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🇪🇺🎰 Europe Needs a Vegas

Every year, thousands of (British|German|French|Benelux) Stag Parties and Hen Do’s invade the cheaper (Southern) half of Europe. These interlopers aren’t quite as destructive as Jean-Andoche Junot or Frederick II, but they do leave a wake of vape smoke and vomit in historic neighborhoods. We have surrendered some of our greatest cities to roving groups of English lads wearing shorts led by guys named Liam or Noah.

The United States solved this problem by creating a gravity well of debauchery, Las Vegas. We built the ideal party oasis in the middle of the desert - hundreds of miles from anyone trying to get some sleep ahead of work tomorrow. Europe should follow suit. We can protect cities like Lisbon and Prague, and the people who live there, by setting the same trap.

What is the problem?

Bachelor parties bring out the worst in us. The spectacles are short enough that attendees try to make the most of every moment. The traditions are boozy enough that very few of those moments are graceful. And the camaraderie of your closest buddies becomes a flywheel growing louder and rowdier over time.

I’m not advocating that we end these kinds of parties. I have been a best man twice, a groomsman on seven occasions, and in wedding parties an additional four or five times. I have attended more than a dozen bachelor parties. I love them. While most of the parties I attended took place at ranches or lake houses in Texas, I did the Vegas thing a few times too and yeah, I had a blast. I get it.

The challenge is that Europeans have no dedicated outlet for revelry. Like Americans, they want to get away from home and celebrate in a new or exotic place. Unlike Americans, all the destinations within a short flight or train ride are centuries old and densely populated. The party goers wind up selecting the cheapest options and convert ancient neighborhoods in the sunnier half of the continent into their best impression of Las Vegas.

The locations they pick lack the hotel infrastructure to support the kind of party tourist deluge. Instead, Airbnb scalpers buy up units and drive up rents. Residents move out. The grandmothers and families who remain endure the noise and disturbance. The mom-and-pop restaurants and shops no longer have their customer base and retreat. Their empty spaces become Instagram brunch places or rowdy cocktail bars. The traditional neighborhood fades away.

I’d like to make an important distinction. Airbnb scalpers are not the primary reason rents increase in most European cities. Instead, rents are so easy to drive up because building housing in most European cities is prohibitively difficult. The constrained supply cannot survive the uptick in demand.

Something new exists in the place of those old neighborhoods, yes. The ventures that pop up around this party economy do generate dollars and “opportunity” - at least opportunity for the folks who have the capital to buy up apartments or renovate a bar. Some jobs are created; some are lost.

Change is natural, I get it. Cities evolve. I grew up in Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States during the 2000s. The place was a college town when I was a kid and is now an expensive urban destination. I just don’t think cities should evolve in a way that paves over historic character with generic wine bars and weekenders.

How should we solve it?

The European Union should create a designated European Festive Area (EFA). The member states should band together and establish a kind of Washington DC for partying - a geographic space that no one member of the federation can control. They should eliminate regulations, pool the tax revenues, and incentivize Europeans and folks from outside the Bloc to bring their money and their noise to a new Old World den of debauchery.

What should Euro Vegas be?

Euro Vegas cannot be home to anyone’s grandmother.

We need to build in a place that is as vacant as you can find inside of Europe, which will be tough. Europe is small, dense, and built out. We will be hard pressed to find a place that is relatively empty.

Potential candidates should include formerly industrial areas, shuttered military bases, or we bootstrap some of the construction with money from the EU COVID recovery fund by rehabilitating a former coal mine under the eco-friendly banner.

Euro Vegas needs to be sunny.

America’s Las Vegas makes more dollars on non-gaming activities, like shows and booze sold at pool parties, than it does on gaming. The city prints money during every single hour of the day.

We need to find an environment where we can provide the kinds of outdoor experiences that cater to the daytime. We need pools or beaches. We need the kinds of activities that allow folks to tell their family that the trip isn’t just about gambling - excuses like rock climbing, monster truck rides, and golf courses. This rules out places that get a real winter.

Euro Vegas needs fewer laws.

Europe loves rules. We need that impulse to chill out for this project.

Gambling as a whole isn’t the big problem here. You’d be surprised to learn that gambling is widely legal in most of Europe. However, restrictions exist around the types of games allowed. Those could be adjusted for the EFA.

Where we need Europe to be more relaxed are the policies around other hobbies that make Vegas attractive. We’d probably need to adopt vice laws that look more like Amsterdam than Frankfurt. I’m not advocating for these activities or that the EFA become truly lawless. Las Vegas does have real rules underneath the marketing sheen of “what happens here.” We need the perception.

Euro Vegas needs to be centrally located.

Stag Parties and Hen Dos are weekend affairs. You fly out on a Thursday night or Friday morning and return on a Sunday night. Flights of nearly five hours (like Stockholm to Lisbon) will deter the roaming bands of twenty-something British consultants and German engineers.

Even Las Vegas doesn’t have this benefit for the whole of the US, but distances are different in my country. We sometimes drive an hour just to get to the bulk discount grocery store in our region. Americans from the East Coast are fine flying the four or five hours to reach Las Vegas. Europeans consider flights longer than two hours to be ordeals. We have to cater to this audience.

Euro Vegas needs to be unzoned.

One superpower of Las Vegas is the abundance of available space that lacks real zoning laws. Developers can buy a plot of land and build a literal video screen sphere that features a smiling emoji that stares into your hotel room window.

Our answer to Vegas needs that same kind of permissiveness that Europe otherwise abhors. This is separate from the lack of rules called for earlier, but ties into the goal of finding a location that is desolate. If a developer wants to build a 4,000 room hotel in the style of Blade Runner, we should let them. For this to work we need a virtuous cycle of creation and construction.

Euro Vegas needs a sports team (and sports infrastructure).

Something new to Las Vegas since I last lived in the United States is the presence of professional sports teams. When I would visit Vegas, you could sit down in front of a bank of television screens to gamble on NFL games and watch them from the floor. Today, you can walk over to see the game in-person. This experiment has been so successful that more teams are moving to Vegas.

We should bring that to the EFA. Most sports leagues in Europe are national (for now) so we’d need to find a way for them to compete either in a nearby league or as a kind of floater, moving between leagues each year.

This also creates sports infrastructure that can be reused for other exhibitions. The NFL could move one of their London games to a Euro Vegas. The NBA could play their European showcases at an arean in the city. If we build it, they will come.

Euro Vegas needs a tax system that generates Bloc-distributed revenue.

We will need to fund aspects of the EFA, like police and roads (or trolleys, this is Europe). We could probably rely on total privatization if we wanted and have the casinos band together to cover those services, but that would challenge our desire to make it easy for new entrants to build and compete. We need to collect money another way.

Euro Vegas will, presumably, have few or no citizens. We’re building the Vatican City of sovereign party locations. There will be workers, including some who could reside there, but it will probably look like Monaco or Singapore in that a lot of workers commute into the EFA from a neighboring region each day. The only real tax base would be employee salaries and money from tourists.

The employee salaries are tricky. In the Singapore comparison, workers who commute in from Malaysia pay a non-resident tax rate on their Singapore-derived income. They still owe taxes in Malaysia as residents, but in most cases they can credit their taxes paid in Singapore against their bill in Malaysia thanks to a double taxation agreement between the two countries. We should probably implement a similar model, but the complexity of it and the nature of most jobs in an entertainment economy mean that the tax base will be pretty small.

Instead we should set a tax on winnings as well as a consumption tax. Together we can use that to fund basic services for the autonomous region and distribute what is left over to the EU coffers. Nevada collects more than $1B per month in gaming revenues alone. Similar to the “Alexander Hamilton moment” of the EU’s COVID recovery funds, this also gives the Council another lever to keep noisier member states in line when they want to look the other way from things like democracy and the rule of law.

Isn’t this Ibiza?

Europe does feature party areas that have not conquered ancient but still vibrant cities. Ibiza or Majorca or Faro or Mykonos cater to Northern Europeans fleeing the cold for warm beaches. They’ve paved over small fishing villages, but the impact is less dramatic than the historic cores of certain European capital cities.

However, the scale and activities just don’t match what Vegas can offer. As a result, the parties spill over into real cities elsewhere on the continent. Las Vegas has about 150,000 hotel rooms. All of Ibiza is about 38,000 and there is no room or permitting for more.

The appeal is also different. Those destinations cater to a specific type of sun-and-sand vacation where the party is a beach club. That’s the whole event. You can probably find a group that wants to do that. They’d be right to do so - a European beach club is a very good time. However, it’s a narrow slice of available activities and we want to deliver a party heatsink in the EFA by offering options.

What about tourism dollars?

Some party destinations in Europe will argue that they need the dollars these kinds of weekenders bring to their region. Nightclub owners in Prague would fight against the creation of a European Festive Area (EFA). Airbnb hosts in Barcelona would protest.

That’s alright - Nashville, Tennessee continues to be a favorite spot for Bachelorette Parties in the US. Marriage might be in decline, but there are enough mimosa dollars to go around. The kinds of groups that would decide to skip the EFA and still visit Barcelona are choosing to visit the city for a reason and not just because they are looking for an affordable place to party.

The real impact, though, would be the ability to tap into a much larger market. Think bigger than the Stag Parties and Hen Dos. We can make these kinds of cities more attractive for another type of tourist who creates less noise and spends more money: the American Boomer.

If you hop on United Airlines 64 from Newark to Lisbon, the entire Polaris cabin consists of married couples in their late 50s or early 60s. They are empty nesters who are retired or nearing retirement. They have a list of places to visit in the world that they postponed for a couple decades due to soccer tournaments and summer camps. They are lawyers, managing directors, and the heads of sales for manufacturing companies. They wear Columbia PFG gear and cargo pants on the plane and look great in it. I have to help them load their bags into the overhead bins. They literally flip through guide books or paper maps about Lisbon while the flight attendants pass out sparking wine.

Lisbon has managed to create a reputation amongst this type of American tourist that it is both safe and exciting. The Americans who visit are wealthy enough that they have completed the European Canon (Paris, Rome, London) and want to visit something a little more exotic. They’re also old enough and wary enough that they aren’t looking for something outright dangerous. Lisbon fits the bill.

We could repeat this model as the reputation of formerly rowdy cities evolves. Europeans don’t realize how rich the average American is. If they did, they would riot. We should help the Old World capture some of that star-spangled abundance by cultivating a new canon of European destinations for American Boomers. You had Paris, London, and Rome. Up next, Dublin, Lisbon, Prague, Barcelona.

What’s next?

The kind of dynamism that Europe would need to create this only seems to exist inside of the Mistral office in France, where a single company is pushing the entire French government to lobby the EU to change technology policies. Most of Europe seems to default to “no” when presented with change. They have a solid status quo around here.

The problem is that external trends, outside of their control, then decide to make the changes for them. In this case, a European tradition (a night out, a big dinner, some practical jokes) moved to the States and evolved (a full weekend, travel destination, partying). And then became more accessible thanks to lower costs and more disposable income over the decades. Movies like the Hangover then brought these new extensions on the original back to Europe and the Europeans had nowhere to practice but the old neighborhoods in their ancient, cheaper cities.

And to be fair the US didn’t build Vegas overnight. Instead, the most American thing happened. We forgot about a place or industry and opportunistic people took advantage of that oversight. Some of that was shady and violent, but the end result is a money printing destination that attracts people from all around the world. That kind of “innovation filling a vacuum” is harder to replicate in Europe, so this would probably need to be a more deliberate gamble.

Published Mar 2, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP & CoS, Emerging Tech at Cloudflare.Sign up for emails