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December 22, 2014

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Note to Vegas: Stop playing it safe

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Tomasz Rossa

Le Reve at the Wynn.

If there is one thing that can help save Las Vegas and return to the Strip an aura of magic, it is entertainment. I don’t mean just any entertainment: Vegas needs cheap entertainment—but cheap entertainment that is also essential.

Instead, for years now our entertainment has increasingly become predictable, overpriced and endlessly replicated. The result: Entertainment has fallen to dining, nightclubs and shopping in the Entertainment Capital of the World. And yet, giving that title a new legitimacy would be an inexpensive way to help draw people back. All it requires is creativity.

Until Cirque arrived, entertainment in Vegas always implied cheap. But our bandwagon mentality meant that what worked for Cirque became a model very quickly. Through four-walling, some casinos became landlords to their entertainers. Shows then were required to set prices that allowed them to market and make the rent. Entertainment in Vegas stopped being a loss-leader; it also stopped being at all original. Shows and headliners are expected to earn money. Entertainment, like Beyoncé’s shows at Wynn, has become one more thing tourists can buy in Vegas only if they can afford the price.

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Carlos Santana performs during his show Supernatural Santana at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel, Nov. 11, 2009.

Another impact of the need to turn a profit is that producers can no longer afford to take risks. So Las Vegas has few truly unique offerings. The Hard Rock’s regionally exclusive contract with Santana is typical of this new reality.

Imagine that you live in Los Angeles; each weekend you check the entertainment listing for LA and Vegas to determine if it is worth a trip to Sin City. Does Vegas have anything that requires that trip, especially at tourist pricing? From Donny & Marie to Cirque, Vegas has lots of national brands; audiences therefore get a sure thing for their ticket price. That is only fair, as two tickets for even cheap seats, say, $60, the cost after taxes at many shows, is an experience more expensive than a nice Strip hotel room.

So among the unintended consequence of rising ticket prices is that there are no mysteries left in our entertainment; audiences buy a Jersey Boys, Phantom of the Opera or Lion King ticket knowing what they are getting for their dollar as surely as with Barry Manilow. Vegas now mostly puts out entertainment the rest of the world knows well. And the predictable result is that seeing a show or headliner stopped being part of the quintessential Vegas vacation experience; these days, tourists identify Vegas more as the place to see celebrities host at a nightclub.

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Showgirl Svetlana Failla secures her headdress before going onstage for the opening number of Folies Bergere.

The resorts’ failure to be creative about entertainment has been so complete that it is still wide open what an original Vegas show could be in the new century. Yet, in the download age, live entertainment has never been more special as a potential draw. Rather as the tired old shows like Folies Bergere close, no indigenous Vegas-style entertainment has developed to replace them.

Here are the components of Vegas entertainment: Cirque (or, as in the case of Le Reve, Cirque-like), well-established headliners (from Penn & Teller to Cher), topless shows with celebrities for the marquee (Peepshow, Fantasy and sometimes Crazy Horse and Crazy Girls), old-school entertainment plucked from television show contestants (Terry Fator to Springer’s smorgasbord at Planet Hollywood) and, of course, Broadway musicals.

Many of these are good shows. The key is that none are going to bring people to Vegas in droves. Yet, compared to building a new nightclub or tower, entertainment is cheap to produce, draws media and tourists and every casino already has a showroom. This is where risk can pay off at little cost. But Vegas has offered no experiments in entertainment. As an entertainment destination, Vegas offers variations on themes.

No matter how great the shopping, dining and nightclubs are here, they can never be unique in a way that brings people to Vegas. Nor can their costs be reduced enough for truly risky experiments. Salvation for Vegas does not lie in old-school shows but in old-school business sense: loss-leading entertainment that is unique enough to draw people to Vegas.

Once they’re here, the casinos can make money on tourists in ways old (gambling) and new (fine dining to spas). But only a Vegas stage can be someplace that is like nowhere else. Entertainment can once again make Vegas someplace you must go back to yourself and send your friends to experience. As we near the end of the year, now is a perfect time for resorts to begin asking, again, what is a Vegas show in 2010 that will bring the people to our Strip? My suggestion for the new Vegas motto: Entertain them and they will come

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