Las Vegas gets back to showbiz basics

Shows partner with hotels to lure recession-hit auds

Just a couple of years ago, top-end Strip resorts in Las Vegas, like the Wynn Hotel and the Bellagio, were commanding room rates of $300 or more, especially on weekends. But as any Vegas lover with an e-mail address now knows, those rates have come down.

Way down. On many nights this summer, gorgeous five-star rooms could be had for $119 or so. With free resort credits to boot.

With their sophisticated pricing maps and yield management strategies, the big properties can keep themselves full. But are people paying $99 a night ready to drop more than their room rate on a show? Entertainment producers in Vegas are surely having to adjust to a new economic landscape.

Instead of 35 million tourists per year visiting Vegas, there are now 31 million. That’s a 12% drop in the pool of potential customers. And they mostly have less money to spend when they arrive.

“A lot of things have changed in Las Vegas,” says Scott Zeiger, co-chief executive officer of Base Entertainment, the producer of such top-tier Vegas shows as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Peepshow,” Wayne Brady and the Vegas stand of “Jersey Boys.” “Whether you’re an independent producer or a global entity, the key to success now is being nimble and opportunistic and having a true partnership with your host casino.”

Before the recent economic malaise, many of the big Vegas shows from Base or Cirque were sold out weeks or months in advance. That’s no longer the case. With the exception of high-peak dates, you can get tickets after you arrive in Vegas to almost every show in town — even such hits as “O” or Disney’s “The Lion King.” Marketing now must appeal to the last-minute buyer. And it’s also resulted in an increased role for the new half-price ticket operations that have sprung up on the Las Vegas Strip.

Longtime Vegas observers say they’re seeing every show on the half-price roster, at least some of the time. Yep, even Cher.

“We’ve done what we had to in order to get people inside the theater,” says Jerry Nadal, the Cirque du Soleil’s senior veep for resident shows. “You just have to be flexible and go with the nature of the times.”

Packages are the new name of the game. In the past, shows were mostly sold separately from rooms in their host hotels. Now you can buy a room and get a show (or buy a show and get a room).

“We’ve worked hand in hand with hotels and restaurants to put those things together,” says Nadal.

Zeiger says that the Vegas show-in-hotel setup helps. This month, for example, the Venetian and Base are co-sponsoring a special week for die-hard “Phantom” fans that involves everything from symposia to backstage tours to special communal meals. “It helps to have a show located inside a world-class resort,” Zeiger says, “where all of that can be under one roof. That would be impossible to do in New York.”

A few Vegas shows have closed, but they’ve mostly been older or second-tier attractions like the long-running “Follies Bergere” at the Tropicana Hotel, which bit the dust in the spring. The large theater inside the Paris Hotel (once the home of “We Will Rock You”) remains dark. And plans for the new venue inside Steve Wynn’s Encore Hotel have yet to be officially announced, following the death of Danny Gans, who was contracted to headline that new room.

Still, while some producers are likely to wait out the current tricky time, there’s still plenty of new Strip product. Cirque’s “Criss Angel Believe” and Base’s erotically charged “Peepshow” (a surprisingly fetishistic, adult-style vaudeville, directed by Broadway’s Jerry Mitchell) both came on line in 2009. “Jersey Boys” does decent Vegas business. And when Disney — which long had avoided Vegas — opened its new production of “The Lion King” at the Mandalay Bay in May, it showed up with what Disney says is the largest such cast in the world, along with a heftier-than-usual orchestra. Producers know that in the world capital of excess, you can’t cut your way out of a recession.

“Las Vegas,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, “is a hugely important international tourist destination.”

That’s undeniably true. Thirty-one million visitors a year may be less than 35 million but it’s still the kind of peerless number that makes entertainment producers salivate.

For 2010, producers are hoping for a little less Vegas bashing from the White House and an upturn in the economy. That, and a hit show, with Cirque’s new Elvis extravaganza at MGM Mirage’s CityCenter a leading candidate.

“If a big show opens and it’s fantastic,” Zeiger says, “it means people have more confidence in buying tickets to other shows.” And ever since it bloomed in the desert, Vegas has always relied on punters with confidence.