By combining music sales and concert ticket sales for the past 10 years, The Los Angeles Times music blog has offered a list of commercial champions headed by Celine Dion:
“Dion earned the title of Ultimate Top 10 champ for the decade that recently ended, thanks in large part to the money she piled up from her five-year engagement at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where audiences are used to paying big bucks for big stars.”
What is interesting is that while the Dion model has been embraced and repeated on the Strip (Cher, Midler, Manilow, and Santana) no other Vegas headliner made this list. Most surprising is the absence of Elton John who also spent years headlining at Caesars with an expensive ticket. And, the absence of John’s “The Red Piano” from the top earners further stands out as John got a nod for his touring revenue in 2009 primarily due to income from his joint headlining tour with Billy Joel.
So, why has the Dion approach (big spectacle, big star, big ticket price) that generated so much money, seemingly effortlessly, for Celine Dion failed to produce similar results with other artists?
Dion’s “A New Day” became a status show. For many tourists seeing “A New Day” joined a Cirque show as a defining element to a Vegas vacation. As popular as Elton John’s “The Red Piano” show, he also remained on the road during the past decade, and somehow John did not seem as exclusively a Vegas act as Dion.
The real key is finding the right star as headliner. Garth Brooks proved that nothing but an empty stage is required, even in spectacle prone Vegas, if you have the right headliner. Of course, Brooks relatively cheap ticket price, meant as a way to not gouge fans, also inadvertently revived a Vegas entertainment model older than Celine Dion. Before Cirque’s arrival in 1993, entertainment in Vegas was actually expected to lose money most of the time.
But Brooks isn’t just the right name. He provides a unique world class show, available only in Vegas and, unlike Dion, at a bargain price for tourists. Normally, a show under those circumstances would lose money. But since Brooks is not using a band or any glitz, the production cost of his show is pretty much contained to flying him into Vegas to perform. And, so while imitating a loss leader show of the past, the Brooks concerts are likely enjoying substantial profits.
Brooks aside, there are very few stars who could follow Dion’s approach which requires having enough hits, built up demand for her concerts, and a willingness to embrace a demanding Vegas performance schedule. Those acts that spring to mind, also, seem impossible to capture for a multi-year Vegas commitment: The Rolling Stones, a reunited Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, Madonna.
Since Vegas is a bandwagon town when it comes to entertainment, there were excited rumors after successful concert performances about Palms signing Lady Gaga or Wynn bringing back Beyonce as regular headliners. But nothing has yet come from those two rumors. Of course, the biggest rumor of all is the return of Celine Dion. Sure things are hard to find, and casinos no longer take risks when it comes to entertainment.
Resorts seem to have lost direction when it comes to their entertainment. Casinos not only often outsource their showrooms becoming simply landlords, but act as if the headliner’s time is past in Vegas. I am still dumbfounded that in all of CityCenter there is apparently no concert venue. But live entertainment is second only to gambling—more so than dining and shopping—as a crucial draw to bring people to Vegas. The nightclub revolution distorted that perception in Vegas, because it happened so quickly and overlapped with the decline in the fortunes of production shows and traditional headliners. But LA, New York and Miami all have nightclubs as well as shopping and fine dinning. The showrooms of Vegas remain a key element of our claim to be unique: The Entertainment Capitol of the World. Those stages need entertainment or a casino feels like a warehouse with gambling rather than a resort.
To me the best way to see Brooks’ success is as a validation not of the Celine Dion model, but as a hint that casinos should revisit the decision to turn a profit with their shows. The result has been a significant turn over of undercapitalized shows up and down the Strip not to mention the decline in quality and lack of originality.
Take “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood. “Peepshow” would be a perfect old school loss leader for Planet Hollywood. Star Holly Madison generates massive attention for the property, and a frothy and fun topless show geared to couples is a fantastic way to bring in tourists into the casino and to keep hotel guests from leaving Planet Hollywood.
But “Peepshow” has to market itself (very expensive in Vegas), pay rent and pay for the cast. A low ticket price is impossible under those circumstances. So, Planet Hollywood can’t use “Peepshow” as a draw for the gambling, shopping and dining on property. “Peepshow” is merely a tenant that has to make bills and turn a profit for investors, and therefore in this wretched economy is on hiatus until March. Another example of the pay to play model failing in Vegas is the bankruptcy filing yesterday of Harmon Theater at the side of Planet Hollywood’s mall where the Amazing Jonathan performs. Steve Wyrick’s theater in Planet Hollywood’s mall shut down last year. And, that leaves the V Theater, where shows come and go, in the mall. Does a casino called Planet Hollywood need a real headliner for entertainment and branding? I would say, absolutely.
The truth is Vegas could create exclusive, exciting and original entertainment to draw tourists here should casinos once again grasp the value of investing money in doing so. Indeed losing money on their showrooms could be one of the cheapest ways to encourage people to decide Vegas is the place for their vacation. We now have a lot more hotel rooms and a lot less headliners than we did five years ago. That trend should reverse to help fill those new rooms.
People come to Vegas wanting to be entertained and a great show puts you in a certain mood for a vacation. Vegas used to make sure tourists considered the show experience essential.
And in 2010 a cheap show or free show remains a perfect inducement and gateway to a Vegas vacation. Otherwise, the future of Vegas entertainment seems to be waiting for another Celine Dion or better yet waiting for Celine Dion. And, in between, of course, another Cirque show.
Surely Las Vegas needs to be more creative.
The failure to provide significant new entertainment options is among the most glaring roads not taken as Vegas tries to reinvent itself post great recession. Instead resorts seem to be waiting for the return of tourists to the old nightclubs, same restaurants and shopping, along with the familiar shows still standing from 2006. That is a poor plan. Vegas may have once been a nostalgia driven market for entertainment has-beens, but now people come expecting to see the biggest and best of the new. Our shows get reviewed around the world. Vegas does not need a tag like Broadway West; “Peepshow,” “Believe” and Garth Brooks proved the national media will cover the latest entertainment to hit Vegas.
And, yet, except for Garth Brooks last year and Cirque’s Viva Elvis opening this year, there is nothing lined up in the way of big stars or exciting new production shows to command the national spotlight Vegas provides. What a mistake. (photo: Sarah Gerke)