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Have You Found Tony Hsieh? "Conversion Tours" Start Your Entry Into Downtown Las Vegas.

Reborn and repurposed this desert town is trying to shed its bachelor-party-hangover image.

When I pulled in to park at my entrepreneur “crash pad,” one of the many furnished apartments Zappos CEO and Downtown Project founder Tony Hsieh keeps for employee recruitment purposes, the parking spot was labeled: Future Resident Parking.

During my visit to Downtown Las Vegas, nearly everything appeared to be geared toward recruitment, toward showing off the tabula rasa of this reborn and repurposed desert town, toward shedding its bachelor-party-hangover image.

And I was ready for conversion.

From the Downtown tour centered in Hsieh’s apartment, to the Zappos HQ tour that venerates the leader’s desk decor, to the long drive southeast to Hoover Dam, whose highway his company has sponsored, the essence of Hsieh is everywhere.

The Downtown Project

Caleb J. Edison, who goes by the moniker The Superman of Tours, was a little frustrated when our afternoon tour of the Downtown Project started, because only two of the 17 people registered had shown up. He said goodbye to the other guide, The Pixie of Positivity, and hustled us along to the first stop (the door to Hsieh’s apartment).

There he found 15 high school students waiting, looking around expectantly for the occupant and whispering rapidly. (“I heard someone saw him in his boxers once.” “Does he have a girlfriend?” “Do we really go inside?”)

You really do go inside. The whole tour takes place in various rooms of Hsieh’s personal digs. Each year, more than 60,000 people take the tour.

Before anything began, we all repeated after Edison: Connectedness, Collisions, Co-Learning. The three principles of Downtown Project. It used to be “community,” rather than “connectedness,” but they scrapped that when they realized that members of the community thought that meant “charity.” It did not mean charity.

We sat in colorful rolling school chairs next to one of Hsieh’s kitchens (full bar, coffee maker, cereal boxes). Edison talked about the various new buildings rising up. We walked into Hsieh’s jungle room, a humid space that has plants along the walls and ceiling, filled with the faint buzzing of various incubator lights.

Edison led us to another living room where he told us about the entrepreneurship school the Downtown Project has started, and about one particularly special young woman.

“This is Bella,” he said, showing a slide of a smiling little girl. “She wants to be an artist. She set up her own booth at [monthly art event] First Friday, and filled out her own IRS forms. She’s only 6 years old, and she’s truly an entrepreneur. This is usually the part of the tour people start crying, they’re so excited.”

He mentioned that the ironic cereal boxes on Hsieh’s fridge — Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains — are trending on Instagram. He showed off the wall of Post-it notes where entrepreneurs stick their Downtown Project ideas, and which is treated as something of a shrine. This inspiration wall was referenced often throughout my weeks in the city.

Someone looked through the posted offerings, didn’t spot anything religious, and asked if a religious component was allowed. Edison noted that there was a meditation Post-it, as well as a Café Gratitude Post-it.

On our way out, we walked past Hsieh’s bookshelf, which included titles like “Your Network Is Your Net Worth.”


I was late to Zappos for my tour, and six groups of 20 were already roving through the offices of the online shoe-sales company, located since September in what used to be Las Vegas’s City Hall. As I walked through the building looking for my group, employees said good morning to me. At the front desk, Jerald, who had worked at Nordstrom until last week, pointed to a wall of sliced-off neckties. “We either tame ’em off or we cut ’em off!” he told me.

My guide, who was wearing Skechers and a red Ecko T-shirt, explained that they were in the midst of “Zappifying” the building, but a tour would still give us a good sense of “how a Zapponian views the world.” Here, for example, ping-pong is called ZingZong.

Several Zappos departments have rehearsed routines for tour groups. When we entered the HR department, our guide uttered a call, and the Kelis song “Milkshake” played on overhead speakers. Dozens of employees at rows of desks grabbed Shake Weights, raised them over their heads, and began to do a one-armed shimmy. In another room, employees performed a tambourine dance.

At Hsieh’s desk, our guide said it was okay to take pictures (Hsieh keeps vodka, pickles, a bottle of wine with a llama image on it). It is decorated with fake plants to look “like a monkey jungle.”

In the company’s customer service department, one representative said she had a call that lasted four hours. They have a board on the wall that tallies customer appreciation gifts sent out that day: Two packs of cookies, 110 PEC cards, six flowers, three “wow packages” (which might be a book about Zappos, or other little gifts).

Finally, in the discount department, we were told to chant: “Woop woop.” The workers picked up tambourines and shook them.

Along the hallway wall, there’s a framed poster: Zappos did $28.6 million in sales in a single day last year.

Hoover Dam

Tony Hsieh is not the first charismatic leader with a wild technological vision for the desert. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover spearheaded construction to build an enormous dam across the Colorado River — it was three times larger than any existing dam in the world.

Arguably the greatest technological achievement in American history, the towering Hoover Dam is southeast of Vegas, bordering Arizona and surrounded by red desert sand. I headed out there, hoping for a palate cleanser after my days Downtown, waiting in line at the gate with a motorcycle gang and families with kayaks on the roofs of their cars. I signed up for a tour of the generators and went into a small theater where they played a movie on loop.

“The structure that would one day bear the Hoover name began with an explosion — not only of dynamite but also ingenuity,” said a dramatic male voiceover, soundtracked by old-timey music. “The Colorado River had to be diverted from its timeless path. The Colorado River had no choice” but to change its course to “man’s will.”

Built in five years, the dam took five million barrels of cement, 18 million pounds of structural steel and 840 miles of pipe. The project averaged 3,500 workers a day, who got two days off a year. The workers’ town, Boulder City, reached a population of 7,000, and today has 15,000. Some have called it the Berkeley of Las Vegas, which is a bit of an overstatement.

The music soared, and the voice continued: “Herbert Hoover — engineer, humanitarian, politician, fisherman and conservationist — believed, as did many others, in a vision where man could affect nature for the good. With every touch of its coarse concrete skin, each sparkle that dances behind its crown, Hoover Dam reminds us of the need to dream noble purposes, and the strength of the human spirit to achieve great aspirations.”

I took an elevator through 537 feet of volcanic rock to see the 17 generators, each about seven stories tall.

The effusive guide, Scott Boyce, who has been leading tours since he was 16, and whose great-grandfather helped build the dam, made a variety of punny jokes: “Take as many dam photos as you like.”

Afterward, I wandered through the exhibits with titles like “A River Tamed,” over a painting of a muscular shirtless man turning a wheel.

At the gift shop, there were books about Native Americans next to a “Chip and Dip Lovers Cookbook” and alien-invasion guitar picks (remember Area 51?) and decks of cards with famous bandits and mobsters (the Strip was founded by a mobster, after all). I bought a magnet that read “Dam Proud American.”

On the drive back to downtown Las Vegas, billboards advertised 99-cent margaritas and personal-injury lawyers: “Enough Said, Call Ed” and “In a wreck? Need a check?” On the radio, there were more injury-lawyer ads, and then the weather came on: “It’s a hot one tomorrow, with a high of 107, sunny and warm.” And all along that 34-mile drive, I passed signs that read:

Sponsor a Highway: Next 1 Mile

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