While Sin City resumes business with masks on and social distancing in effect, execs from all sectors are working on ways to safely entertain in a pandemic.
By all accounts, 2020 was supposed to be Las Vegas’ best year yet for live events. In April and May, Kelly Clarkson, the Jonas Brothers and Sting were pacing to sell out their new residencies at Zappos Theater in Planet Hollywood, Park Theater in Park MGM and the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, respectively. Down the Strip at Wynn’s Encore Theater -- Billboard’s top-grossing theater under 2,000 capacity worldwide -- comedians Sebastian Maniscalco and Jo Koy were booked for four and five shows, respectively, and all were sold out. Allegiant Stadium, the $2 billion new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, is still scheduled to open in August with the Garth Brooks Stadium Tour, which sold out 65,000 tickets in 75 minutes -- but that concert too is in jeopardy as COVID-19 cases spike in Nevada. And in November, AEG had plans to debut a new theater inside the freshly minted Virgin Hotel, but sources say that project is likely on hold until 2021.
It’s been four months since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the city’s entertainment business, which, coupled with casinos closing in mid-March, could cause more than $39 billion in overall economic losses to the state of Nevada, and will require 12–18 months to recover, according to a report commissioned by the Nevada Resort Association. And even as casino-resorts began phased reopening starting June 4, that does not include concerts and there are no clear plans yet for when or how live music events might resume.
Over the last decade, Las Vegas has become the new epicenter of extravagant live events for the music and entertainment industry with dozens of openings up and down the Strip, including a new arena, attracting top names across every music genre with multi-million dollar deals for extended engagement residencies and touring shows. Festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival bring in over $250 million a year and attract more than 300,000 attendees. In Las Vegas, roughly two-thirds of the economy depends on non-gaming revenue -- according to the center for gaming research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- of which shows are a major driver and it cannot wait until a vaccine becomes widely available to welcome fans back to those offerings. The pressure is on and all industries should be watching, because the city will serve as the model on how to safely reopen the entire guest experience.
Nevada is currently in phase 2 of its “Roadmap to Recovery” plan, and while casinos have now been open for more than a month, in a June 24 press conference Gov. Steve Sisolak said plans to move to phase 3 -- which would signify an easement on public and mass gatherings -- are “tabled,” given the rising number of cases. On June 29, he signed a directive that phase 2 will extend until the end of July. It is not until phase 4 that live events will be able to return to business as usual. And on July 10, bars were once again shuttered. But it seems no matter how much mitigation, distancing and mask mandating happens, the virus has a mind of its own. Over the past month, Nevada has consistently reported its highest numbers of the pandemic, including hospitalizations, and as of Monday (July 20) there were more than 36,700 confirmed cases among residents -- not counting the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the state monthly.
On June 17, the Gaming Control Board, which regulates the spaces inside casino-resorts, clarified the policy that “musical performances, live entertainment, concerts, competitions, sporting events and any events with live performances may resume, but shall remain closed for public attendance, and the board must approve such an event prior to it taking place.” This means events can happen for the purpose of being recorded, filmed, livestreamed or broadcast, but must be fanless -- a boon for sports like UFC, but concerts not so much.
Walk through Wynn, Bellagio or The Cosmopolitan on a Friday night and the casino floor is bustling, restaurants appear full at 50% capacity and one could almost start to forget about the coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed 648 in the state. But sources say resorts on the Strip are operating at 50–80% self-imposed occupancy limits, in comparison to 91% occupancy rates in June 2019, reported by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and are desperate for entertainment options to offer guests as shows typically draw a major influx of money for gaming and food and beverage. Sixteen casinos have filed temporary closures with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, meaning their licenses remain active but they remain closed. Palms Casino Resort requested a temporary closure until June 2021, while The Cromwell -- which holds Drai's Beachclub & Nightclub -- can remain closed until Dec. 30. Others, including Park MGM and The Mirage may remain closed until Sept. 29. With revenue reports from June’s reopening still a few weeks away, and still no gauge on when shows of any kind can return, the state of the city’s entertainment industry remains in flux.
Local Leaders Are Banding Together
While today’s Vegas experience is pared down, there are preparations going into next steps. More than 40 leaders from promoters, events and venues around the city -- including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Las Vegas Events, Live Nation, AEG, MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, the Raiders and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts -- have come together to form the Vegas Events COVID-19 Committee for the purpose of sharing ideas and plans on how to bring back concerts, residencies and other gatherings.
Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, an organization that secures more than 40 signature events and $500 million annually for the city -- among them Electric Daisy Carnival and Life is Beautiful festival, National Finals Rodeo and NBA Summer League -- is heading the committee.
“Las Vegas has more to gain and lose than anywhere else,” Christenson says. “And with COVID-19, we have more of a challenge than anyone because we are an entertainment hub. This group is not so much meant to dictate what should be done, but to develop and discuss what is being done and to compare different [strategies].”
After 90-minute weekly meetings for almost four months, plans are slowly starting to take shape.
“It gives a good overview of how things are changing for better or worse,” Christenson says.
The group has developed about a dozen guidelines its members “all agree on,” he says, including testing, tracing, temperature checks, staffing, staff protocols and training, social distancing, parking, transportation, ingress, egress, cleaning and disinfecting. “[We have to make our guests] feel like Las Vegas is the safest place to travel for an event,” he continues. “Once we put these measures together, we have to get fans feeling comfortable about coming.”
Russ Simons, managing partner of Venue Solutions Group, a major consultant on Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, who sits on the International Association of Venue Managers COVID-19 Task Force, advises the committee on what is happening in the industry at large, as does Steve Adelman, vp of the Event Safety Alliance.
“The thing that really intrigued me about the Las Vegas group is while it was really more destination-oriented, it was a very interesting dynamic. There are a wide variety of participants from different facilities,” Simons says. “I really found their viewpoints to be intriguing, because there's a danger in looking through only the lens of what you do on a regular basis. There's a lot of value in seeing how another segment views the same problem.
“We are closely watching actions taken in the first month of reopening and will continue to modify plans. It’s going to be like the Wild Wild West for the foreseeable future. But it gives us a wider information base with which to make decisions for all communities.”
Mitigating Risk Means Replacing Residencies, More Safety Precautions
Jason Gastwirth, president of entertainment at Caesars Entertainment, says they are exploring multiple avenues to bring shows back -- starting with theatrical productions over residencies, which have more restrictive economic requirements. Some of Caesars’ shows include Absinthe at Caesars Palace and Criss Angel Mindfreak at Planet Hollywood. Reopening comes down to three things, he explains: a quality guest experience, appropriate health and safety protocols, and economic feasibility.
“We are seeing active interest from many entertainers who want to return as soon as possible,” Gastwirth says. “Subject to government directives, we are planning for a selection of lower- to midsize-capacity shows to either operate at reduced capacity for the time being or be moved into larger venues to allow the show to proceed while complying with appropriate social distancing. This will serve as a solid bridge to the time when we can return to operating shows at their prior seating configurations.”
Caesars Entertainment protocols notate that entrance queues at the theaters will be marked to identify the appropriate distance between guests, seating within the showrooms will be modified to allow appropriate space between parties, hand sanitizer will be positioned at entrances and throughout the venues, and guests will be encouraged to sanitize their hands prior to entering venues and at key locations such as concession stands, as well as to wear face coverings.
Research into new protocols is being undertaken at Black Fire Innovation, a technology hub in partnership between Caesars Entertainment and UNLV, which debuted in January. Gaming and hospitality concepts are created and tested in a 43,000-square-feet space that includes elements of mock hotel rooms, a casino floor and sportsbook, an esports studio and virtual reality facilities.
“As our community and nation continue to wrestle with and respond to the devastating effects of COVID-19, it’s critical for leaders in every industry to manage the uncertainties of the present while also focusing on innovations that will contribute to a successful and sustainable recovery,” says Tony Allen, UNLV’s senior director of media relations. “To that end, Black Fire and other hospitality focused partners throughout the university are committed to working closely with the resort industry both now and into the future to advance concepts that will support this recovery.”
In early May, UNLV’s Lee Business School created a $1 million prize for innovation and entrepreneurship with the goal of discovering and funding technologies and solutions to make the food and beverage, hospitality, casino, sports, entertainment and travel industries a safe place for employees and guests in the post-pandemic world..The deadline for submissions was July 5 and winners will be announced soon.
Promoter Dilemma: From Hustling to 'Hurry Up and Wait Mode'
“All of my professional life, I've done nothing but hustle and try to book shows,” says AEG’s Bobby Reynolds, who is responsible for promotions at Wynn’s Encore Theater, where the next show scheduled is comedian Jo Koy on Sept. 4. “Now we're in ‘hurry up and wait mode,’ and for a guy like me, that's one of the things I'm not good at. But that's the hand we're dealt.”
Since March, Reynolds has been spending his days looking at innovative ways to bring entertainment to the Strip for reduced-capacity audiences -- but not in the usual spaces.
Is it possible to do socially-distanced shows in a 1,500-seat venue such as Encore Theater? The short answer, he says, is no -- for marquee names, it won’t work financially without 100% capacity.
“In a scenario where we would be allowed to occupy 50% of a theater, economically that just doesn't work. It doesn't work with the artists that we put in there. I don't think it works from a vibe level and a fun level,” Reynolds says. “You go to a show to be around other people, to dance, to move, to sing along, to laugh at a joke in a packed theater. I don't know how that would feel in a half empty theater that is sold out. It just doesn't feel right to me. If an artist really wanted to perform and we could only seat 50% of the crowd, the artist has to take a 60–65% cut in their guarantee in order for me to pay them and pay my bills and pay my expenses and make [a few] bucks for ourselves. I don't see that happening. I'm anticipating more expenses when we go back for greater cleaning endeavors, more staff -- those are the things that we're learning more about and why the committee has been very helpful in understanding what other people are doing.”
However, he says there are potential opportunities AEG and its partners are exploring to hold concerts and comedy shows in nightclubs and ballrooms where they could achieve social distancing and generate smaller shows. But those plans are contingent on what the Gaming Control Board will allow.
“The good news is Las Vegas has the desire to bring entertainment back -- maybe more than any other city,” he says. “Can casinos get creative? There are ballroom spaces, there are nightclub spaces, there are theaters that are sitting there dormant. And there's a bunch of smart people trying to figure out what the opportunities are. So we're exploring that right now.”
With Clubs Closed, Are Lounges the New Nightlife?
Dormant nightclubs are a thing that Clique Hospitality’s Andy Masi never thought he would see. Having been in the business of partying for nearly two decades, Masi’s former company The Light Group at one time dominated the city and was an integral part of pools, clubs and lounges growing into a billion-dollar cottage industry. He now operates The Barbershop and Clique Lounge at The Cosmopolitan on the Strip and several restaurants for Stations Casinos.
Since Masi’s lounges are not considered nightclubs, they have been allowed to reopen under the Gaming Control Board’s current policies. They don’t charge a cover, they can operate at reduced capacity, all patrons must have reserved tables and the main focus of the action is not a live act, although there is entertainment.
“I was expecting the worst-case scenario, but I am pleasantly surprised by the business volume right now,” he says. “There is a big demand for people wanting to go out and feel normal. Nightclubs probably aren’t opening anytime soon, so it's a great place for people to come and hang out while they're in Las Vegas. No one is planning on making a ton of money right now. Let’s get everyone working, let’s keep people safe and let’s give people coming to Vegas something to do on a Friday and Saturday night.”
Around town, venues such as Marquee Nightclub and Dayclub, Intrigue Nightclub and Encore Beach Club have renamed themselves Marquee Pool, Intrigue Lounge and Encore Beach Pool without big name DJs, all for the sake of being able to reopen under the Gaming Control Board’s current policy, which says live entertainment must be ancillary to the operation and not the draw. Most nightlife groups are exercising force majeure clauses with their multi-million dollar talent contracts, postponing all performances through 2020.
“As of this moment, we have had zero discussion about what the marketplace will look like moving forward. Pools that were once ‘daylife’ pool clubs are acting as resort pools with limited capacity and minimal to no live entertainment,” says Ricky Abramson, who has been buying nightclub talent in the market for almost a decade. “I’ve been told that no live entertainment at clubs and pools will be back for the foreseeable future. Some clubs may remain closed for the rest of the year. I’ve recently pulled all of my confirmed live show bookings in the market.”
Looking back on the industry he helped build, Masi says he has the utmost confidence that it will come back roaring when people feel finally comfortable getting really close to each other on the dance floor again. “Nightlife is a big part of what we do in Las Vegas and the big reason why people come here,” Masi says.
“There must be some sort of reset in the market for the foreseeable future, just like we’re seeing in other verticals of live entertainment,” Abramson adds. There was already some of this taking place as the market was shifting away from the nightly six-figure talent fees paid to DJs at top-tier clubs to four- or five-figure fees for open-format DJs and short appearances by pop or hip-hop artists. He also says outside of COVID-19, new projects in the market, like Resorts World, the $4.3 billion casino-resort from Malaysian Gaming company Genting, will play a role in how the future of live entertainment at pools and clubs will look. “The market has changed in the past six years, let alone the past six months. We have an opportunity, when permitted, to learn from our past, understand what the market can bear given today’s consumer, and proceed with -- once again -- building world renown nightlife/daylife brands that flourish in Las Vegas.”
Technology and Innovation for Mitigated Reopenings
Simons of Venue Solutions Group says modernization will be as important as planning in Las Vegas’ return and top of mind in the return-to-entertainment conversation are sanitizing and distancing measures that are now being tested in casinos.
For example, at the Bellagio managers have adjusted traffic flow in lines for popular attractions such as the Conservatory & Botanical Gardens; partitions have been installed between booths in dining areas, at casino bars and on table games; menus are now available by QR code; and no-touch radio frequency identification locks have been installed on guest rooms. The entire check-in process has even gone contactless through a mobile app. And there is signage everywhere stating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for guests to follow -- including how to properly wear a face covering (mandatory as of June 24). Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems have been reviewed “for additional opportunities to enhance their effectiveness ... and rigorous measures ... to help mitigate the risk of virus transmission have been taken throughout our properties,” states the MGM Resorts Health and Safety Plan.
And vendors are pivoting to meet these new needs. Las Vegas grand-format printing company Screaming Images, which used to wrap the exterior of Strip hotels for event promotion, is now producing safety signage and plexiglass social distancing partitions for casinos. At the start of the pandemic, founder James Swanson had to lay off almost the majority of his workforce, but now thanks to expanding his services to include new solutions for the gaming and entertainment industry, he says business is rebounding and all his staff is back to work.
By using polycarbonate and acrylic he had on hand at his shop for second-surface fine art prints, and cutting it on a multicam router, Swanson was able to instantly provide social distancing partitions to businesses all over the country. And the company’s newest innovation, the “Seat Shield,” could directly impact the concert industry.
“Seat Shields works like a headband and blocks off seats in a venue to enforce social distancing,” Swanson explains. “We can wrap individual or groups of seats with signage held on by hook-and-loop cloth -- so it closes up the seat and covers it up completely -- and you can make adjustments on configurations up until showtime.” Swanson has also expanded his business to include printing social distancing circles, a giant floor graphic that lets groups know where to position themselves when standing-room shows return. He says both products are currently being looked at by venues and promoters around the country.
A sign of the times, Screaming Images recently made a queen-size mask for the replica of the Statue of Liberty that sits in front of Las Vegas’ New York-New York resort.
The Future as It Stands Now
What’s still on the books? So far, Garth Brooks’ show opening Allegiant Stadium on Aug. 22 has not been postponed. According to Caesars Entertainment’s websites, Shania Twain is still scheduled to start performing at Zappos Theater Aug. 21 and comedian Jeff Dunham at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on Sept. 20. And currently Jo Koy is billed for Sept. 4 at Encore Theater. However, sources say, these rescheduled performances could be scrapped at any moment and most of the other 2020 shows have been postponed until 2021.
Christenson of Las Vegas Events says he is confident people will return steadily to Las Vegas to see live entertainment as they did after the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival. He hopes live events with audiences will resume no later than fall 2020, but it’s all assumptions right now.
“Everything we're doing is just preparing,” he says. “If you look at what was on our plate for this year and next year -- not only did we have all these venues, theaters, arenas and festivals [that were booked out], but we have a new stadium and [eventually] the MSG Sphere [although construction is now on hold]. That's a major jump. I think once we turn the corner, you'll see that not only will the city be back to normal, but we will be bigger and better than ever. My expectation is that we will put [the openings] on hold for the kind of impact we want.”