Up until now, most of us assumed the folks operating the troubled, bankrupt Las Vegas Monorail were doing their best amid so many challenges. Its lousy location, its lack of an airport connection and its lackluster support from the resorts along the route seemed doom-making enough.
What I had never seriously considered was that the folks who run the thing had actually just given up on salvaging the mess. Until now.
Earlier this month, the system reported it lost $23.1 million in 2010, way up from $2 million in 2009, and shuttled 5.2 million riders along its tracks last year. In 2005, it had 10.3 million riders. In January 2010, the Monorail filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is now in the process of reorganizing its deluge of debt.
None of this is surprising, but one statistic did provide a shock: The Monorail raked in a paltry $190,000 in advertising revenue in 2010, down from about $2.3 million in 2007. That’s a drop off of nearly 92 percent.
To which I had one thing to say: “Huh?”
You see, the Monorail may be a failure as the for-profit transit system it claimed it would be when it was built, but even at 5.2 million riders—a captive audience of high-value conventioneers and tourists—it ought to hold tremendous marketing potential. Beyond the opportunities inside its cars, the trains also snake along jam-packed Paradise Road and cross over some of Nevada’s busiest intersections. As of this week, most, if not all, of the monorail cars were nonetheless unwrapped, meaning the exteriors weren’t sporting ads, either.
What could account for this pathetic result? Monorail officials simply blame it on the economy, an easy scapegoat.
“As you likely know, the current recession has affected many industries, and the advertising industry was hit particularly hard,” spokeswoman Ingrid Reisman wrote to me in an email. “Our company was not immune to this, and experienced reduced ad revenue as well. We are experiencing an increase in valid advertising inquiries, and we have heard similar reports from other advertising venues, though the expectation is that the industry will build back slowly.”
That’s sensible, except that advertising experts say even the worst of this recession shouldn’t have depressed ad revenues by this much. I spoke to several, but the only one willing to go on the record was Tom Letizia, whose company owns most of the mobile billboards rolling around on the Strip. Those vehicles aim for the same eyeballs as a Monorail wrap would and, in a fun bit of irony, sometimes the Monorail itself takes out ads on Letizia’s roving signs.
“As much as advertising revenues have dropped from 2007 to 2010, most of us haven’t dropped by that kind of percentage,” he said. “Yes, we’re down, but some are down 30 percent or 50 percent. Nobody’s down 90 percent. Not only are we dealing with the down economy, but they may be putting less effort into it. Otherwise, I don’t know how they make so little.”
In other words, those in charge at the Monorail may have just stopped caring or trying. They’re stuck in a financial slide that can never lead to solvency and they know it, regardless of what they tell the bankruptcy court. Why bother working hard for another $1 million in revenue that would end up in the creditors’ pockets anyway?
Reisman won’t say what the Monorail charges for ads, who is responsible for trying to sell them or how they compensate their ad sales folks. It’s a private company, so they don’t have to, she notes, as usual ignoring that this private company wouldn’t exist but for donations of public right-of-way and the ability to secure low-interest loans using the state’s then-sterling credit rating.
The creditors involved in chasing their money are already worried, to be sure. But the public should be too. I’ve been a proponent of the Monorail even if the taxpayers have to subsidize it because it alleviates traffic and auto pollution, but I also wanted to believe the folks running it were doing the best they could.
Now that assumption, too, has gone off the rails.