As gambling revenue declines, casinos are looking to superstar artists (and DJs) to usher in a new era.
The view from above is equal parts privileged and treacherous: A singular perspective, but dizzying in its height, and occasional obstacles-ladders, cables and wiring, all controlling the meticulously plotted world 34 feet below.
From up here, you can see everything: The leko light fixtures, almost at eye level, casting gobo projections onto the floor. The performers, adjusting their costumes before taking their spots. The security cameras, making another kind of show out of the show.
But this isn't the stagehand's perch at the Metropolitan Opera or a Broadway theater. It's not even the temporary world of the rigger on a rock mega-tour. It's the catwalk high above "the Revelry" -- the property's name for the casino floor -- at Revel, Atlantic City, N.J.'s newest resort, which took five years and $2.4 billion to build.
On this night, July 6, many of the people below are sporting various configurations of denim and neon, here to catch the first of two sold-out shows by Kanye West -- all the more exclusive because he isn't currently on tour. Some gaze at the go-go dancers, hip-shaking on platforms amid the slot machine banks to a piped-in soundtrack of pop and dance music (from Pitbull to Avicii's "Le7els"), gradually increasing in BPM and volume as night falls.
Revel boasts three entertainment spaces: Ovation Hall, a 150,000-square-foot multi-use venue, able to morph from meeting room to concert hall with a single button push (the latter tonight, for West); HQ, a four-floor nightclub; and the Social, a modern take on the casino lounge, featuring cover bands and more. But Patrick Berge, president of Sceno Plus, the Montreal-based architecture firm that designed and built the bulk of the resort, would argue that the whole world of Revel is a stage.
"It's a theater in a theater in a theater," Berge says, adding that Revel chairman/CEO Kevin DeSanctis "wanted to bring that feeling to the entire property."
While Sceno Plus has designed more than 200 theaters -- including the eye-popping water world of Cirque du Soleil's "O" at the Bellagio in Las Vegas -- Revel is its first casino. According to Berge, that's exactly why DeSanctis expanded the firm's scope beyond just Ovation, giving it the reins of the all-important, 130,000-square-foot gaming space.
"He wanted to do things differently," Berge says.
A bird's-eye view of gameplay, natural light from the world outside and acoustical dampening to lessen the sound of the slot machines are all considerable divergences from casino norms (hotels have been known to pipe in additional machine sounds throughout their halls, to draw patrons back to the slots). But by making gambling just one part in a much larger show, Revel is being more strategic than revolutionary.
In January, the Nevada Gaming Control Board announced that revenue from gamblers had hit an all-time low in the country's casino capital, Las Vegas: It made up 46% of total income, down from as much as 60% in the '90s. At 34%, spending on "food, beverages and other related offerings" -- i.e., entertainment-hit an all-time high.
It was the peak of a trend that the casino-hotel industry has long been tracking: Where in years past dinner and a show was window dressing to the main attraction -- hours spent at the tables -- now the show itself is the thing. And while more people are flooding the market -- the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported 38.9 million visitors in 2011, a 4% increase over 2010 -- they're turning up primarily for events unrelated to cards and dice, like concerts, DJ shows and high-profile "resident" attractions.
This forced refocusing of the casino business has yielded a powerful new platform for artists that transcends simple bookings: Whether they're well-known names with careers that span decades or newly minted superstar DJs, they're being invited to help develop the brand identities of the resorts themselves, in the process upping their own profiles in the world's No. 1 tourist market.
One such case study is Revel: With the goal of establishing Atlantic City as a world-class destination, it's placing a lot of its chips on entertainment, including nightlife and high-profile concerts.
"We want to attract people who see the same DJs in different markets: Paris, Ibiza, Las Vegas. We're not focusing on a New Jersey or New York sound," says Eugene Remm of New York-based EMM Group, which co-runs the nightlife venues at Revel (with Las Vegas-based Angel Management Group). "It's more of an international market-trendsetters."
The resort opened during Memorial Day weekend with four press-getting Beyonce shows, her first after giving birth to daughter Blue Ivy. They drew more than 146,000 visitors to the resort, including first lady Michelle Obama. Revel reportedly paid well into the six figures for a June 16 appearance by upstart Swedish DJ superstar Avicii. Along with West's gigs, Revel will cap the summer with another pair of one-offs from the Eagles during Labor Day weekend.
Those bookings themselves aren't a strategy -- they're more of a "short-term marketing play, a launch," says Concerts West/AEG Live president/co-CEO Jon Meglen, one of the architects of the modern live business in Las Vegas. "You will see new properties pay extremely high guarantees, just to make sure they have that great talent when they open. It's not a regular business practice, because they all believe that entertainment as its own revenue stream can be profitable."
"[Revel is] the very beginning of creating true destination resort casinos, as we have in Las Vegas," says Neil Moffitt, CEO of Angel Management Group, which co-runs the nightlife venues at Revel, as well as top spots in Las Vegas (including the Pure club at Caesars Palace and LAX at the Luxor). "[Vegas] translated from a primary gaming market to a primary food, beverage and entertainment market. Revel is trying to replicate that model in Atlantic City."
THE COSMOPOLITAN OF Las VEGAS is one of the newest additions to the Vegas skyline, and one of the first conceived and built after the gaming decline began. Opened in December 2010, the 2,995-room property features all the trappings of an experience-first resort -- not casino-hotel -- including interior design by David Rockwell; top-tier restaurants like Blue Ribbon Sushi, Scarpetta, and STK; 4,000-capacity ballroom the Chelsea and pool/multi-use venue the Blvd; and Marquee Nightclub and Dayclub, outposts of New York's famous West Side nightclub of the same name, run by Strategic Group.
"Entertainment is always a core part of the strategy," Cosmopolitan chief marketing officer Lisa Marchese says. "It's a great opportunity to attract a large volume to the property for a moment-in-time event. And with the right booking strategy, it enables us to make a statement about who we are. It's not as if we're agnostic about the type, caliber or genre of entertainment we bring to the property."
Working very closely with Austin-based independent concert promoter C3 Presents ("Our team is on the phone with them daily," Marchese says), Cosmopolitan has helped establish its brand identity through its booking choices. Marchese points to events like Florence & the Machine's New Year's Eve show, which opened the property in 2010; shows from bands like Mumford & Sons and Foster the People "right when they were breaking"; and an intimate 2011 New Year's Eve performance by Stevie Wonder that was streamed on video screens for revelers crowding Las Vegas Boulevard (closed to car traffic for the holiday each year). All these events align with Cosmopolitan's core tenet: "an independent spirit," Marchese says.
The idea of music-as-branding can be found throughout Sin City. In February, Motley Crue not only played two shows at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's Joint venue, the band took over a good part of the property, placing its logo on everything from poker-table felts to service signs for the guest rooms. Guns N' Roses recently signed on for a similar stint.
For the artists, it's more than just a sweet gig and an ego trip: It's a bigger payday. "It's a much higher net situation," Meglen says. "At the Joint, I have state-of-the-art sound, lights and video -- they don't need buses, trucks or crews, just technicians. I have hotel rooms, employee dining rooms where their teams can eat better than on the road, and food and beverage allotments to principals. It's all here."
Wynn Las Vegas launched one of its venues, XS, in 2010 with the help of Steve Aoki, who served as musical director as well as resident DJ, advising the venue on which artists to book in the then-brave new world of electronic dance music (EDM). And the resort recently announced a content partnership with Patrick Moxey's New York-based independent label Ultra Music, which includes a new imprint (Ultra Wynn), custom DJ-mixed compilations available exclusively on-site and branded for Wynn's four venues (XS, Encore, Surrender and Tryst) and the Wynn Nightlife Report, a produced video series featuring behind-the-scenes access and interviews with the Wynn DJ roster, shown on the hotel's closed-circuit TV network, as well as on Ultra's massive YouTube channel (which has more than 1.8 billion views).
"[Moxey] agrees that Wynn has become the epicenter of dance music culture in America," Wynn director of original programming Jonathan "Shecky" Shecter says. "He wants to take our brand and put it in front of a different segment of an audience we're reaching already, and expand both [Ultra's and Wynn's] footprints simultaneously."
Not everyone has the luxury of booking based on strategy rather than opportunity. Wynn and the Cosmopolitan's Marquee are in a constant bidding war for the world's finite crew of known DJs, trying to lock them into exclusive contracts. Kaskade was a Wynn resident in 2010 and a Marquee resident in 2012: Neither entity seemed to consider whether he was particularly "on-brand."
Make no mistake: Las Vegas still has its cabaret, illusion, burlesque and celebrity impersonator shows. But in the past 20 years, new elements have been added to the program. The '90s brought the spectacle of Cirque du Soleil to the Strip, which seemed to match its particular blend of titillation and grandeur: There are seven Cirque shows currently running in as many hotels, including the first, "Mystere," that opened at Treasure Island (since rebranded TI) in 1993.
In the 2000s, as gambling revenue began to decline, casino-hotels started to turn to name-brand acts to draw vacationers, wrapping their greatest hits in spectacularly staged productions, contracted for years at a time. Perhaps the best-known is Celine Dion's "A New Day..." at Caesars Palace, directed by Cirque du Soleil creator Franco Dragone. It opened in 2003 and grossed $390 million during its five-year run, according to Billboard Boxscore. Dion returned to Caesars in March 2011 with "Celine": It's grossed more than $43 million. Caesars also hosted Elton John's "Red Piano" (2004-09) and "The Million Dollar Piano" (which opened in 2011), Cher's "Cher at the Colosseum" (2008-11) and Bette Midler's "The Showgirl Must Go On" (2008-10).
Meglen, who helped build the Colosseum -- the structure itself (another Berge design) and its culture of high-profile residencies -- says that exclusivity is part of these mega-shows' appeal. "We ask the artists to create something unique here that they do not do anywhere else. It's baked into our agreements. The only way you can see 'Red Piano' is by coming to Las Vegas." What happens in Vegas really does stay there.
DJ residencies don't require 110-foot LED screens like the Colosseum's, but they do offer fans a similar "only in Vegas" experience. Wynn and Cosmopolitan's arms race for resident DJs (exclusive contracts can go well into seven figures) has resulted in more than 60 EDM artists making regular visits to Vegas, branding the city a destination for the genre's 21-plus fans and eclipsing the Spanish island of Ibiza as the world's top outpost for serious dancing. (Although its attendees are generally younger, Electric Daisy Carnival, Insomniac Events' one-off, three-day, 250,000-person party in the blistering desert heat of June, helps secure this position as well.) Artists like Afrojack and Steve Aoki have seen their stars rise to new heights, fired by the marketing might of the venues, the visibility of Vegas and the mystique of a real, live 24-hour party city.
There's only one Vegas, some might argue. One city in the country, arguably the world, that needs multiple programming options every minute of every day and has the bankroll of 41 casinos (however dwindling) to feed the beast. But according to Jason Strauss, co-founder of Strategic Group, which runs Marquee, Vegas' influence goes well beyond its borders.
"The rest of America takes its cues from the content happening here, whether it's Broadway plays or culinary trends. And it's just getting bigger," Strauss says. "Nightlife groups in L.A. never invested in high-quality lights and sound, or the type of marketing or DJ fees it takes to deliver a major EDM experience. Now that's the climate and landscape of nightlife in all of those markets.
"There are not many 22,000-square-foot roof decks like Marquee in Arizona: They wouldn't be able to quantify the ROI on something like that. But with the resort as a partner in Vegas, you can," he continues. "We can really be creative and not have budgetary restraints, in a way that most markets in America can't afford or justify. But the experience is so extreme that [operators] want to re-create it in their city, or something similar to it. That heightened experience in nightlife trickles into shows, hospitality and gaming."
While Revel insisted that both Kanye West shows were sold out, there were still empty rows in Ovation Hall when he finally emerged from the fog in a basket lift to the strains of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's "Dark Fantasy," nearly an hour after the scheduled show time. Perhaps the Revelry's charms had kept ticketholders locked in a lively craps game, or the Friday traffic on the Garden State Parkway had made them late.
Regardless, Revel's commitment to top-tier entertainment hasn't yet born visible fruit: A "90-day operating update" released July 10 by CEO DeSanctis highlighted a 33% increase in visitors and a 7% increase in total gaming revenue -- but the latter number placed Revel eighth out of 12 Atlantic City casinos, far behind market leader Borgata (also a Vegas-inspired resort, which opened in 2003). Casino revenue across Atlantic City declined every month of Revel's opening -- disappointing to a market that was hoping to be buoyed by such a sleek new destination.
But 100 or so days isn't enough to judge a president, or a resort. "It is clear our economic model is working, allowing us to generate high-margin non-gaming revenue and operate at a significantly lower cost versus the traditional gaming-dependent model," DeSanctis said in the release.
In Vegas, Cosmopolitan -- with more than a year on Revel -- is fairing better: It had a jump in net revenue in the first quarter, buoyed by year-over-year revenue increases in food and beverage (25%) and rooms (71%). But the resort stated it would "focus on boosting table game activity and lifting slot play" to change the course of its casino revenue, which dropped. Because even after all is said and done, one, it seems, can't go without the other.