The $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas makes its debut next summer, with several new clubs by the Zouk Group.
As a customer, Ronn Nicolli is no stranger to the chaos that ensues when trying to get into a nightclub. "I've gone to clubs in other cities, and you start the night dealing with a less-than-positive experience at the door," he says. "Then you have to battle back from that to have a good time."
From behind the rope, Nicolli is also familiar with the rollercoaster ride that comes with working at and running some of Las Vegas' most successful clubs.
In his new role as vice president of nightlife and lifestyle marketing at Resorts World Las Vegas, the 15-year Las Vegas industry staple hopes to shift both of those paradigms, and he'll have an entire 100,000-square-foot entertainment ecosystem in which to do it. The new $4.3 billion casino-resort with three Hilton hotel brands and a 5,000-seat theatre will debut in summer 2021 across from Wynn on the site of the former Stardust. It will feature Zouk Nightclub; a Balinese-style beach club called AYU; a vibe dining restaurant dubbed FUHU; and RedTail, a social gaming bar.
These venues serve as a big stateside debut for Zouk Group. What began as Zouk Nightclub in Singapore 29 years ago has since expanded into a portfolio of dining and entertainment venues and a music festival headed by CEO Andrew Li. In Vegas, these environments are designed to keep Resorts World customers "in house" to pump up non-gaming offerings, which account for about 70% of a resort's revenue these days.
To that end, courting the customer is king, and while part of that is one-on-one interactions with staff, Resorts World will fully integrate technology, creating a single and connected experience in the COVID–or post-COVID–world.
"The days of having that intimidating door, in my mind, are done," Nicolli says, noting that the way consumers feel about waiting in a line will be forever changed because of the pandemic. "It's now about ease of entry. It's about having that positive experience."
Betting On a 2021 Boom
Having been trained in the Wynn way, customer service has always been a leading principal for Nicolli. Fresh off the plane from Youngstown, Ohio, in 2005, he was reared in the early days of Victor Drai's regime at Wynn, later serving as right-hand man within Jesse Waits' era at XS and jumping headfirst as vice president of creative strategy into the rise and fall of Kaos Nightclub–the biggest nightlife story of 2019.
Kaos, part of the Palms Casino Resort's $690 million renovation, abruptly closed after a few months in operation. For much of that time, Nicolli was tied up in a court case with his former bosses at Wynn over an employment contract dispute that stemmed from DJ-artist Marshmello departing Wynn for Palms in a $60 million deal that later fell apart, Billboard reported at the time. Kaos' 2019 closure, above all else, was proof that Vegas' nightlife industry was in a deep state of correction. With escalating artist fees, off-the-charts infrastructure costs -- plus the aging-out-of-Gen X clubbers -- the demand for the over-the-top nightclub experience was waning.
But when this chapter is written, 2020 could go down in the history books as the year that actually saved Las Vegas nightlife — providing a complete reset. The industry is banking on unprecedented demand when the pandemic is under control. And the interest in new places like Resorts World will be high.
"It's hard to do projections right now since live entertainment is still restricted," Li says. "We do anticipate ‘revenge spending,' -- you've been cooped up for so long that you just want to let loose. It' not a matter of if it will happen, it is a matter of when it will happen."
Zouk, There It Is
Very few people stateside are familiar with the Zouk brand or its eponymous club, which pioneered electronic dance music in Singapore almost three decades ago. Nicolli counts himself among those who didn't really know what Zouk was about. Shortly after accepting the job in early 2020, he found himself 6,000 feet up on a mountaintop in Malaysia at Genting Highlands, a Resorts World property in Malaysia that also has a Zouk Nightclub, FUHU Restaurant and RedTail Bar and receives over 25 million visitors a year. For more than 50 years, Genting Group, the parent company of Resorts World, has developed and operated destination resorts in the Americas, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the Bahamas. Zouk was acquired by the Genting Group in 2015 and then in 2020 by Malaysian firm Tulipa, which is owned by Lim Keong Hui, the son of Genting Hong Kong's controlling shareholder Lim Kok Thay.
Much like the Studio 54 legacy, Nicolli says many people he met on his research and development trip to Asia had a Zouk story. "Everyone I met in Singapore had a connection to the brand," he says. "The strategy is to grow the Zouk brand into a globally recognized entity in the nightlife, entertainment and lifestyle industries."
Las Vegas does pretty well with imports; 15 years ago it welcomed New York City's Tao Group and its restaurant and nightclub venues, which consistently rank among the highest-grossing hospitality spaces globally.
Nicolli's role will be three-in-one. He will lead the nightlife program at Resorts World and will make a bridge between nightlife and casino marketing under what is now called "lifestyle" marketing. In Vegas industry terms, these roles are key, as the executives who hold them act as hosts to the resort's big spenders and get the small-timers to spend more time and money in the building.
Under Nicolli, the nightlife staff will be fully integrated into the resort instead of only working in a club. And while Nicolli did not comment on Palms or the demise of Kaos, he did say the Resorts World edge is the full integration between departments on the ground and globally.
"We are no longer just focusing on nightlife marketing," he says. "We are taking it one step further by also integrating our team members into the decisions and ideology of the property to create synergy and career development opportunities between traditional casino marketing and nightlife marketing."
He'll also play a global role in Zouk Group's other Genting partnerships.
All of this came about as a surprise to Nicolli, who after his mid-2019 departure from Palms, was taking some time to plan his next move; after a decade and a half in the business, working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Like everyone in Las Vegas, he watched Resorts World's crimson towers rise over the Strip with anticipation, as it is the first new resort to be built from the ground up on the Strip in a decade. Then a call came from Bart Mahoney, a former colleague at Wynn who had come onboard as the Resorts World vice president of food and beverage. He encouraged Nicolli to chat with Li and Lim Keong Hui, who then introduced him to company president Scott Sibella, a former head of MGM Grand and other major Strip casinos.
'Music Taste Is Transitioning and We Recognize That'
And while Kaos was last year's top headline, in 2021 all eyes will be on Zouk. The project is full steam ahead, despite capacity restrictions from the surging pandemic, which has forced nightclubs to operate as lounges without live entertainment. Part of this big reset that could in fact make nightclubs in Las Vegas more profitable in the long run is the absence of seven-figure DJ contracts. Even though Nicolli says Zouk takes music seriously, the entertainment lineup will be diverse. But while an organic relationship forms between the brand and U.S. nightlife enthusiasts, Zouk will be able to tout itself as the newest and most technologically advanced nightclub in the city.
"We will not be offering a single type of entertainment. We won't identify ourselves as a DJ club or a hip-hop club," he says. "We have so much technology and audio/visual production that we can create a different immersive experience each night. Maybe Friday there is an EDM style DJ, and the production is connected to that artist; but then on Saturday night we have a live performance in the space. And then on Sunday, there's a concept party based on a theme."
The target demographic is 21 to 45 and will focus on those looking for an experience versus a particular style of music. The spaces will also be convertible so they can sell tables for a Calvin Harris-type artist or general admission for a theme party.
"I've been doing this for a long time. I've had some of the best clubs in Las Vegas, but they're busy on Friday and Saturday night," adds Sibella, who was in charge of MGM Grand when Hakkasan Group came on as a partner in 2014. "The rest of time, it is a beautiful club just sitting there empty. The way we designed this is to be able to program it midweek or during the day, and it's just as beautiful–or we can use it for convention groups."
Although Zouk hasn't confirmed any talent yet, the conversations are happening and Nicolli says they are looking for those artists who want to be part of the Resorts World family. "Great partnerships is the way we look at talent," he says.
"We're definitely gonna have DJs," Li says. "But music taste is transitioning and we recognize that."
Adds Nicolli, "I think once we get to a position where people are feeling safe, we're going to have an amazing year. I'm hoping that it is in conjunction with the opening of the property."