The Palms in Las Vegas Banks on Music, Art & A Nice View With $620M Renovation

Denise Truscello/WireImage
Rick Ross gives surprise performance as APEX Social Club celebrates grand opening weekend with host Travis Barker at Palms Casino Resort  on May 27, 2018 in Las Vegas.

With a first phase opening including the exclusive Apex Social Club and an enhanced Pearl Concert Theater, Nas, Questlove, Rick Ross and Blink-182 helped usher in a new era for the casino resort over the weekend.

It's just after dusk on what could be considered a perfect early summer night in Las Vegas. Apex Social Club partner Ryan Labbe and four other nightclub executives are standing inside the new indoor-outdoor nightclub 55 floors atop Palms Casino Resort, pondering the placement of a stage that appears to be nothing more than two unassuming stacked risers. In a few hours, Rick Ross will take to this platform to entertain club-goers for a performance presented by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, closing a three-day music-packed Memorial Day weekend celebrating the first-phase opening of what's been dubbed "the new Palms."

Since opening in 2001 -- making it an old girl, by Las Vegas standards -- Palms became the epitome of mid-2000s cool, starring in the 2002 season of MTV's The Real World, hosting the infamous 2007 Britney Spears MTV Video Music Awards performance and hosting sessions in its recording studio with everyone from Tony Bennett to Katy Perry and Eminem. Now, the casino is making a comeback and it's more than just a little nip and tuck. The $620 million renovation touches every part of the guest experience, but the biggest drivers will be music, art and dining.

At 8,000 square feet, Apex is small in comparison to its nightlife counterparts around town. XS at Wynn measures 40,000 square feet, Marquee is a whopping 60,000 square feet and Hakkasan packs every inch of its 80,000 square feet. But unlike the other venues, there are a few names you won't see on its bill: Calvin Harris, Tiësto and Diplo. Instead, insert Nas, who performed at Apex on Friday; The Roots' Questlove who did a DJ set on Saturday; and Ross, who commanded the crowd on Sunday. The week before, a VIP party featured a surprise J. Cole performance. In the resort's Pearl Concert Theater on Saturday, Blink-182 kicked off its 16-date residency

These bookings give great insight into the current state of both live performance and club gigs in Las Vegas, and Palms is sending a message that music will be as much a part of its future as it was its past. With EDM DJ fees reaching six figures nightly in 2013 and 2014, driven by major players Hakkasan Group and Wynn's bidding war for big names like Kaskade, Harris and Steve Aoki, in recent years the rest of the market has turned to hip-hop, legacy acts and up-and-comers to appeal to shifting tastes and a broader demographic. For instance, since Drai's Beachclub and Nightclub came on the scene in 2014 it has been booking 90-minute concerts with rap's hottest acts. Now its roster features Future, Migos, Trey Songz, 2 Chainz and PartyNextDoor, among others. The DJs are reserved for the day club, with A-Trak, Zeds Dead and Claude Vonstroke filling the talent pool.

Now the tide is shifting to smaller, more intimate clubs like Apex, which took over the space formerly known as Ghostbar, where one questions if the panoramic view of the Las Vegas Strip is the top attraction or the talent onstage. The venue is booking talent at $25,000 to $75,000 per night and keeping it eclectic, from hip-hop to icons. Labbe, who supervises booking talent for the new club, says fees fluctuate as rapidly as the stock market, but names are necessary to compete.

"I'm not booking the Calvin Harrises and the Tiëstos of the world," says Labbe. "We're trying to make it more about the venue, an intimate experience. We want to get away from that big room noise. [But] people [do] come [to Vegas] to do things they can't do in other cities. They come here for the DJs, they come here for the talent. To sell tickets and tables, you need to keep eyes on [the club]. Since we are a smaller venue, we have to be a bit unique and crafty with how we do our talent."

Labbe notes that because he works with venues in other markets, including San Diego, he can cross-book. He also seeks out artists who don't have radius clauses and those who want to get out of playing big rooms, and he tries to find talent that is up-and-coming but not too early. Artists who can be picked up last minute from appearances in L.A. also come in handy.

In general, though, fees continue to escalate, even though EDM is now getting a run for its money from hip-hop. According to Labbe, DJ talent is staying where it is price-wise while the cost of hip-hop is skyrocketing -- and as Las Vegas pays top dollar, many artists get jaded, driving prices up all around the country.

"You could grab an artist like Post Malone for $35,000 to $70,000 in different markets. And now these are $100,000 to $300,000 [bookings in this market]. Cardi B was $70,000; now she has moved [up to] $200,000. I don't think anybody else has that buying power," says Labbe. "You have an artist that [gets] $35,000 in San Diego, comes to Vegas once, gets $150,000, and now still wants $75,000 to $100,000. The city is not backing off those six-figure fees. I think they're actually increasing them. [But with] our venue in particular, it's just not sustainable. We have 24 tables, a 417-person capacity -- [we] could never recoup [the] money."

The logic behind this weekend's booking opens a window on the strategy. Nas is a legend. "If you're 24 or 44, his music hit you at some point in your life," says Labbe. "He was available and he didn't have any residency deals and he's someone we're looking to do future things [with]. My partner Andy [Masi] loves Quest. [It's] been three years in the making to book him. And Travis launches his residency this weekend and just made sense. And when you put them all together, we're speaking to all genres of music."

Downstairs on Saturday night, Blink-182 kicked off its "Kings of the Weekend" residency at the newly enhanced Pearl Concert Theater, marking the first of a series of performers who will call the venue home. The band's name extends from the state-of-the-art digital marquee to the felts on the gaming tables -- it's a total Blink takeover. 

"It's legendary status to have a residency in Las Vegas," says Palms general manager Jon Gray. "We're not just paying you to play and walk off the stage. It's a big investment for us. We view it as a partnership. And so when [an artist] sees their name everywhere, it blows them away, too." 

Gray is somewhat of a Vegas legend-in-the-making with a come-up story befitting the silver screen. He started at the Palms front desk and caught the eye of then-owner George Maloof, who gave him a more expanded role after graduating from college. Throughout the Palms' first heyday, Gray lived on the property and became the de facto man about the casino. As it went through its transitions, Gray did too, eventually moving on to open The Linq retail and dining district and Observation Wheel with Caesars Entertainment and then moving away to take a brand position with Nike. When the Palms began its changes, the Nevada native came home.

Having ridden the Palms wave not once but twice, Gray's eyes twinkle when he thinks about the resort coming alive with an entertainment residency. "When we see a show in the Pearl, the whole property is buzzing, the steakhouse is great, the room rates are high, the casino floor is busy, the center bar is packed. We can create that energy that kind of transcends outside of just the concert venue and that's the beautiful thing about the Palms in general -- with such a small footprint, you can really overtake the entire hotel."

For the performers, the benefits are obvious as well. "The money is something you can't sneeze at," adds Gray. "But in a smaller room they can express themselves differently and on a longer run they can perfect that and hone that in."

Making an artist's fans come to them is a formula that has worked well for Las Vegas residencies over the past decade. The proximity and convenience to Southern California, the ability to work on other things and the ability to shave off touring costs while banking a big check are all factors.

Palms isn't just counting on nightlife and entertainment to attract guests. Owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship to WME-IMG in 2016, are prominent art collectors, so one of the main new attractions of Palms has become the casino as gallery. On display at every turn are major works from KAWS, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst, whose shark triptych and spot paintings are the centerpiece of the resort's Unknown bar. Works commissioned specifically for the property come heavily from the street art world: An Instagram-worthy balloon sculpture in the porte cochere by Adam Parker Smith and a mural in the Pearl by Felipe Pantone are most notable. 

But for now, this is still phase one. Coming throughout 2018 and 2019 are a pool and mega nightclub from Tao Group, a West Coast version of their street art-themed restaurant Vandal and restaurants from celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Michael Symon. Plus, Palms' often photographed Fantasy Suites are getting a completely new look. This work in progress is adequately summed up in the resort's current advertising campaign "From Dust to Gold," which can be seen in various forms on nearly 100 billboards around Las Vegas and beyond.

"We were inspired by a Pablo Picasso quote, 'Every art of creation is first an act of destruction,'" says Gray. "Let's celebrate this destruction, this moment that we're in right now, and show people that the Palms is getting a complete overhaul. There's more to come."