Last year, Zappos’s CEO Tony Hsieh spent much of his keynote speech at SXSW V2V 2013 on the "Downtown Project", the name he gave to his personal economic and cultural revitalization effort of several acres of the original, downtown Las Vegas. Tony made a considerable financial commitment to the Downtown Project of $350 million, to be apportioned over a 5-year period to real estate purchase and redevelopment, small business acceleration, tech venture investment, and arts and culture. I was unable to spend more time in Las Vegas to see the activity firsthand in 2013, so I made sure to schedule an extra day this year to check it out. While I was at it, I decided to do a little mobile commerce app field testing. I had read a couple of articles about mobile commerce and hotel/hospitality apps in Vegas, so I ended up downloading the following for my test:
- The Venetian app, for the hotel where I stayed
- The official Downtown Project app
- Preo, a Food & Beverage (F&B) app
- Nomic, a social business and community directory app
- Vegas Slots, a gaming (as in gambling) app
The Venetian App
I started with the Venetian app, which seemed to perform well and appeared to have some nice discounts for guests.
I favorited several deals in the morning, looking forward to seeing how the redemptions would actually work as I visited the merchants.
But, whoops — as soon as I checked out from the hotel at noon, all of those discounts I favorited became immediately inaccessible.
Yet, there I was, standing in the lobby ready to go eat and shop, where just moments earlier I had been a guest in the hotel for four nights.
The Downtown Project App
On to the next, which was the Downtown Project (DP) app. I’d been hoping that it would have some unique discounts and deals in it. But, the current version is a colorful yet very basic directory of merchants and events… no mobile commerce through — yet?
Google Maps had better accuracy than the DP app (which was kind of interesting, given that it was the official app of the local venues) and the DP app newsfeed was a little sparse, with the last item having been posted three weeks earlier.
The street-level traffic was similarly sparse, with only a small handful of people visible at any time as I wandered around a few of the central DP blocks.
Then again, in all fairness, most people would choose to be inside at noon in the desert in July. Thinking I should do the same, it was time to use the next app, Preo.
The Preo App
Preo had sounded a lot like the app from Austin's hometown heroes, TabbedOut. But, even though I read about it in an article featuring mobile apps for Las Vegas (LV), there was only one venue upon searching that I was able to locate in it. Nearly all of the rest of the venues (call it > 95%) were in NYC.
Fortunately, the one LV venue was the newly renovated Gold Spike bar, site of one of the early downtown casinos, which is now a central hub for Downtown Project meetings, co-working and happy hour mixers. The Gold Spike also features a great bar and grill, which was my opportunity to test Preo. And…
It worked flawlessly – success! To set Preo up for a purchase, you must enter a valid payment option — credit card or PayPal (perhaps Alipay after the Alibaba IPO this fall, anyone?) will suffice.
Then, you set up your pre-order (Pre-o, get it?) – the drink(s) you want, your tip, and any promotional savings – and you slide the bar in the app. The app triggers a paper ticket that prints at the bar and the bartender gets your order. Easy as that!
On the positive side, in addition to the ease of using the app, when I had set up my Preo account, it had sent me a “welcome” email in which I received a 50% discount off of any order (up to $10 total) if I verified my email. I verified it, which only took a second, and got the promotion, so I saved $3.50 on my Stella Artois draft.
On the negative side, even though the grill is directly beside the bar, you can’t order food using Preo… at least at the Gold Spike. So, I carried my beer 10 feet and sat at a table where a waitress came and took my order the old fashioned way, which was just fine.
Overall, Preo worked well and I could definitely see using it again during a moderately busy time when I was already at a bar and extra thirsty. But for now, with the drinks only and single site limitations, it’s barely much more than a novelty.
The Nomic App
With lunch finished, I decided to try out Nomic, which looked like an interesting directory of the Downtown Project area businesses and social scene. Indeed, that is exactly what it was – no more, no less. And specifically, no mobile commerce. The main engagement feature is “pinging” others joined to the same group that you join, with questions, announcements, or other interactive topics.
I pinged the DP’s Container Park – one of its landmark spots designed specifically for small business incubation – that had more than 200 members, just to see how immediate a response I would get. It was fairly immediate… from one person.
Dead silence from the rest of the Nomic Container Park virtual community, with no one offering me to sample their chocolate or browse their unique gifts, even though I clearly identified myself as an out-of-towner killing time. Missed marketing opportunity.
The Vegas Slots App
With the hour getting late, I switched to time killing mode by trying the Vegas Slots app, as I made my way to the airport to return to Austin.
The app is a time killer all right. I never purchased any of the digital goods that the app presented to me, but I can definitely see how users would be tempted to do so.
Without question, it was the most gameful of the set I used, with great art, very interactive and subtly immersive. And all the time, I never had a clue how the game actually worked, i.e., the way it determined whether I had won or lost on each spin. So much the better, since as we all know in Las Vegas, the house always wins!
So, that’s it: my “on the ground” impressions of several mobile apps and their commerce capability. All in all, I’d suggest that my experience was a microcosm of the state of the segment overall, with maybe 20% of the apps you think could be useful offering any commerce value worth keeping on your phone deck.
Depending on whether you consider yourself more optimistic or pessimistic, this means either there is still an enormous, untapped potential for mobile commerce. Or, even after all of the money and attention poured into the segment, it’s too expensive for too little true value for anyone other than the pure tech enthusiast, just like those jet packs and hover cars we were all supposed to be using twenty years ago.