Las Vegas entertainment has never seemed so dull. Review-Journal’s Mike Weatherford wrote a column that made this point, and I was surprised by how many people were upset about him stating the obvious.
I had an interesting conversation yesterday with one of the “doers” of Las Vegas. Unlike myself, this person brokers deals for everything from casinos to headliners. I daydream about such things. Like others who write about Las Vegas entertainment, I am an outstanding backseat driver. I am convinced given a budget and a showroom, I could teach the executives how to bring people into a resort using entertainment. Of course, the problem is in the way entertainment is arranged and not entirely in poor executive choices.
Entertainment in most Strip casinos is still handled by food and beverage departments, a tradition that dates back to when casino entertainment lost money. Back then the goal was just getting people to come to the resorts in a city in the desert. The gambling made up the cash lost on the entertainment. This is the model I have been advocating Vegas go back to in order to draw tourists here again. Instead, entertainment in Vegas has become more a bandwagon with the wheels coming off from too many people jumping on.
Thanks to pay-to-play stages, rented out to producers and acts, making the casino merely landlords, if anything, casino executives appear even less in touch with what Vegas audiences enjoy watching on stage than ever before. Many of the big shows in town come from outside vendors like the production shows Cirque stages at MGM-Mirage properties (and, Ruffin’s TI) or Base Entertainment producing Phantom of the Opera and Jersey Boys at Venetian. Headliners and comedians are also supplied as AEG Live does for Caesars. Even the traditional touring concerts are chosen as Live Nation does by booking the shows at Palms. Entertainment mostly happens without much, if any, direct involvement from the casinos.
So, in the current Vegas market, lounge yawn Matt Goss moving from Palms to Caesars probably has more to do with his producer also handling the Pussycat Dolls on that property than with audience demand. If Goss does not work out, it will be the $40 price that causes the show to fail. Goss could probably build a following in another era with a free show. But there is an even better way for casinos to snag talent. Look who is on the road. Any band on tour, say, like Animal Collective, can be nabbed to stay in the lounge for a week. Fleet Foxes or Drive-By Truckers at Palms lounge for a week would draw a lot of people and attention to a property for less than it costs to get Paris Hilton to host one night. Currently there is no such model in Vegas.
The current system results in shows that must be profitable which combines for inflated ticket prices and predictable fare.
This does not have to be the case. Significantly, Wynn is one of the resorts that does not outsource entertainment. And, no coincidence, Garth Brooks at Wynn offers a model alternative. Brooks brings fans to Vegas for an original (even compared to his earlier tours) experience that is also reasonably priced. The result is that Brooks has created the first destination show for Vegas since Celine Dion. If a fan can get a ticket to Brooks, a trip to Vegas is scheduled that otherwise might not happen. There is no other show right now with that kind of buzz.
So, the way things are currently, it is no surprise that the rumor of the day is Celine Dion’s return to Caesars will soon be announced. And, yes, she will still be a huge success. But there are a very limited number of performers with perpetual appeal like Dion as Bette Midler learned.
From lounges to headliners, casinos need to realize that entertainment is one of the most cost effective ways to make people want to come to Vegas. I would love to see lounges filled with buzz bands, and venues offering concerts 7 nights a week by the big acts people know. Certainly the idea that entertainment must be profitable in Vegas has to go in order to accomplish this feat. Casinos must underwrite these shows in exchange for gamblers and shoppers and tourists staying on property for dinner. But an independent band on tour stopping for a week of shows at a Vegas lounge is a lot cheaper than a new and empty tower of hotel rooms or the construction of a big box nightclub.
Should Vegas seize this moment: we could actually earn our title of Entertainment Capitol of the World. (photo: Sarah Gerke)