Two months ago, I walked into the Venetian Macau with 3500 HKD and walked out two hours later with 0. But, what I really want to discuss has nothing to do with bad gambling skills. Losing is never fun– winning and competition are ingrained in our culture. But, I was having an especially difficult time swallowing the losses. Then, I realized what was so bothersome about the whole experience.
I had gambled, but came away without having felt any rush or excitement. Chinese gamblers were serious. Drinks were not served, and people did not smile. People weren’t there for an experience. They were there to make money.
After endlessly hearing about Macau as the “Vegas of the east,” and how magnificent the Venetian was, it was an incredible dissapointment. While the seriousness was almost entirely the product of serious gamblers, there was something else sucking the joy out of the experience that I couldn’t quite place.
Despite its reputation, the Venetian didn’t feel grand at all– big perhaps, but not grand. There were massive columns, traditional pediments, vaulted ceilings, marble entries, and frescos on any surface that could hold one. Everything seemed borrowed; everything was borrowed– and that is the obvious part of the equation, because this is common knowledge and seeing this transposition of an entire city, culture, and era is part of appeal for some people. However, I found it dull and uninspiring. Sure, the facade was there and the building ornately decorated– but it was a mere shell surrounding a soulless building. Anything that was magical about Venice– it’s spirit and essence– were lost in translation.
I realized precisely why that had perturbed me while re-reading Rand’s Fountainhead this week. In the novel, Howard Roarke, a visionary architectural student has just been expelled from the school after his 3rd year due to his radical designs, and the Dean calls a meeting with him to discuss it. During the meeting, Roarke shows that he does not understand why the Dean expects him to think classical architecture is worthy of being copied in modern times. Roarke points at the Dean’s picture of the parthenon, and asks, “Why do you want me to think that this is great architecture?” The dean nearly explodes at such a ridiculous question. “That,” said the Dean, “is the parthenon.” Roarke walks up to the picture and proceeds to tell him everything that is ”rotten” about it. “Look,” said Roark.
The famous flutings on the famous columns–what are they there for? To hide the joints in the wood– when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?
I believe Roarke holds the answer to more than just a radical modernistic architectural philosophy. Many times, businesses do things the way they have always been done. Why? Because it is comfortable. Because it has worked. Because the customer likes it that way. These are all legitimate reasons for maintaining the status quo. But, simply copying the past has one glaringly negative effect. When we replicate so far that the magic of our business have forgotten their function, it ceases to appear real. This “Venetian effect,” where a customer is caught in limbo between new and historical, is the worst possible outcome. This sense of incongruency might be avoidable if a sense of fantasy can be achieved. But, The Venetian Macau hasn’t been able to achieve that, and the guest experience suffers greatly because of it.
How can we make a business/product/service/offering more real? How can we avoid the limbo between new and old by creating a sense of authenticity? How can we leverage this as a point of differentiation to create value?