The Way I Work: Howard Lefkowitz
As told to Hannah Clark Steiman
If you've been to Las Vegas in the past five years, chances are you've done business with Howard Lefkowitz. He's CEO of Vegas.com, a website that lets visitors book flights, reserve hotel rooms, buy show tickets, make spa appointments, and coordinate every aspect of a trip to Las Vegas. Some three million people visit Sin City each month, and more than a third of them stop at Vegas.com before they do. The company also runs brick-and-mortar box offices and concierge desks at some of the city's top hotels--Harrah's, Excalibur--and at attractions like Hoover Dam. For Lefkowitz, 49, a day at the office often means eating lunch at Spago, catching Billy Joel at the MGM Grand, sometimes staying out until dawn. During daytime hours, he finds time to manage about 500 employees. Here, Lefkowitz describes how he blends work and play in one of the world's craziest cities.
I'm not a very big morning person. But I have some rituals, some have-to-dos, which I do every morning. I'm up about 6-something. I go downstairs, push the coffee button, go outside and get the paper. I take my 16-year-old daughter to school around 7. I go home right after that and start calling East Coast people. I yell at Pam, my PR person in New York. At 8:30, the East Coast people start to drift off to lunch, most of them drunk. That's when I'll get in the shower. I listen to the same five Anita Baker songs every morning in the shower, and I have a giant showerhead with 82 different nozzles that rain all over me. Then I head to work. I live about six minutes from the office, unless I catch that red light--then it's seven and a half minutes. My routine is calming. You make so many decisions during the day; it's nice not to have to make a decision in the morning.
I go in my scuba pool as often as possible--sometimes in the really early morning, sometimes in the middle of the day when I'm looking for more energy, sometimes at night when I just want to sink after a long day. The pool is 14 feet deep. The water is hot, so it's like scuba diving in a bathtub. I just put on my scuba gear and my weight belt and drop down to the bottom. I'll listen to the Beatles on the underwater speakers, or I'll listen to an audio book.
Before I had the pool, I tried to get into every tank in Las Vegas--I even applied for a job at the Mirage to clean the tank behind the front desk. I finally just built my own pool. In the summer, when my daughter isn't in school, I wait until she gets up and we'll play poker, blackjack, or gin down there. Sure, you could play poker on the side of the pool. But then you're not in the pool. Scuba diving is my joy, because I can't e-mail down there.
The first thing I do when I get to the office is turn on my computer and log in. I check my calendar and begin the process of setting priorities. A year ago, we hired a COO. Before that, I was more involved in day-to-day operations. Now, he makes the trains run. I mostly just party on. I try to provide the vision, the culture, the motivation; my job is to create an environment where my team can excel. I'm also the custodian of the brand. Shows and restaurants open and close daily in Las Vegas, and we have to be in the know. Our call center representatives have to know what's going on, so they can tell callers; our writers need to know, so they can create content for the website. Everything here moves at the speed of Vegas.
I believe in MBWA--management by walking around. In practice, that means I spend about 45 minutes a day at my desk. At least twice a day, I make the rounds of the office. I just walk around and observe, tell people what I think and learn what they think. If I can't count on the fact that everyone who works for me is willing to come up to me and say, "That is the dumbest idea I've ever heard," then we have no integrity as a business.
I will drop in on anybody all the time. It could be the chief operating officer or any of the senior staff. I'll go sit in the contact center--we have 108 employees who work there, and our agents are there 24/7 helping customers find the best deals on show tickets or hotel rooms. Our team of writers produces the Vegas sections of some newspapers and magazines. They also produce a TV program called The Vegas Minute, which runs in newscasts around the country. I'll drop in on story meetings, analytics meetings, finance meetings. More stuff gets done in the hallway in an impromptu meeting than in a formal process. We do have a formal process--it's not anarchy here. But if you do things in real time, you get them done more quickly. And it keeps me in touch with the individual pieces of the business and the people themselves. A lot of times they appreciate it. A lot of times they try to lock the door before I can get in.
céline dion left recently after five years of doing a show at Caesars Palace--that was a big deal around here. We talked about that in our meetings a lot. We needed all of this stuff for Bette Midler, who moved into the theater in February--new artwork, new content, new showtimes. We had to decide how to market Bette on the website--do we market her similarly to Céline or differently from Céline? It's significant for business reasons when someone like Céline leaves town, and it's significant for personal reasons as well. It's always hard to see your friends leave the city. I think Céline brought the magic of the headliner back to Vegas. The days of Frankie and Sammy and Dean--she brought all that back. At Céline's going-away party, I said to her, "It doesn't seem like you've been here five years." And she started to cry.
I have a lot of lunch meetings. All the people in the tourism industry--the folks who run the hotels, the shows, the stores--go to the same 25 restaurants, and we run into each other all the time. It's the same as MBWA, except it's out on the town. I'm constantly doing deals for Vegas.com. I might be trying to persuade a hotel president to let us run his box office or concierge desk, or I might be thinking about brand extensions. For example, we recently collaborated with Bell Transportation to launch a shuttle service. It goes from hotel to hotel, and there are touchscreens inside the vehicles where riders can buy tickets for shows, make reservations, book tours. We've also partnered with the department store Marshalls to sell all kinds of Vegas.com-branded merchandise. A lot of those deals are conceived and discussed while I'm out on the town.
In the afternoons, I'll make the rounds of the office again. I love going into the contact center, because they tell me stories about the customers. The stories they tell--you can't make them up. One guy said he wanted two rooms. When we asked why, he said, "When I pick up whoever I pick up in Vegas, I don't actually want to take her back to the room with my stuff in it." One guy calls and says, "My dad just died. He always wanted to be buried in Vegas. Which hotel will allow me to scatter the ashes in the hotel?" We had to look up the ash-scattering policies of the hotels. We didn't find one for him. It's fun to hear those kinds of things. It keeps you in touch with both the sublime and the ridiculous. It's just a part of the brand that is Las Vegas.
We have the top Vegas acts coming through the office all the time. Someone comes by about once a week. There's a woman here named Sally who has bright red hair--she was one of our first three contact center employees, and she's still here. One day the comedian Carrot Top comes in, and he's got that crazy hair, and he goes, "Mom!" Now, the whole company calls her Carrot Mom. Last year, Nathan Burton, a popular magician, came to the office with a beautiful showgirl. He put her in a box with a curtain on one side and told her she was wearing too many clothes. A bustier came flying out from behind the curtain, then some frilly panties. Then the curtain dropped and the showgirl was gone, and I was standing there dressed in her clothing. He swapped a beautiful showgirl for me in her clothing. I thought it was a bad deal. Although the bustier was fine, I much prefer pumps. These interactions are good for the employees to see. It's self-deprecating. It connects everybody together. It's another way of creating a relationship.
At least once a month, I go out and take tickets at a box office or concierge desk--maybe I'll take tickets at Hoover Dam, or I'll go to the concierge desk at Mandalay Bay or Harrah's or Flamingo or Excalibur. It keeps me in touch with our customers, employees, and systems. I don't like the idea of sitting in my chair and reading a report. I work in the box offices because I want to see the customers' responses, to see the challenges my staff is facing. This way I get staff feedback, one on one. I think it makes employees who are off-site feel more connected to the company. No e-mailed report on sales and suggestions could replace that firsthand experience.
I have a night job. It's a whole other job. I go out about four nights a week. It gets in the way of my day job sometimes. Recently the comedy festival was in town. I went to the 7 p.m. Wanda Sykes show. Then I popped over to the MGM and caught Billy Joel for an hour and a half. Barbra Streisand was at the Planet Hollywood party--I got there around 10. The party went to about 3, then we all ended up sitting in one of the lounges, and the next thing you know it was 5:30 in the morning. Not all the nights are like that. But a few weeks ago, I stayed out all night, until 4 in the morning. I got home and I figured, my daughter's getting up soon, so I just stayed up and took her to school. It was a Friday. That happens occasionally. Why do you think I have a Red Bull refrigerator in my office? But every night could be a big night in Vegas, so I tend to monitor myself and limit my drinking to a few here and there. I'm always mindful when it's Tuesday or Wednesday that there's a lot to be done tomorrow.
If i didn't go out so much, I don't think I would be as effective. I wouldn't have as much hands-on information about the business. I have to know about this nightclub, that show. I have to be accessible to people who have questions or ideas. I look at the evening activities as a party, as recreation. I live in the entertainment capital of the world. I'm privileged to be able to go to the best shows, eat in the finest restaurants, go to the finest clubs. I love entertainment and have always been very social. In Vegas, the nightlife is kicked into high gear, and many people blend their day life and their nightlife. The hardest part is when your friends show up. It's their night in Vegas, and for you, it's Tuesday.
If I feel like I don't have as much time to spend with my family as I should, I'll knock off the partying a bit. I think my most critical job is as a father, and I love spending time with my daughter, doing all the goofy stuff dads and daughters do. I have a home theater with a 5-foot screen that I love--I just love watching movies at home. I do have a lot of leisure time; it's just not what most people would consider normal. I think the idea of balance is sort of preposterous. I think people live life in chapters. Right now, it's the busy season, but four or five weeks ago it was a different chapter. Some people try for balance every day or every week, but I can't do that. That's not achievable for me. What is achievable is chapters.
I'm a lucky guy; my wife understands that this is part of the business. I spend a lot of time with her on weekends and on vacations. I vacation as hard as I work. I make an annual pilgrimage to Hawaii over Christmas. I'm up at 5, at the dock by 5:30, in the water scuba diving by 6, and I'm back before my wife and daughter wake up. I bring about half a dozen books or so, and I plow through almost every one of them before I get home. Instead of checking my BlackBerry every five minutes, I look at it twice a day. Oddly enough, when I'm in Hawaii, I go to the same stores, the same restaurants as I go to in Las Vegas. But I'm not the concierge anymore. I get to ask the concierge for stuff. I get to be the customer.
Hannah Clark Steiman is an Inc. associate editor.