When Light opened at Bellagio in December 2001, it pointed the way to the next wave of nightclub development in Las Vegas. It was the first casino nightclub designed around the then-novel concept of bottle service, and as the club’s success became apparent, it inspired more than its share of imitators.
By the time the club closed in 2007, it had been surpassed by several bigger venues: Pure (2004), Tao (2005) and Tryst (2005). Since then, Wynn Las Vegas has tripled-down, following Tryst with XS (2008) and Surrender (2010). And there are more megaclubs on the way: Hakkasan—the recently opened $100 million, 75,000-square-foot London-via-San Francisco import at the MGM Grand—is expected to become the next big thing, which will probably lead to an even bigger club opening sometime next year.
The nightclub arms race will always be about what’s next, which makes it somehow endearing that the biggest non-Hakkasan nightclub news of the moment is the rebirth of the club that started the race in the first place. The namesake of the Las Vegas-based Light Group will soon return to the Strip at Mandalay Bay, where it is taking over the space that used to be Rumjungle.
The fate of the previous tenant speaks volumes about how fickle nightlife can be. At one point, Rumjungle was one of the top 20 highest-grossing venues in the country. In 2006, it pulled in more than $16 million in gross revenues. But changing public tastes, new competition (including from MGM-owned outlets in Mandalay Bay) led to a quick dropoff—in 2009, Rumjungle’s last full year of operation, it earned $6.6 million—a nearly $10 million decline in just three years.
But, in the mid-2000s, $16 million was no longer enough. When Rumjungle was at its peak, Tao at the Venetian dwarfed its numbers, bringing in more than $55 million. The first clubs had proven that there was money to be made in the nightlife business. And in the time-honored logic of Las Vegas, if “X” is good, the obvious next step is to multiply it by 10. So along came the megaclubs: bigger, louder and more profitable. By applying economies of scale to a proven model, they made nightlife more than an amenity—it became a lifeline for casinos facing the recession.
In 2012, seven out of the top 10 nightclubs in the country were in Las Vegas. The leader was XS at Encore, which grossed more than $80 million—that’s more than $1.5 million per weekend. Even a smaller venue, like the Ghostbar at the Palms or The Bank (which replaced Light at Bellagio) can pull in $20 million in the course of a year.
With all that success, it’s no wonder today’s nightclub scene is crowded. Meanwhile, clubs are working themselves more deeply into the weft of resort fabric, with dayclubs and vibe dining carrying them into new areas. At the turn of the millennium, nightlife started going Vegas. Now Vegas has gone nightlife.
So the Light that opens on Memorial Day Weekend will do so in a very different Las Vegas from the original, and it’s going to be a markedly different venue. For one, Light will be joined by Daylight, and it’s going to be part of a bigger interest that Light Group has in Mandalay Bay including Red Square, Citizens Kitchen & Bar and Kumi (opening summer 2013)—all within steps of Light.
And there’s more. This time, Light isn’t just a nightclub; it’s a nightclub with a twist. That twist is Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based performance troupe that has become as inextricable a part of the Vegas tourist experience as all-you-can-eat buffets and Elvis impersonators. Think Cirque performers on poles. Think Cirque performers bouncing off a two-story “acrowall” behind the DJ booth. Think Cirque performers literally flying through the air on tethers. This, Light’s builders promise, will make the club one-of-a-kind, and the most revolutionary thing to hit Las Vegas since … the last revolutionary thing.
The Cirque twist speaks to the evolution of Las Vegas nightlife, which parallels the changes that began taking place on the gaming floor 20 years ago. It once was enough for a casino to simply be a gambling hall, with plenty of games and free drinks. Then competition heated up and casinos started playing dress-up, pretending to be medieval castles, pirate islands and even refined Italianate lakesides. Gambling ceased to be a compelling gimmick, and the answer was to pile gimmicks on top of gimmicks. It worked for a few years, but in 2005 Wynn Las Vegas firmly rejected a theme in favor of a more nuanced ambience of customer service and delicious design surprises, and designers across the Strip throttled back on theming.
Looking at Light, it seems that Vegas nightlife is now where casinos were around 1993. There was a time when clubs just needed booze and beats. Now, they need something else to stand out. Enter the nightlife gimmick.
And if Cirque-meets-clublife is successful, that might make Light the first Vegas nightclub, version 3.0.
As usual in Las Vegas, the hype machine is pushing the redline with Light. The group has invested a great deal in the Mandalay makeover, and expectations are high. The designers were asked to deliver something that was both entirely different from the once-successful, now-passe Rumjungle, and sufficiently wild to impress an increasingly jaded target audience.
It delivers without dispute on the first count. Unlike Rumjungle, which was partially open to public view, Light presents a blank face to those who aren’t inside: Most of the frontage is taken up by bamboo facade with more than a passing resemblance to a stylized sun’s rays, two sets of nondescript black doors and the Light marquee.
Walking by, you might hear the muffled sounds of a great time inside, but make no mistake about it: This is a private party.
After passing a hostess stand/VIP check-in, guests will ascend a red-and-black carpeted staircase; at the top, they’ll come out onto the mezzanine level. To the left is the main bar; to the right, the massive open space that contains three tiers of tables and, oh yeah, the dance floor. Flush against the floor is the DJ booth, with a massive LED display above it; you’ve also got a catwalk and the acrowall back there for the Cirque acrobats.
The new Light is deeper than the old Rumjungle space, since there’s no restaurant (the club is bucking the vibe-dining trend, with hungry clubbers presumably directed to Red Square or Citizens). It’s taller too, with the drop ceiling ripped out and several tiers of tables and the mezzanine level in the newly acquired airspace.
That means more tables, which means more bottle service, which means more money. As it will be configured on opening night, the new Light will have nearly 100 tables. The original Light, by comparison, had 33 tables at its biggest build-out.
Even with the club empty, one thing is certain: This isn’t just a place to have a good time; it’s a place to be seen having a good time. Those moneymaking tables are stacked in levels, stadium-like, around the dance floor, which becomes—along with the DJ booth, the LED wall and every square foot between floor and ceiling—a performance space.
That’s where the twist comes in. With Cirque artists flipping and slipping through the air, there’s going to be plenty of visual energy. Each DJ, according to a Light spokesperson, will meet with Cirque and get a customized show. What’s being packaged here isn’t just a night out, but an evening of immersion in the crafted spectacle of a night out. The club itself is a performance of “nightlife.” The real challenge is how the space will flow when it’s filled with clubgoers, waitresses, bouncers and acrobats. With what’s touted as the loudest sound system on the Strip, it will be intense, to say the least. But will the room stand up to the rigors of the modern night-lifestyle?
Josh Held, the designer behind the new Light, has planned for that. “I always tell my team to design as if we are designing the interior of a zoo full of wild animals,” he says. “Any type of abuse you can imagine will happen, and the design has to look fantastic regardless. Special linings were used in the upholstery to prevent punctures. Floor and wall materials are of a different grade than one would usually specify. Every surface that can be stood on or jumped on will be, so we over-design those surfaces to withstand the abuse.”
With a practiced design and an ambitious goal—to remake the Vegas club experience—will Light do its forebear proud? All signs point to yes, but you never know for sure in Vegas. When he opened Circus Circus back in 1968, Jay Sarno was sure that the acrobats spinning over the heads of the craps tables would enhance the experience for gamblers. Turns out, most players weren’t as absorbed by the game as he was, and the idea flopped.
Light is banking that Cirque fantasy will heighten the otherworldly party vibe for which people come to Las Vegas. If it is successful, there will be imitators, who will scale up the formula even more. If not, there will be no shortage of people explaining, in hindsight, why this couldn’t have worked.