In Las Vegas, take the Zappos corporate tour

December 29, 2014

Zappos.com tour guide Erika Newman, right, shows off the company's ball pit in the human resources department to tourist Michelle Mickan of Australia. The Zappos headquarters building in downtown Las Vegas has become a popular tourist site.

LAS VEGAS — Of all the myriad decadent, glitzy, over-the-top activities a vacationer can experience in Sin City, why choose instead to kill an hour touring a corporate office and call center?

What, you couldn’t get in to see the Blue Man Group or those clowns at Circus Circus? Sure, Celine Dion has canceled shows at Caesar’s Palace, but you could catch drag-queen Celine Dions at, uh, lesser venues ringing the Strip.

Strangely, though, people have been flocking to downtown Las Vegas, after making online reservations weeks in advance, just to get a glimpse inside the corporate headquarters of Zappos.com, one of the world’s largest e-commerce businesses, which now is under the hegemonic umbrella of Amazon.

Part peppy corporate brainwashing, part peek inside the über-cool work lives of hipster techies, and part exercise in management-training dogma from the mind of the company’s cult-figure CEO, Tony Hsieh, the Zappos tour (excuse me, it’s officially called the Zappos Tour Experience) will leave you both thoroughly impressed and a little creeped out by the aggressively jolly corporate culture.

Know this, too: You might walk out an hour later feeling really bad about your job — or, rather, your workplace culture. That’s because anything short of an amusement park operating in your building will pale compared to Zappos’ lavish perks, rumpus-room-chic design and all-around chill vibe that permeates the high rise that once was Las Vegas’ City Hall. You’ll look at those free Friday morning bagels your boss brings in, a gesture you once cherished, and go, "Meh, is that the best you can do?" The waffle-making machine at Zappos is 24/7, dude.

It’s all great P.R. for the company whose core mission (see, you’ll even start spouting corporate-speak) is to get you to buy shoes and sundry other items online while making you feel like you’re getting personalized service from the kindly mom-and-pop cobbler on Main Street.

But as long as you recognize the inherent sell job, you can appreciate Zappos for its commitment to goosing up what could be a dreary, boiler-room-type call center. With the success of his best-selling book, "Delivering Happiness," Hsieh has become one of the country’s foremost tech gurus, maybe a level below Zuckerberg, Bezos and that two-headed Google monster, Page and Brin, but a Tech Titan nonetheless.

Hsieh’s mandate of workplace fun will make Google and Facebook’s corporate campuses seem downright sweatshop-like. And you don’t have to be a member of some super-secret cool-kids club to tour Zappos, either. The company sends a shuttle bus to pick you up at your local hotel, deposits you right at the front door and then plies you with free drinks (water, soda, electrolyte-rich elixirs), "brain" food (popcorn, tortilla chips) and candy. Thank goodness, there wasn’t any Kool-Aid meant to be consumed, if you get my snide allusion.

While you wait for your indoctrination, uh, guided tour, perky "hosts" hand you a "Welcome to Zappos" pamphlet and encourage you to stroll the hallways and soak in the vibe: the Warholian portraits of George Clooney and Marilyn Monroe by Martin Kreloff; the library of business tomes Hsieh recommends; the leather chair where you can pose for photos with Zappos’ logo framing your shot; the handsome couches and table made from reclaimed and distressed wood.

You then are herded into a room to watch videos detailing just how wacky and fun it is to work at Zappos, how almost every day is a carnival on the quad, how people perform "Gangnam Style" homages, all of which makes workers so darned delighted to take your call and answer your shoe questions. Snippet from another video of a perky woman: "We joke that it’s happier than Disney!"

A good 15 minutes’ worth of corporate hype ended with a laundry list of "core values," which included the cringe-worthy "Do more with less" mantra, and ended with this: "Be humble."

A little late for that, perhaps.

But once the tour got underway, you couldn’t help but be envious. Erika Newman, our guide, had us introduce ourselves. A group of six executives from a travel agency in Australia had driven from a conference in Los Angeles just to feel the Zappos vibe. "Culture is a very important part of what we do," owner Phil Hoffman said. "We read the book and wanted to experience this."

Newman led us through the open-air quad, "where music plays 24/7," she said, and into the inner sanctum where 1,600 happy, sated workers toil.

"City Hall people love their offices, and at Zappos we don’t have any (offices) except for our life coach and our two attorneys, because they deal with confidential information," Newman said. "You’ll see a very open workspace. You’ll also notice that everyone sits amongst everyone else. Our lobby was the old metropolitan police department. Directly above is the old jail. We ripped out all the jail cells but saved one for bad employees and tour guests. Kidding! It’s actually our on-site gym now. Pretty awesome for our employees."

Yeah, awesome, but I was still trying to process that Zappos has an on-site life coach. Newman promised more on that later. But first she showed us a break room, one of (count ‘em) 17. There were rows upon rows of cereal and energy bars, water and juices, all gratis. Newman said they used to give away energy drinks, but "our workers already have too much energy."

We moved on to the white staircase between floors, which employees decorate with graffiti and murals and, for no explainable reason, a flotation raft. The stairwell led to one of several call centers, where someone has painted a mural of a crazed Jack Nicholson from "The Shining" on an exposed iron pillar and everyone’s desk was overflowing with personal toys and tchotchkes. After employees work there a year, they receive Zappos "license plates" to hang up, with "registration stickers" showing the number of years of service.

Then we strolled through the "Sky Park," where workers can kick back in a hammock and do their work, since the whole building is a Wi-Fi hotspot, quickly followed by one of the themed "bubbles" – areas on each floor, near the elevator, where workers can chill. Example: The ‘80s Crashpad, replete with bean bag chairs, a screen with MTV music videos blaring and a VHS for movies.

"You’re never stuck at your desk at Zappos," Newman said. "You can go mingle."

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Each department had its own vibe. The Creative Services Department (i.e., the artsy types) was surprisingly subdued, with only a full-length mural of Notorious B.I.G. to cheer things up. Contrast that with Human Resources, which had a ball pit installed. When the tour group passed by, the HR folks turned on aerobics music and, in synch, performed arm curls with hand weights. Goofily impressive.

I won’t even go into detail about the Z Cafe, because it’ll just depress you with its plenitude. Or how there’s an employee concierge service that’ll help you with little tasks like getting your car’s oil changed while you work. Or about the epic table tennis and crochet raves they have there.

But I did promise more on that life coach.

Newman: "Whether you have a professional or personal goal, you meet once a week, 30 minutes for a 30-day program. She’s pretty much your ‘accountabilli-buddy.’ Maybe you want to work out more or learn to drive a stick shift, or go back to school. She helps.

"After 30 days, you pose in the throne in the Royalty Room for a photo and get a free lunch. Of course, it’s voluntary. We don’t force you to do anything at Zappos. That’s not the Zappos way."

 

 


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