received by audiences so far -- although it is still early days to try to gauge its staying power. The show was indeed fairly well received by the audience members with whom we attended it in early Nov.
"Zarkana" is essentially a series of tradtionial circus acts (e.g., juggling, trapeze, balancing, acrobatic et al) presented within the very loose framework of a tissue thin 'plot' backed by music and lyrics based on a created language ( a dialogue approach used in "O" and "KA", although it should be noted that dialogue in any of these Cirque shows is irrelevant to the show itself). I find occasional speaking indistinctly in the 'words' of a non-existent language both risible and irritating; Pat does not.
The circus performers are superb. Pat, who is a Cirque du Soleil fan of the first order, gives "Zarkana" a rating of 8.5 out of 10. By comparison she gives "KA" and "O" (each of which she has seen twice) ratings of 10 and 9, respectively. She gives Cirque special credit for the stage design of "Zarkana" as well as its movements and visual special effects.
There are so many shows (big and small) on and off the Strip available to the Las Vegas visitor that virtually no live entertainment taste, no matter how exalted or pedestrian, will search in vain for satisfaction (check out the various sites listing entertainment like www.Vegas.com).
However anyone considering a first visit to Las Vegas, if that visit is motivated solely or mainly by the entertainment on offer, should understand this: the cost of good seats for major Cirque or similar shows or for taking in big name celebrities doing a couple of shows over a weekend can be substantial. On our recent trip, for example, we took in a Friday night show at the Mirage by comedian Lewis Black. In our view he was excellent and worth the tariff -- but then like many standup comics he's an acquired taste.
If you are a Cirque du Soleil fan consider joining (at no cost) the Cirque Club. You will receive not just news of Cirque activities in Vegas and around the world, you will be informed directly of special offers and information about shows. This can be financially advantageous. For example: we saved $60 a seat on premier seats buying tickets to "KA" online direct from Cirque compared with the price on offer for the same category of seats for the same day from the theatre box office at the MGM Grand where "KA" plays.
One can join Cirque du Soleil at: www.cirquedusoleil.com
Another tip: consider joining the 'points' program called Total Rewards (no fee) available from the Caesars Entertainment/Harrah's chain of hotels/casinos. It operates several of the hotels on the Strip including Caesars Palace, the Flamingo, Harrah's, the Imperial Palace, Paris, and Bally's as well as casinos and hotels elsewhere.
As I said in Part 1 of this column (No.220) we regard the Flamingo Hotel -- among the hotels actually located on the Strip (many hotels in Las Vegas are not) -- the one which best combines price, value, central location on the Strip (an important consideration) and Monorail access.
The volume of Total Rewards points one earns from spending in the hotels is fairly unimpressive unless one gambles a good deal. The points also seem to expire relatively quickly. But you will get offered room rate discounts as a Total Rewards member. Also: merely holding a Total Rewards membership qualifies one for a 5% discount with the Norwegian Cruise Line, a significant saving.
For Total rewards, visit www.totalrewards.com/program
The other major hotel chain on the Strip, MGM, also has a program that parallels Total Rewards. It is called M life. The website is www.mlife.com
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Thursday, November 22, 2012
"Las Vegas nocturne: Bugsy and the Flamingo Hotel
(Part 1 of some tips for visitors) "
by Alastair Rickard
On Dec.26, 1946 Benjamin Siegel (aka Bugsy), a member of New York's Genovese Mafia crime family and longtime associate of Meyer Lansky, opened the Flamingo Hotel and Casino on a stretch of desert 7 miles from downtown Las Vegas. The opening was a flop but it marked the beginning of what is today universally known as the Las Vegas Strip, or more commonly as "The Strip".
Contrary to the story in Warren Beatty's movie "Bugsy" the building of the Flamingo out in the desert was not Siegel's idea but rather that of a Las Angeles businessman named William Wickerson who owned The Hollywood Reporter trade paper and several LA nightclubs. Siegel, who disliked both the desert and Nevada, became involved at the insistence of his friend Meyer Lansky with Wickerson's project after construction had begun and later, using the threat of death, forced Wickerson out.
The Flamingo's original cost was large for its day, all the more so once Siegel's inexperience in directing such a project began costing big bucks: $6 million or $62 million+ in today's dollars. Siegel was more psychopath than entrepreneur.
The money invested by Siegel's mob associates appeared to have no prospect of profit for some time and this was too long for them. Bugsy was shot on June 20,1947 as he sat reading the paper in the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with actress Virginia Hill (who had been skimming money from the Vegas project -- and the mob knew it).
The Flamingo came under various ownership over the decades, some connected to organized crime, some not. Today it is owned by Caesars Entertainment (formerly called Harrah's) and, like the other casino hotels on The Strip today, has no connection to the mob and the old days.
When it was built the Flamingo, located on 33 acres, had about 100 rooms. The last part of of the resort that dated back to Bugsy's days was demolished in 1993.
Today the Flamingo has 3,626 rooms looking out over a very pleasant garden area featuring not only pink flamingos and other wildlife but a modest bust of Bugsy Siegel. It is not nearly as plush and upscale as Strip hotels like the Bellagio or Wynn's or Caesar's. But in our view the Flamingo offers the best combination of price, value, central Strip location and monorail access.
Since both the mob and Howard Hughes left Las Vegas gambling has become a steadily decreasing share of total activity and revenue on The Strip (38% vs 46% from rooms, food and booze) although annual betting revenue exceeds $6 billion with 77% of Vegas visitors doing at least a little gambling.
Over time Las Vegas became a vacation destination for couples, singles and families. This was a wise reorientation by the major corporate players which now run most of the Strip hotels ( the MGM and Caesars Entertainment chains) because legalized gambling has spread to so many locations throughout the U.S. that being able to gamble legally becomes a lesser reason for visits to Vegas.
Entertainment and night life has become a major draw of Las Vegas. The Strip's hotels feature sophisticated, purpose-built theatres as well as an explosion in the number and the variety of both shows and restaurants and clubs. On several levels Las Vegas has become a monument to excess and flash, one which draws almost 40 million visitors a year, 16% of whom come from outside the U.S.
Once upon a time it seemed to me that when it came to going to Las Vegas visitors were often thought of as falling mainly into three categories: those who scorned Vegas as a trashy destination for mostly degenerate gamblers, those who went there to gamble and those attracted by the sinful reputation of Vegas ( you know the marketing slogan: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"). For a long time Pat and I were in the first group -- until I had to go to a business convention there.
What we discovered and have been returning regularly to enjoy is the entertainment. There are multiple offerings for almost every taste: from more than a half dozen different Cirque du Soleil shows to broadway shows; from 'tribute' shows where groups and individuals imitate famous singers and groups (mostly deceased) plus regular appearances by celebrity singers and comedians -- and on and on. By 2008 72% of Las Vegas visitors attended at least one show while in town.
Frequently one sees promotional articles about Vegas, little more than thinly disguised ads that masquerade as real journalism in newspapers and magazines Many are of marginal value to a prospective visitor looking for useful, hard information about the city. In fact what Las Vegas has become in recent yeas seems lost on some travel writers.
I recall the travel editor of one Canadian newspaper writing about Vegas based on little more than what he admitted was his first visit. He was apparently taken round to a couple of the major hotels in one chain plus a show and not alot more and proceeded to provide some not particularly useful 'advice' to his readers.
Pat and I have offered some views (based on multiple visits to Las Vegas) tied to our particular interests. These do not include gambling [see the listing of several Vegas-related columns on RickardsRead.com at the end of this one].
As with many travel guides to various destinations too much of the content in the Vegas guides we have reviewed is not particularly candid and is unhelpful to the planning of a trip. They often do little more than shill for certain hotels and attractions which may well have 'subsidized' the guides' writers' Vegas activity.
This sort of thing is also a fairly common practice involving the writers of newspaper travel section articles; sometimes this financial 'relationship' is acknowledged with the use of various euphemisms at the end of the articles, sometimes not. It is the rare newspaper these days which, like the New York Times, prohibits in its code for its jounalists the acceptance of such 'subsidies'.
The TripAdvisor.com website is a useful source of critical reviews by travellers themselves about almost any destination, hotel, attraction, et al. But remember: the best way to approach reviews on Trip Advisor of a particular hotel, for example, is to pay attention to the predominant view. Do not be guided solely or even mainly by the very best or worst opinions of visitors in their posted reviews.
Some travellers will always complain about something that many or most travellers will consider trivial while others will provide a rave review if the taps work and a hotel staffer smiles at them on their arrival. Also remember that hotel insiders or competitors may plant favourable or negative reviews on the site.
The best published guide to Las Vegas in terms of candid comment and useful information about hotels, entertainment and restaurants (among other things) is the annual edition of The Unoffical Guide to Las Vegas published by Wiley. It is put together by a team led by Bob Sehlinger. It is the most usefully critical of the several Las Vegas guides I have looked at and it provides current, reliable and comprehensive information. Be sure to obtain the latest edition; currently this is the 2013 edition published in August 2012.
Pat and I recently revisited Las Vegas and in the next RickardsRead column (Part 2 of this column) we will offer comments some readers may find interesting and helpful.
TO BE CONTINUED
1. website: www.Vegas.com ; www.tripadvisor.com
2. The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas, 2013 edition (published by John Wiley, Aug.2012)
3. Las Vegas-related columns on RickardsRead.com:
Nos. 12, 72, 144, 145, & 146
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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
"The American presidential election of 2012:
entertainment versus information"
by Alastair Rickard
The 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign is over, something for which many Americans will give thanks.
The very long presidential campaign (in reality firmly under way before 2012) featured, more than ever before, not only the expenditure of ridiculous amounts of money (an estimated $6 billion) and the use of tens of thousands of almost entirely negative televison ads, many of which were not just distortions of the truth but clearly mendacious. It also featured journalism hardly worthy of the name, the focus of which was overwhelmingly the latest results of the presidential 'horse race' as revealed by a multiplicity of weekly opinion polls.
The forecasts were all over the map but poll results were customarily presented as if they were reliable predictions to be taken seriously about the results of the election between President Barak Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. For more than the last month before Nov.6 news media were especially absorbed with reporting the supposed 'statistical dead heat' between the two candidates. Right up to election eve the race was said repeatedly, ad nauseam really, to be "too close to call".
Clearly the 'experts' in the media were wrong.With 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency Barak Obama took 352 to Mitt Romney's 206. As for the popular vote, the president outdistanced Mr. Romney by 3.3 million, i.e., more than half the total vote ( and there were third party presidential candidates on the ballot is some states). Some dead heat.
Nate Silver, the New York Times' expert on political polls, was a voice in the journalistic wilderness during the presidential campaign. Wisdom after the fact is, of course, as plentiful in the media as among corporate executives. Silver was wise before the fact.
In Silver's "FiveThirtyEight: Political Calculus" column in the Times he repeatedly made use of well-founded statistical analysis to swim against the tide of pack journalism's use of supposedly reliable weekly political polling results to animate their 'news' coverage of the presidential campaign.
The week before the presidential election Silver stated that Obama's chances of winning the election were 83.7% based on his ongoing analysis of all the weekly polls, their strengths and weaknesses. He pointed out that even the best political opinion polls these days have a response rate of no better than 10% [sic]: "The pollsters are making a leap of faith that the 10% of voters they can get on the phone and get to agree to participate are representative of the whole population."
As for the U.S. presidential election result, as the media consensus had it, being too close to call, Silver declared to his jounalistic colleagues "It isn't ....[Obama] will win the Electoral College. If you can't acknowledge that ... then [ you] should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public." Of course "entertainment" was (and is) mainly what cable news election coverage in particular was all about during the presidential campaign.
However we have arrived at a sad time if what seems to count to most 'news' providers is not the unreliability of political polling in the forecasting of election results (in Canada this has been recently emphasized by the unreliable polling prior to the provincial elections in Alberta and Quebec).
The reality is that even in Canada, although less so than in tthe U.S., offering 'horse race' election coverage instead of meaningful analysis is the prevailing method.'Political news' media are so easily distracted with facile coverage of the trivial like candidates gaffes or references to Big Bird. Of course it has its advantages: it facilitates the replacing of more difficult and 'non-entertaining' coverage of substantive issues.
In the U.S. one reason contributing to this sort of development was recently articulated by American media analyst Jack Lessenberg: the shrinking retentiveness of the average American voter, he says, is that of a "six-week pld puppy". Indeed the average news sound bite on American television has actually decreased fom 43 seconds in 1968 to 7 seconds today.
But many will respond: what of the new digital age when information is everywhere at hand? Surely the great information explosion of the past two decades involving online information, news sites and social media mean that American citizens, especially younger ones, are better informed than ever about politics and current affairs.
That's all very trendy. One might even characterize it as a media view well on its way to becoming fashionable conventional wisdom. It is neither my impression nor experience.
I have never believed the propaganda so beloved by the legions of digital/social media groupies about the positive impact of the information age on public knowledge of news and current affairs and the political process. I was interested therefore to run across the results of a Pew Research Study in the U.S. that found that American knowledge of current affairs did not change significantly over two decades. And the least informed age group, the study found, was also the most technically adept and the most avid users of social media: the 18-29 year old group.
Poll addicts among journalists, of whom there seem to be many, may privately acknowledge the profound unreliability as well as the thin gruel of so-called news derived from predictions of future election results based on political polling. But it is to expect too much to see the popular media depart from their continually increasing reliance on polls on all sorts of subjects to give them something to hang their story hats on.
Consider that the business media, even in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown which went unpredicted publicly by virtually all the 'experts' in the business media and investment communities, continues in the main to treat 'expert' opinions as the basis of much of their coverage.
The experts in business are on the whole no more reliable on, for example, the subject of the market place in future, than the media's 'talking heads', their third party experts. For example: a Duke University study of 11,600 forecasts by corporate chief financial officers about how the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index would perform over the next year found the correlation between their estimates and the actual index was less than zero.
What might one conclude from all this? At the very least that information is not equivalent to knowledge, all the more so in an age when one can drown in information -- accurate and inaccurate -- but end up understanding less and less about more and more.
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Sunday, November 4, 2012
"Updates: one on Sun Life and the other on Economical Insurance and its ongoing distribution of heifer dust"
by Alastair Rickard
In late October Bloomberg News reported that Morgan Stanley had been retained by Sun Life Financial to solicit bids for its U.S. annuities business. While Sun Life has refused to confirm that a sale is in the works it is almost certainly the case that it is.
New Sun Life CEO Dean Connor said late in 2011 that Sun was getting out of the individual insurance and variable annuity business in the U.S. It is a wise decision for reasons I have touched upon previously.
In May 2001 Sun bought the U.S. company Keyport Life Insurance Company ( it was and is an annuity company rather than a life insurance company per se) for $2.6 billion Can. In Dec. 2001 Sun Life announced the acquisition of the large Canadian life insurance company Clarica Life (the recently demutualized Mutual Life of Canada, founded 1870) tied to an exchange of 1.5 Sun common shares for each Clarica share.
The Clarica purchase was a good one for Sun; Keyport has not turned out so well. As a key part of the Clarica deal Sun acquired Canada's largest and best career agency distribution system; individual product distribution (principally via this now proprietary sales force) is still growing as a core strength of Sun's Canadian operation.
Keyport's (then) annual variable annuity sales in the U.S. of $1.1 billion Can. jacked up Sun's exposure to variable annuity business measured by annual sales to $7 billion Can. Before all that long the insurance industry reality turned out to be that variable annuities were not so much the key to the vault as to a financial crypt.
The timing of the Keyport acquisition by Sun was unfortunate on several levels including the American variable annuity market given what's happened in and to that market, post-2007 especially -- quite apart from whether Keyport as a company was really all that attractive. I have been told (reliably I think) that the senior management of the Sun Life U.S. operation had de facto committed the company to the purchase of Keyport before Sun Corporate in Toronto had even completed due diligence on the deal.
In terms of an analogy I would liken Sun's purchase of Keyport Life and its timing to the purchase of shares in the White Star Line while the Titanic was still under construction in Belfast.
If Sun realizes $1 billion+ for its American annuity business it will be fortunate. However a sale would certainly help Connor realize his announced corporate goal of $2 billion in annual operating income by 2015 based largely on Sun's Canadian operations -- the reliable golden goose of company profitability, certainly since the takeover of Mutual/Clarica -- as well as Sun Life's Asian operation (although its ownership interests in India and China are distinctly minority ones) plus Sun's U.S. mutual fund business MFS Investment Management.
The market appears at the moment to like Sun's direction. Sun shares closed up again on Friday at $25.22. I hasten to add the caveat that the 'market' and most of its 'experts' have an abysmally poor understanding of the reality of the life insurance business in Canada and in the overseas fields in which Canadian companies are operating. So up or down, don't assume that either the buying or selling of Sun Life shares is based on solid understanding.
Back in June this year I agreed to an interview by journalist Kate McCaffery about the future of the Canadian life insurance business. It was for the anniversary issue of The Insurance & Investment Journal, a Canadian magazine based in Montreal and published monthly in French and English.
I understand that an article based on that lengthy interview will appear in the magazine's end-of-the-year anniversary issue ( q.v., www.Insurance-Journal.ca).
Not long after the interview I decided I might as well put down some of what I had said in a column for RickardsRead.com (q.v., "What's been wrong with the life insurance business?", column No.202, posted June 21, 2012).
After the column appeared on RickardsRead.com I was asked by The American College of Financial Services for permission to publish it as an article in their magazine The Wealth Channel. The issue of that magazine in which my article appears (Winter 2012) has now been published (q.v., www.The WealthChannel.com).
I have devoted a number of columns posted to RickardsRead.com to:
(1) the proposed demutualization of Economical Mutual, a large Waterloo Ontario-based property & casualty insurance company, and
(2) a yet to be defined Canadian regulatory regime governing the demutualization of a federal p & c insurance company, a regime prompted by Economical's desire to demutualize.
( My most recent column (No.213) was posted on Sept.2,2012)
The whole affair has dragged on since 2010 and I see no obvious political upside for the federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty from the implementation of such a regime since it will inevitably result in there being some unhappy stakeholders, not least among them certain p & c company policyholders. Hence there appears to be no reason for Flaherty to want to push the process along any more quickly than he feels he must.
Still, the senior management of Economical Insurance (as its management now prefers the company, although still a mutual, to be known) recently indicated renewed confidence based, it claimed, on the fact that Flaherty had "recently reaffirmed to us that his department is following through with the development of regulations that are required to enable us to demutualize ... it is taking longer than we hoped and expected ...."
That at least is one statement from Economical's senior management that can be believed. One can wager that the comparatively small group of Economical Mutual insiders had expected to be able long since to divide the mutual p & c company's 'equity' among themselves -- either entirely or largely. I am betting that, at the very least, the intended magnitude of the screwing of the vast majority of Economical policyholders will not now be allowed.
In what looks to me like a part of a plan to enhance market interest in Economical Insurance as a stock company, 6% of the company's staff (145 people) have just been terminated. Of course management claims these firings of staff are unrelated to the planned demutualization.
That claim belongs in the same wagon full of heifer dust as the claim that the company is better off demutualizing -- the same sort of greed-related, crap argument that animated the unnecessary and undesirable demtualization of Canada's oldest and best mutual life insurance company, also Waterloo-based: The Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada.
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