How Zappos C.E.O. Tony Hsieh Is Using Events to Transform Downtown Las Vegas

By Chad Kaydo April 30, 2013, 7:30 AM EDT

The Downtown Project is creating a park with repurposed shipping containers that will hold small businesses, community space, and events.

Rendering: Breslin Builders

Las Vegas has long been known as a destination for flashy events and meetings. But now a group of residents is using a different set of gatherings to transform the city's downtown area.

Tony Hsieh, the C.E.O. of Zappos, is moving the online retailer's headquarters downtown from nearby Henderson, Nevada, in the fall. He’s also at the center of the Downtown Project, a community group with $350 million in funding and a mission to “transform downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world.” That means investing in real estate, education, small businesses, and tech start-ups, as well as luring the type of creative entrepreneurs you'd expect to find in Silicon Valley, Brooklyn, or Austin, Texas.

A key part of the strategy is using events—speaker series, conferences, festivals—to create a sense of community among residents and show off the group's work to out-of-towners familiar with casinos on the Strip, but not the actual city of Las Vegas. Since the area doesn't have the level of population density that urban theorists desire in order to foster serendipitous interactions, the event strategy is a work-around—a way to import members of the so-called creative class. It's a vision for Las Vegas influenced more by Jane Jacobs than Bugsy Siegel.

While Zappos is famous for its focus on customer service and offbeat corporate culture, Hsieh has also been a longtime believer in the power of events as bonding tools. In his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Hsieh writes that after selling his first company, he “committed to living by the philosophy that experiences were much more important to me than material things.” He also describes how raves taught him to interact with strangers and how he bought a loft to host parties and foster a tight community of friends.

Since November, Hsieh and companies he has funded have been inviting speakers across diverse fields—geneticists, painters, philanthropists—to present ideas, mingle with locals, and experience the city. Presenters have included Stanford business school professor Chip Heath and Whole Foods co-C.E.O. John Mackey. Donna Karan is scheduled to come and teach yoga.

The speaker series are casual and loosely programmed, with plenty of time for spontaneous interactions and a participant list of just about 25 people. “It allows for them to have an intimate week among themselves,” says Kim Schaefer, who handles communications for the Downtown Project, “but it's big enough that it lends itself to people breaking off on their own to do things.”

Different partners program monthly series targeted to technology and fashion; event company Catalyst Creativ puts together a monthly series called Catalyst Week, which changes its focus each time. Participants are expected to give a talk that will inspire and inform the group, as well as any local residents who attend. There's a clear TED influence, with a focus more on personal experiences than corporate slides.

“A lot of people tell stories that they never would otherwise,” says Catalyst Creativ C.E.O. Amanda Slavin. And participants often veer from what they planned to present once they experienced the vibe of the week. “Ninety percent of people say, 'I can't use this PowerPoint.'”

While the Downtown Project puts up participants at the Ogden, a new condo building, the participants pay their own travel costs. There are some casual group dinners in Hsieh's sprawling apartment in the Ogden (some handled by a local raw-food caterer), but speakers also have meals on their own, splitting the tab like a group of friends. “It's kind of an immersive community experience,” Schaefer says. Participants are required to tour downtown and the Zappos headquarters and are encouraged to meet with local entrepreneurs and fellow speakers. (Disclosure: I participated in Catalyst Week in April, talking about music festivals, and stayed at the Ogden.)

For now the educational sessions take place in temporary trailers on a construction site that will become a park filled with repurposed shipping containers. Later they will move to the Inspire Theater, a 150-seat hall with a coffee bar and newsstand being built at the historic intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Freemont Street. Slavin says the venue will also be made available to corporate hosts who want their own version of the Catalyst Week experience.

There's also a monthly game night for families, one-off inspirational talks on Friday afternoons, and plenty of cocktail mixers that give employees from Hsieh-funded start-ups a chance to get away from their laptops and share ideas. An old bus, painted and outfitted with a bar, trucks groups to First Friday, a monthly arts and food festival—also funded by Hsieh—that draws a diverse mix of 20,000 people for performances, art sales, installations, and food trucks.

The largest downtown event initiative is coming in October: a two-day food, music, and art festival called Life Is Beautiful, started by Rehan Choudhry, C.E.O. of Aurelian Marketing Group and the former director of entertainment and events at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Strip. Beyond aiming to lure 80,000 people with performances from hot bands and food from famous chefs, Choudhry says the goal is to create experiences that make people say, “That moment in time fundamentally influenced me.”

It's hard to measure the success of these efforts beyond stories of entrepreneurs who have moved to Las Vegas, lured by Hsieh's money and the support of like-minded transplants, and others who have returned to bring friends to see what’s happening in the city. This is the scruffy start of an ambitious urban revitalization movement with events as a key ingredient.

“What we've been really focused on in the last year is ramping things up, and now we're getting to the point [of asking], 'What is the real impact?' I find it fascinating to sit in a room in Las Vegas—where people think of a Friday night in a different way—and people are excited to learn from people and be inspired by people,” Schaefer says. “One day we're going to look back and say, 'Remember when we had the C.E.O. of Whole Foods speak in a trailer?'”

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