Born to a family of physicians who valued education, Rehan Choudhry had a sensible life plan when he was 23. It included graduate school and a 30-year climb through middle management in Homeland and Transportation Security. And then one day he was at the gym doing dips, and he felt a sharp pain in his neck. Choudhry consulted Drs. Mom, Dad and Sis, and they all agreed that he had simply pulled a muscle. But the pain didn’t stop.
Instead, over the course of two weeks, it spread along his chest, through his shoulders and upper back, down both arms and into his jaw. He collapsed at home, and his mom drove him to the nearest emergency room in his hometown of Great Falls, Virginia, where the young man, who was in the best shape of his life, had a massive heart attack.
They helicoptered him to a better-equipped hospital, where the doctors discovered that one of his arteries had dissected. The docs performed emergency double-bypass surgery. Choudhry recovered, and six weeks later, he went back to work.
That’s when his fingers went numb and he started seeing black spots. Back to the emergency room, where after being reassured that the symptoms were mere aftershocks from the heart attack, Choudhry learned that he was actually about to have a stroke.
The emergency room/pre-stroke/treatment cycle went on at least twice a year for four years, passing him through Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and finally Vanderbilt University, where Choudhry happened to be pursuing an MBA in marketing. The doctors at Vanderbilt finally divined that Choudhry suffered from a rare blood-clotting disorder. Now that the source of the illness was identified, Choudhry received the proper treatment. He has been healthy since 2007, ran a marathon in 2009 and even drinks a lot of coffee and Red Bull.
His health returned to normal, but his life never did.
August marks the 10-year anniversary of Choudhry’s heart attack. At 33, his life is nowhere near the safe one he had once imagined.
It is infinitely better.
Today, Choudhry is the founder of the Life Is Beautiful festival, a two-day music, food, art and learning extravaganza that will take place on 15 blocks in Downtown’s Fremont East district (see sidebar). The fest debuts on October 26, and between now and then, it’s all systems go.
“One hundred percent of my time is focused on this festival, because this is the single most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Choudhry says. “The only way it’s going to work is if I give it everything I have—all my time, all my energy, everything that’s in my head, my ability to coach people and train people and inspire people and market this thing. I’ve just got to put it all out there, and it’s going to be a massive success or a spectacular failure, but either way, it’s not going to be for a lack of my putting everything in it.”
So, yes, this is a big deal for both Downtown and all of Las Vegas, existing in the same ecosystem as the failed Vegoose (R.I.P. 2007) at Sam Boyd Stadium and the new, wildly successful Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But why was Choudhry the right person for such a big job? And how’d he get from Homeland Security to music-festival maestro? And what’s he going to do with this job now that he has it?
As one might imagine, the appeal of a 30-year plan shifts when the possibility of not living long enough to appreciate its conclusion is introduced.
“That experience shook up the speed in which I needed to operate,” Choudhry says. “Having the heart attack, I immediately started thinking how to skip multiple years of those steps. … What I’ve found is if you don’t—and this is largely the influence on Life Is Beautiful—believe that life is beautiful and full of hope and full of opportunity, and actually take advantage of that, then the world is not going to hand you your dreams. It’s going to hand you the opportunity to achieve them. That’s what I want people to understand with the festival: It’s not just about a bunch of bands getting together and having this weekend—it’s meant to be inspirational in nature.”
In 2005, in the middle of his illness, Choudhry quit his job as a systems designer for Homeland Security to make a career 180. He left a highly technical field to pursue that MBA in marketing. The last time Choudhry was hospitalized was two months before graduating; he studied for exams in his hospital bed. With a new lease on life, Choudhry knew that he wanted to work in entertainment and that he wanted to take control of his own work environment.
The first step was a move to Atlantic City in 2007, where Choudhry worked for Caesars Entertainment. His first attempts at a festival, Food Network’s Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival in 2009, didn’t happen quite as planned:
“I booked all the celebrity chefs I needed to book,” he recalls. “I paid for them. I booked all the sponsors I needed to. I priced tickets appropriately. I had the right mix of events. I had everything you needed to put a phenomenal website up and a phenomenal print ad out. I launched it and people freaked out in a good way. People were buying tickets like crazy. People were excited about it. It was something new and different. And it got to the festival, and it all fell apart. The entire thing collapsed on me.” The crucial links between ideas and audiences somehow short-circuited. “People weren’t connecting with the experiences,” Choudhry says. “Events that were attended by people in their 60s were billed as ‘nightlife’ events. There were tastings where the sample portions weren’t correct. We had low-end seafood in a seafood community, and we had high-end French cuisine for a mostly meat-and-potatoes market. It was a massive disconnect between what I believed needed to be produced to be successful and what was going to actually make it successful. I found it wasn’t the reviews at the onset, it wasn’t the ticket sales that makes it successful; it was how much the community embraces it and how much the market that you’re operating in sees it as a point of pride. That’s what dictates long-term success and long-term impact.”
Among many other lessons, Choudhry learned that he wasn’t ready to run a festival. He continued working in marketing development for Caesars in Atlantic City. “I spent a lot of time learning what the landscape was like, what the history was like, what was unique to that city. I just started from there, and it changed what my festival looked like.”
Booking the Book & Stage
Choudhry took that hard-earned wisdom with him to his new job as the Cosmopolitan’s first entertainment director for the resort’s 2010 opening. When he arrived in Las Vegas, he scoured the local scene, looking for any cultural gaps in the “Entertainment Capital of the World.” He says that finding and filling a niche for the Cosmo would provoke “the larger, stronger, emotional and social response than you would [get] just by replicating something that already exists.”
One of the few things the Vegas scene didn’t offer, Choudhry realized, was breakout music acts. These are the unknowns who will be famous by the time they are on their next tour, bands that elevate your cool factor just by being able to say you heard them back when. Choudhry had such acts perform for no admission charge in Book & Stage, a small sports book/music venue right off the Cosmopolitan’s casino floor. The bands—such as Foster the People, Aloe Blacc, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Fitz and the Tantrums—would play two-to-four-night residencies with two shows a night. The format harkened back to the glory days of Old Vegas lounges, but with up-to-the-moment entertainment. During its two-year run (from the casino’s December 2010 opening through 2012), Book & Stage was the coolest place in town, a free, musical utopia that brought locals back again and again, and drew in tourist passersby. Now that Book & Stage has stopped hosting acts, nothing has replaced the magic that was, and its absence is still felt.
“Book & Stage at Cosmo was largely my showpiece,” Choudhry says. “It gave the market a way to compete with other major music markets with insight, knowledge and experience with artists. That led to a tremendous amount of loyalty and brand stability. They created a solid foundation to continue to innovate off of. We had a base; we had people waving our flag.”
A Pajama-Clad Revolution
After two years of unmitigated success at the Cosmopolitan, Choudhry wanted to set up a more creative environment for his team. He planned to tear down the offices and replace them with a collaborative open space. He also wanted to add a recording studio, a gym, a yoga studio and a quiet room—all in the effort of fostering creativity. “And they wouldn’t,” Choudhry says of his employees’ response. “You know how companies go from startup to very corporate—my entire team revolted.”
At a friend’s recommendation, Choudhry took his Cosmo entertainment managers on a tour of the famously whimsical Zappos headquarters in January 2012. The team happened to arrive in the middle of a crisis for the online shoe retailer. Zappos had just been hacked and 24 million accounts had been put at risk, and yet everybody seemed to be so happy. Choudhry asked an employee what was with all the joy, and she answered that it was Pajama Day.
“What the—Pajama Day?” Choudhry mimics his flabbergasted reaction. “She looks at me like I’m an idiot and points around, and everyone is in pajamas.”
It struck a chord with Choudhry that Zappos’ worst day was better than a traditional company’s best day. “I left [the tour], and I called my mother and I told her I need to quit my job,” he says. Choudhry put in his notice within a week, exchanging what he describes as “the best job in the entertainment industry” for “the best job in the world.”
The Sounds of Serendipity
It was a long process for Choudhry to realize the goals he made during his illness. “I tried to do it at Caesars. I tried to do it again at Cosmo, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. After Cosmo, I found that I needed to completely get out of working for other people.”
After spending years in the safe embrace of large, profit-centric corporations, Choudhry wanted to create a company that elevated the human experience. So he started Aurelian Marketing Group, a “marketing-strategy agency that specializes in entertainment and event development,” out of his apartment at Panorama Towers, which had floor-to-ceiling views of, what else, the Cosmopolitan. It didn’t quite work.
“I realized it wasn’t the most creative environment,” Choudhry says. “And it wasn’t a really great place for inspiration.”
He decided to work at The Beat Coffeehouse at Emergency Arts, a hotbed for people associated with the Downtown Project (a massive community development effort led by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh). As much as Hsieh and his co-conspirators sing the praises of forced serendipitous encounters, one actually did happen for Choudhry, when he connected with the Downtown Project through a mutual friend. The friend is Tom Ellingson of Fandeavor, a ticketing company that sells VIP experiences for sporting events, which happens to be funded by the Downtown Project. In July 2012, Ellingson introduced Choudhry to Fred Mossler, a high-ranking Zappos executive (which, in Zappos culture, means he gets the prestigious title “No Title”). A month later Life Is Beautiful was green-lit, a product of a partnership between Aurelian Marketing, the Downtown Project, Another Planet Entertainment and Maktub Marketing (owned by First Friday’s Joey Vanas).
“I have never been a ‘stars align’ kind of person,” he says. “But I told people recently that I’ve become one. [The Downtown Project] didn’t pick me. I didn’t pick them. We just kind of came together. They will tell you that they weren’t actively seeking a festival producer. I wasn’t looking for a reason to stay in Vegas, nor was I looking for a reason to produce this festival.”
Birth of a Festival
“It started out as an idea,” Choudhry says of Life Is Beautiful, “but more so as a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to do anything that didn’t matter again.”
As such, Life Is Beautiful is the culmination of a years-long journey that started in a hospital bed. With this festival, Choudhry is able to apply all that he’s learned over his years working in the entertainment industry. The first thing he did when he began work on Life Is Beautiful was identify what the Las Vegas community lacked. He discovered two basic needs: 1) a tentpole event in which locals could take pride, and 2) a growth engine for the underdeveloped Downtown region. By taking up 15 city blocks and offering national-caliber chefs and musicians, Life Is Beautiful hopes to achieve both. Choudhry points to the spectacular rise of Austin, Texas, as an example of the growth potential created by a popular festival, such as South by Southwest.
Choudhry’s vision for the perfect moment in the upcoming festival is serendipitous encounters on a large scale. He would like the festival’s four unique categories (music, food, art and learning) to facilitate a cross-pollination of ideas. “If a person who’s just there for the food—who’s just there to see the 80 chefs and the demos and the lessons, the tastings—if they choose to step out of the culinary experience and go check out music, they’re not just going to a culinary event with stages—they’re stepping into a Lollapalooza. The perfect moment for me is the moment where somebody who only wanted to go for music is now at the culinary village and being served food by [celebrity chef] Scott Conant.”
Choudhry hopes that these moments of discovery radiate out into overlapping epiphanies, echoes of the one that he experienced so many years ago. He envisions a home cook being inspired by the culinary fest to pursue a formal career, and an aspiring singer to see hope beyond a hobby by the presence of so many up-and-coming bands. The art and learning legs of the festival, whose lineup will be announced in the coming months, will only add to the energy and serendipity. “What I’d like to be able to do with the festival is teach people on a basic level to do what you’re passionate about,” he says. “Identify your dreams and go chase them.”
And why not? Choudhry’s life is an example of such dreams chased and duly captured.