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Sin City in your hand

It took a Vegas-obsessed techie from California to create the killer LV iPhone app

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Perhaps not surprisingly, this tourist guide can do things print guides can’t.

"The blog is like a hobby. Actually, it is a hobby on steroids,” says Hunter Hillegas of RateVegas.com. “It makes a little bit of money on advertising.” But not enough to compensate for the obsession with which he compiles images and observations on Vegas resorts, with a particular focus on casino design. Even the most minor architectural points of interest or the slightest of construction defects or even a hallway are documented in what can seem like blanket coverage of the minutiae of a property. Hillegas recently tweeted that between Wynn and Encore his site had already posted more than 2,500 photos of the resorts. Most of these photographic documentary expeditions are accompanied by detailed essays called “Strip Walk” that are as informative as any design geek or Vegas freak could want.

But Hillegas, 30, a software designer by day, saw an opportunity about a year and a half ago when Apple opened the iPhone to developers like him to create applications. “I knew I wanted to do something Vegas-related. So I designed and built the original version of Vegas Mate.” The first Vegas Mate came out in August 2008. A year and many tweaks later, Hillegas released Vegas Mate 2.0, available online at the Apple App Store, for the relatively princely sum (for an app) of $4.99. Yet people are buying.

“Vegas Mate is a different story [than the blog]. Vegas Mate is selling really well.” Hillegas will not talk specific number of sales on Vegas Mate. But as a painful bit of evidence of his success he points to the bootlegs of the app floating about on the web. “I do have analytics that tell me how many people are stealing it, and that is 8-10 percent. Not a huge number, but definitely enough to make me aware it is happening.” This is particularly galling, as Vegas Mate 2.0 added another three months of focused effort to the six months spent on the original incarnation of Vegas Mate, not to mention all the tweaks along the way. Hillegas designed and developed Vegas Mate without any staff, which is how he currently runs it, doing all daily updates himself.

In essence Vegas Mate is no more than an online travel guide that takes advantage of everything that the iPhone allows a user to do, thus offering much that a printed guide can’t. There are show reviews from other Vegas Mate users updated regularly, with a composite star rating. This is true for resorts as well. The Luxor, for example, gets three out of five stars with 111 reviews from Vegas Mate users (the most recent written on August 25). Each day the Concierge section lists upcoming concerts (with a single click to call to buy tickets) as well as the latest casino news from Vegas, mostly using other blogs as links, but also mainstream papers like the Las Vegas Sun. “I tried to combine the cool features of the iPhone with interesting information. Vegas Mate will tell you if a restaurant is open or closed the moment you look at it. There is a fully integrated mapping system that uses the GPS function of the iPhone to tell where you are, and we use that information all over the place, like to tell you what is nearby and open.” Therefore one of Vegas Mate’s greatest virtues is that, unlike the nearly 140 books Amazon.com lists under “Vegas travel guides,” Vegas Mate does not instantly become dated the way print tourist guides of Vegas do from the moment they are completed (often becoming significantly dated even before publication). Vegas changes quicker than probably any other city, and a travel guide that can morph daily is what is needed to keep up. Vegas Mate is perfect for that.

And that is why perhaps the most amazing thing Hillegas has going for him is that, despite living in California, this nonresident has virtually no competition for his iPhone app to Vegas. This is true, despite there being an entire industry of Vegas tourist publications that offers books, magazines and websites for those who want expert guidance to Sin City.

Yet Vegas Mate has no real competition at the App Store. “I am surprised by that. I have not seen anything from either of the two major Vegas-based media companies in the year Vegas Mate has been on the market,” he says. Hillegas continues to be pleased by this bit of luck continuing. For now he is the lone wolf beating local and national media companies to market representing Vegas by receiving approval from Apple to be sold at the official App Store.

Not that Hillegas is counting on the status quo remaining much longer. “I can only assume that the competition is coming.” By then he hopes the loyalty built with his head start and his unique mix of programming knowledge matched to a total awareness of anything a visitor to the tourist corridor could need will continue to give Hillegas the edge he needs for Vegas Mate.

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Richard Abowitz

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