Universal Studios upgrades open-air complex

On a recent Saturday night at Universal Studios’ CityWalk Hollywood, the people milling about were looking a lot less touristy.

Since July, hundreds of Los Angeles-area locals have gathered in the complex’s main open-air courtyard on weekends to listen to the latest band performing at the 5 Towers concert venue, a permanent outdoor music stage that opened with Cee-Lo Green.

But CityWalk’s managers are hoping that many more start venturing out to the entertainment complex, comprising shops, restaurants and theaters, just outside the front gates of Universal Studios, as new additions target consumers not necessarily interested in buying a theme park ticket.

Last month, CityWalk opened the doors to the Infusion Lounge, a flashy new nightclub that would seem at home in Hollywood with its $400 bottle service, plush interior and low-lit dance floors.

The club is the first spinoff of the San Francisco hotspot of the same name, whose owners C-Two Group are eventually looking to also set up near Los Angeles Intl. Airport and in Las Vegas.

When CityWalk wanted to replace its aging Rhumba Room nightclub, it began courting C-Two’s Chris Rosas to fill the two-story, 9,000 square foot space.

“It was the perfect opportunity for us,” says Rose Gonzalez, director of CityWalk marketing and Latino strategy. “The owner wanted to be in L.A., and we had the space and needed a new nightclub.”

The result is a club that feels upscale, says Gonzalez, but it’s also helps “raise the profile of CityWalk.”

With Infusion’s first location earning $6 million a year and L.A.-area clubs at venues like Hollywood & Highland taking in as much as $10 million a year from locals and out of towners, Infusion could significantly boost attendance not just for CityWalk but also bring in business for other retailers there.

The timing of Infusion’s opening comes as CityWalk has been rolling out a gradual overhaul over the years that began with the opening of the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club in 2009, leading to an upgrade of the 19-screen AMC Theaters, which includes an Imax screen and the building of the 5 Towers (replacing a temporary stage that had been used for years). The venue also has added acts from some 15 street performers each weekend.

Since Universal ponied up $1 billion to expand the original CityWalk street in 2000 (the first addition to CityWalk since it opened in 1993), the complex has proved a major moneymaker for the company, but mainly as a top draw for tourists visiting the theme park.

Its collection of retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch, Hot Topic and Billabong can easily be found in any mall, and tables at eateries like Hard Rock Cafe and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. aren’t often occupied by locals.

However, the AMC movie theater, Gibson Amphitheatre and bars and restaurants like Saddle Ranch and Jillian’s bowling alley are still bringing in twentysomethings who live within a 20-mile radius of Universal City.

“After the park visitors leave at around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., the locals come out to play,” Gonzalez says.

To make sure they keep coming back, Universal greenlit plans to reinvigorate CityWalk with locals in mind, recruiting high-profile venues and adding new dining options like L.A. favorites Johnny Rockets and Yogurtland, as well as newer retail outlets like clothing store ANGL and candy seller It’Sugar.

“It’s important to have a mixture,” Gonzalez says. “We’re not trying to downscale or upscale. We’re looking for new and innovative ways to entertain people coming to CityWalk.”

The company sees the move as part of an overall strategy to get guests to stay on the property longer.

“CityWalk is a natural way of getting into the park, but even if people can’t shop on their way in, we want them to shop, dine and go to the movie theater before they go home,” Gonzalez says. “Our property allows for that. We cater to those two different audiences.”

Since launching, 5 Towers has played to packed crowds, with Spanish-language act Reik attracting the biggest audience to date.

While Universal has obvious relationships with Universal Music Group and radio stations, CityWalk is now being approached by other labels to get their performers on stage as 5 Towers preps a fall and holiday music showcase and programs for next year. The venue also hosts daytime events.

Upgrades have helped attract TV shows like NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and an episode of “The Glee Project,” and musicvideo shoots. Comedians — Adam Carolla, Eddie Griffin, David Spade — are taking the stage at Lovitz’s comedy club.

“For the first time in many years, people are coming to us,” Gonzalez says. “People are saying I forgot about CityWalk.”

Gonzalez doesn’t want that to happen again, and anecdotally, she’s already seeing the recent changes helping to boost biz.

“We’ve certainly seen the foot traffic,” she says. “The energy is different. The consumers we’re getting are more diverse, and mirror the audience we have in the L.A. market.”

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