We have seen a shift in the Las Vegas “marketing” approach over the years. In fact those of us who have been around a while or were born and raised here have seen many shifts.
In the early days, Las Vegas was about gambling. Then we added amenities like hotels and restaurants, but the marketing angle was to give away those amenities to entice gamblers. Entertainment became part of the equation in a big way in the 60s and 70s, with headliners flocking to beautiful showrooms. Then we started to attract businesses by building convention centers.
In 1989 Mirage ushered in the “build it and they will come” era of large-scale resort development, resorts that had even more modern and more expensive amenities than we used to have. The all-you-can-eat buffet didn’t go away, but the fine dining explosion began in the 1990s and has never stopped. Spas became more opulent and attractive. Extravagant features like volcanoes, fountains, dolphin habitats, observation wheels, etc. provided marketable moments even before social media.
Popular media says we experimented with a family-friendly approach with the theme park at MGM Grand, Treasure Island, etc. The reality is that as a tourist destination we had to (and still do) at least offer something for almost every demographic (yes, there are strip clubs in Orlando). So while the story is convenient, it ignores things like Circus Circus which had been around for decades by this time. It ignores the fact that attractions like the thrill rides at the Stratosphere, or the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, still attract thousands of visitors a week. Maybe we are all just big kids at heart.
The popular story that we then “gave up” on the families coincides with possibly the greatest pure marketing campaign ever – “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Of course, during the recession president Obama didn’t like that so much.
The common thread is a willingness to reinvent ourselves. Someone from the east coast asked me recently how Las Vegas had “survived” while Atlantic City had “died” (neither totally true). I said it was this exact willingness to try new things, discard the past (even though some think se do it too willingly) and take chances. We looked ahead for trends, we aimed high. Instead of wanting to be the best gaming destination we aimed to be a competitive tourist destination; instead of wanting to copy others in hospitality, we looked to out-do them.
Throughout these changes, entertainment has played a big part, and has also changed significantly. I mentioned the headliner showroom, and we also “perfected” the production show and have to be the undisputed, undefeated champion of showgirls. Speaking of undisputed, we are the boing capital of the world and have been since the 1980s. When some guys from Canada had a crazy idea for a new circus, they ultimately found a permanent home here. When some other guys who liked to fight had a crazy idea for a new sport, they found a permanent home here. When musicians realized they could play multiple nights in one place instead of touring…well, you guessed it.
So what is next? I will leave larger tourism trends to others. But in entertainment, I think some recent trends are going to be relevant and frame changes in entertainment in Las Vegas for the foreseeable future:
- Bigger. Bigger gatherings of people for events, with bigger events built around these gatherings. So music festivals are the obvious, but note how the festival landscape is changing to include so much more – “lifestyle” activities, food and wine, fashion, etc. Big gatherings also fit the millennial demographic, they love to gather with like-minded people, share experiences, share stories, engage with new friends.
- Smaller. As only millennials can do, they confuse us by also liking the exact opposite thing. Smaller gatherings denote intimacy, exclusivity, delightful surprises. We use the term “selfie moment” and the key word is moment; life is being captured in moments and then shared socially and digitally. So niche events and affinity events become more important, even though Comic-Con is a huge event, its purpose is to satisfy one narrow group and give them moments they won’t forget. Even the variety of activities in a lifestyle event like UFC Fight Week are meant to delight customers with exactly what they are looking for. And in the more traditional area of live entertainment like music, again the trends to large-crowd events like festivals is juxtaposed with seeing a legendary act perform a unique-production show in a small venue.
So residencies will continue to be a big driver of volume in Las Vegas on the lower capacity side. Festivals will likely continue to grow and fill the bigger capacity side.
For the middle (think our various arenas from Orleans to T-Mobile with capacities ranging from 8,000 to 18,000), “lifestyle” events will be important – which ones is harder to tell but one that is gaining a lot of early traction nationally and globally is e-sports. Video gamers gather in person for championship events, those events are streamed live to millions worldwide, and those events are accompanied by unique experiences in the days around the competition, like pro clinics, exclusive game releases, and merchandise available only at that location. For Las Vegas, this could be an important portfolio of events to offset potential declines in the number of boxing matches or touring shows, with the added bonus of using convention space for the other aspects of the experience.
Finally, I believe Las Vegas can and will be an important home to college athletics in a variety of forms, most notably NCAA championships if their bylaws are changed to allow such events in Nevada (currently prohibited due to Nevada having legalized sports betting). Those rules could change as early as this spring.
I believe that tourism and our efforts to get more visitors to Las Vegas will be driven in large part by entertainment, given the lack of new hotel supply coming online. If that is true, look for big and small events, look for lifestyle events and (fingers crossed) more college athletics.