Vegas Banks on Britney Spears Factor
Denise Truscello

“If you build it, they will come” has always been a fairly safe operating principle in Las Vegas, at least as far as the gambling, partying masses are concerned. Whether it’s a safe bet for attracting marquee name pop stars to desert residencies, however, is something that Caesars Entertainment Corp. is about to find out.

Last winter, the Caesars-owned Planet Hollywood opened a permanent residency space for Britney Spears, rebuilding the Axis Theater into a 4,600-seat venue that functions as a hybrid performance venue and nightclub, with state-of-the-art production facilities and a bottle service-style customer experience designed by nightlife entrepreneur Victor Drai. The initial results were immensely promising: The star sold out every night of her “Britney: Piece of Me” run, with dates scheduled all the way through spring 2015.

This represents a major turnaround for a theater that, per Spears’ manager Larry Rudolph, was something of a “white elephant … a 7,000-seat arena that was booked for maybe 10 shows a year” prior to Spears’ arrival. Yet Spears only performs three nights a week, with weeks-long breaks programmed into her schedule. So the question of how to exploit the $20 million theater — and in doing so, use Spears’ residency as a proof of concept to attract a new breed of acts — remains a pressing one.

Caesars has been here before. Eleven years ago, the casino constructed a dedicated performance space for Celine Dion, which served to inaugurate an era of boomer-friendly major musician residencies — from Elton John and Barry Manilow to Carlos Santana and Garth Brooks — that filled seats across the Strip and left oldies-act residencies like the Four Tops and the Temptations in the dust. Now, Vegas hopes to pull the same trick with a new generation.

“What we need to do, that we have not yet finalized, is to put other young residency artists in there around Britney’s schedule,” says Caesars Entertainment prexy and CEO Gary Loveman. “At Caesars, we have Shania Twain and Celine and Elton John and Rod Stewart, and they rotate through the calendar year, so if you’re in town for the fashion conference this year, you see Celine. If you came last year you saw Elton; the year before that, Rod. So every time you’re in town you have a new A-plus performer to see. We want to do the same thing at Planet Hollywood, but with a younger generation. You’ll see Britney, then have Katy Perry, Pitbull or whoever it is the next time you’re in town”

While Spears is the first top-drawer millennial pop artist to set up permanent shop in Clark County, her pull with a younger crowd seems the logical outgrowth of Las Vegas’ ongoing demo-
graphic shift.

The explosion of DJ culture that has seen clubs like XS, Light, Surrender and the new Hakkasan fighting for million-dollar turntable talents has testified to the importance of attracting twenty- and thirty-somethings, who previously had little in the way of entertainment that was geared specifically to them.

“Britney and Vegas would not have happened if Vegas hadn’t been changing at the same time,” says Caesars executive VP and chief marketing officer Tariq Shaukat. “It’s a younger place now, a more nightlife-oriented place, it’s becoming much more of an entertainment and culinary destination than a gambling destination, and we have to evolve with that.”

Both Shaukat and Rudolph insist that the interest from artists of Spears’ age and stature is strong, though nailing down long-term commitments from non-heritage acts (who have more recording dates, tours, video shoots and TV performances to negotiate) remains a challenge.

Yet the success of Spears’ residency (and her reported $15 million compensation) certainly makes a strong case, and from the casinos’ perspective, the knock-on benefits are proven.

“The only issue we had to consider at the beginning was whether (Spears fans) would spend any money other than at the show,” Loveman recalls. “We can run a natural test almost any night between a Britney night and a non-Britney night, and we can adjust for day of the week and other events that are happening in town, and I can tell you that Planet Hollywood makes substantially more money when Britney is there than when she isn’t. And in the casino business, that’s a tremendous intangible to have the place feel that active and kinetic.”

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