Competish from Indian casinos raises Vegas' game

With Indian casinos scattered around every corner of the country diluting the lure of Las Vegas for gambling alone, Sin City has now completely overhauled its image as a place for seedy lounge acts and older-skewing headliners by hosting multimillion-dollar shows that generate almost $2 billion annually.

“You can make money on entertainment in Las Vegas,” says promoter John Meglen, AEG Live Concerts West, the force behind Celine Dion’s hit run at Caesars Palace. “I think the strength of the market continues in Las Vegas, and that is a very promising thing to all of us.”

Of 37 million visitors last year, almost half enjoyed at least one live show, spending an average of $96.97 on tickets. In fact, in 1999, nongaming revenue (including hotel stays, food and entertainment) surpassed gaming revenue for the first time in the history of the Strip.

In 2003, that same trend spread off the Strip to all the casinos of Clark County, Nev., making peripheral entertainment stronger than gaming everywhere in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

The city’s tourism slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” also refers to its top entertainment acts. Dion is raking in $1.8 million-$2.8 million a week with four to five shows in her custom-designed venue — the $95 million, 4,100-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

When Dion is on vacation, her heavyweight house-sitters are doing just as well. Elton John has been averaging about $720,000 per show in 18 sellouts at the venue this year, and has signed on to fill in during Dion’s breaks through 2007. Jerry Seinfeld grossed $1.2 million in three sold-out shows June 10-11, and $858,320 in two sold-out shows Aug. 12 and 13.

Although a surge in trendy nightclubs at Vegas casinos has increased visits from twenty-somethings, the mean age still skews into the late 40s and early 50s, making adult contemporary acts and baby boomer artists a good draw.

Indeed, a March 19 Bob Dylan concert at the Aladdin sold 4,431 tickets (priced $55- $125 each) for $312,785. Planet Hollywood now owns the Aladdin and will revamp its big room with help of Clear Channel Entertainment. It will add a smaller space by 2006.

The MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay sport venues with 16,500 seats and 12,000 seats, respectively, attracting well-attended exhibition sports games and the hottest touring acts on the road.

“They can usually garner higher ticket prices and tap into a huge marketing machine you couldn’t have anywhere else,” says Mark Prows, veep of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Eagles will play MGM on Oct. 15, with tickets priced up to $367.50. U2 will play Nov. 4 and 5, with tickets topping out at $183.75. Paul McCartney comes to town Nov. 26 and 27 with an asking price of up to $262.50.

Acts do about 50% better on the Strip than off, says Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson. “Any given weekend there are 130,000 rooms filled with people looking for something to do.”

Multiple dates

“Chicago or the Doobie Brothers can play this market two or three times vs. one time in another market. When it’s the Rolling Stones, it’s the highest ticket prices,” continues Christenson. “Paul McCartney is going to do two shows with the highest ticket prices of anywhere in the country. Jimmy Buffett sells out twice a year here every year.”

Yesterday’s Vegas darlings still have a revered spot in the MGM’s 740-seat Hollywood Theater, where the likes of Tom Jones ($70) and David Copperfield ($97) play one- to two-week stands. They also find a haven in the showroom at the Orleans Hotel & Casino off the Strip, where, for example, Engelbert Humperdinck tickets sells for upwards of $88.

“We’re proud we’ve kept a lot of that headliner entertainment alive. There’s really the kind of artist playing here you can’t see anymore,” says Orleans Arena veep-G.M. Steve Stallworth of the Orleans and sister casino Suncoast.

The Orleans Arena, a popular locals haunt, became the fourth full-sized arena in town when it opened in 2003.

The desert climate also seems to suit clowns. MGM/Mirage has an ongoing relationship with Cirque du Soleil that has spawned four successful residencies — “Mystere” at Treasure Island, “O” at the Bellagio, “Zumanity” at New York New York and “Ka” at MGM. A fifth show, in partnership with the Beatles’ Apple Corps., is slated to open at the Mirage in 2006.

Eye-popping

The pageantry and versatility of Cirque makes it a big winner in the tradition of Las Vegas, says Prows. “You’re looking at a company that’s poised creatively and has the financial wherewithal — perfect place and perfect time.”

Broadway performers have increasingly hopped on planes from New York for the chance to stay put in multimillion-dollar, custom-built facilities with high sellout rates, rather than tour their shows around the country.

The latest tuner to make the transition is “Phantom of the Opera,” backed by live entertainment giant Clear Channel, which is gambling that its $35 million, 90-minute version at the Venetian will grab auds.

“The Vegas market is looking to be challenged and looking to embrace a more interesting piece of entertainment,” says Scott Zeiger, chair-CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment Prods. “Las Vegas has now emerged as a market that is willing and ready and able to embrace this style of entertainment on a routine basis.”

Other Broadway shows that have made or are soon making the move to the desert are the Tony-winning puppet show “Avenue Q” and King Arthur spoof “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Wynn Las Vegas, and “Hairspray” at the Luxor. Each has a significant investment by Clear Channel.

“We have a lot riding on the success of Las Vegas,” Zeiger says.

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