Vegas Seven

The Festivalization of Las Vegas

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It takes one thing to go from outsider to establishment in Las Vegas: success. When Pasquale Rotella’s Insomniac Events first brought the Electric Daisy Carnival to Las Vegas in 2011, he was a renegade fleeing Los Angeles, which had hosted the festival for more than a decade but rolled up the welcome mat amid controversy in 2010. There was a historic parallel to this eastward emigration: Eighty years earlier, Southern California authorities took a dim view of the gambling operations of such entrepreneurs as Guy MacAfee and Tony Corerno, who decided to pack up their chips, head up Highway 91 and set up shop in Las Vegas. That worked out pretty well. EDC seems to be following suit.

Here in the desert, the three-day celebration of electronic dance music and outrageous illumination—which comes to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway June 20-22—has swiftly become an institution, spawning an entire week’s worth of events connected with EDM. There’s even a conference covering the business side of the genre, complete with panel discussions and a keynote speech. In the coming year, Insomniac will bring two more festivals to town—Nocturnal Wonderland and Beyond Wonderland. Las Vegas, it’s fair to say, has been very good to EDC.

But for Rotella, EDC in Vegas was anything but a sure bet in 2011. “I wasn’t sure it would catch on,” he says. “I was worried about whether the fans would follow me to Vegas. This was not a destination for festivals or dance-music fans.”

Those in charge of the tourist corridor had their doubts as well. Could Las Vegas still profit by allowing what Los Angeles had rejected?

The answer is in the numbers. In its inaugural year, EDC generated $136 million for Clark County’s economy, including more than $55 million in income for workers. With the area still recovering from the recession, that number did as much to legitimize the event as the lack of major incidents at the festival. Some feared a horde of raver freaks descending on the Strip, keeping out deeper-pocketed customers. Instead, a group of enthusiasts arrived in Las Vegas for an event, paid for their rooms, dining and entertainment, and left without incident.

In 2010, the last year it was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, EDC generated a total of $42 million in economic impacts. Just by moving the event to Las Vegas, Insomniac more than tripled its local economic impact. What had been a stadium event on a crowded calendar became a citywide celebration that reached from EDC’s new home at the speedway to the Strip and Downtown. So there were compelling reasons for both festival organizers and city officials to want to develop a long-term relationship.

“It fuels the culture of the city,” Rotella says. “It’s helped establish Las Vegas as a destination for dance-music lovers.”

The carnival’s financial footprint kept growing, with a total economic impact of $207 million in 2012, and $278 million in 2013. In three years, the event’s financial contribution to Las Vegas has more than doubled. Interestingly, the event was a sellout in both 2012 and 2013, with 345,000 total tickets sold, but consumer spending rose from $103 million to $137 million. With the same number of attendees, Las Vegas resorts and other businesses found a way to coax an additional $34 million out of EDC visitors last year. That’s the kind of crowd the city loves.

Some might grouse that electronic-dance-music devotees aren’t known for being big gamblers, which is generally true. In 2013, the average EDC visitor spent about $58 on gambling a day, while the average Las Vegas visitor who gambled spent about $133. But it’s worth mentioning that fewer visitors to Las Vegas are gambling (71 percent in 2013 versus 83 percent in 2009), so EDC guests are not necessarily outliers.

You could argue, in fact, that EDC is the template for the future of Vegas visitors. Up until the recession, casino companies grew in Las Vegas by adding slot machines and tables. But the Strip’s two giants, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International, have chosen to expand in other ways: by dividing hotel towers into smaller boutique operations and adding new restaurants, bars and shopping venues. There’s something almost prideful in the way the big resort companies say that there is no new gambling component in their latest projects. So a light gambling budget isn’t at all a deal-breaker: Big-ticket nightlife developments such as Hakkasan and Drai’s suggest that operators are just as interested in return on investment from night and day clubbers as they are gamblers or conventioneers. In its three years in Las Vegas, EDC’s rising tide has seemingly lifted even the massive ships on Las Vegas Boulevard.

“I’ve been told that we have as much an impact on the clubs as a Labor Day or Memorial Day weekend,” Rotella says. “Especially in the dayclubs.”

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Las vegas isn’t big on restraint. We see that just about everywhere. You don’t build a place for guests to grab a quick sandwich; you build a multistation buffet. Want to let guests dance to the latest hits? Construct a 35,000-square-foot rooftop day/nightclub with six dedicated elevators where bottle service starts at $595 per.

So it’s understandable that once EDC proved that a multiday music festival could not only work in Las Vegas, but work well, fests gained a new respect as a potential staple of both tourist and civic life here. When the first Life Is Beautiful bash came to Downtown in October, there wasn’t any real gnashing of teeth over the decision to turn over a 15-block section of town near the Fremont Street Experience to a two-day indie music and food extravaganza. The stereotypical Fremont Street visitor, after all, is more interested in full-pay video poker than Childish Gambino or Vampire Weekend.

Yet Life Is Beautiful seemed to have full buy-in from the city’s casinos. Many of the celebrity chefs (Michael Mina, Rick Moonen and Todd English, among others) and entertainment acts (Mystére, Human Nature and Rock of Ages) participated.

There’s the potential for festivals such as EDC and Life Is Beautiful to help redefine Las Vegas, to provide the kind of diversification that has been decades in coming.

“People may not naturally look at Las Vegas as a music incubator,” Life Is Beautiful founder Rehan Choudhry says. “But as soon as you put out a lineup with the Kings of Leon and the Killers, you’re forcing millions of people internationally to pay attention. As they grow, festivals become relevant vehicles for new music. Look at South by Southwest: In the ’80s, Austin was not a music scene. Now it’s one of the central temperature gauges for what will come out. Las Vegas can become not just a place to consume music, but a place where music-centric ideation takes place.”

With an estimated 92,000 room-nights booked during last year’s EDC, the love affair between festivals and the city’s establishment is just getting started. It’s a mutual admiration society.

“I love Vegas—I am very, very proud and fortunate to have found such an amazing city that supports entertainment on the level that it does,” Rotella says. “We have the largest dance-music festival in the world in Las Vegas. It provides jobs, and it’s brought more than $621 million to Clark County.”

And that is the relationship between festival and city in a nutshell. Las Vegas offers a setting that’s easy to reach and accustomed to handling big groups. It’s also a city that, like any other, needs jobs and dollars to thrive. As long as both sides get what they want, festivals are going to grow.

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Festival Town, USA? Left, a rendering of the Rock in Rio Las Vegas site. Right, Pasquale Rotella and Holly Madison at EDC.

Unlike other consumer options in Las Vegas, festivals are not a zero-sum game. For every upscale burger restaurant that opens, there is that much more competition for the burger-eating visitor, and that much less market share for those already grilling. But the overlap between a dance-music festival in the summer and an indie-music gathering in the fall is slim enough that new entrants are viewed as friends, rather than competitors. The more festivals, the stronger the infrastructure in Las Vegas to support them. The city gets better at hosting festivals by hosting more festivals.

So will these celebrations come to redefine Las Vegas in the same way that South by Southwest has redefined Austin? Las Vegas has a more firmly established pop-cultural identity than Austin—it’s no simple thing to shift the meaning of “Vegas” in the public imagination—but it’s not an unreasonable question. While much of the advertising for Las Vegas emphasizes personal freedom and indulgence, there’s something to be said for the valence of communal experience. In traditional terms, that might mean enjoying a hot run at a craps table or enjoying a free concert under the Fremont Street Experience canopy. But festivals can offer shared experiences to suit a variety of tastes. Whether you like EDM or Ted talks, small plates or country music, Las Vegas’ nascent festival era has a place and time for you.

With the trail already blazed, the big operators are getting involved, in typically big ways. The Linq’s secret weapon might be the eight acres usually used for surface parking on which Caesars Entertainment can host big events. In April, the Academy of Country Music’s Party for a Cause festival became the first, and certainly not last, gathering held there.

And MGM Resorts recently announced that, in partnership with Rock in Rio, it will build an 80,000-seat outdoor venue on land at Sahara Avenue and the Strip that will host, starting in 2015, the biennial Rock in Rio USA festival, among other events.

For Choudhry, the Strip’s move into festivals is a vindication, not competition.

“What I tell everyone on the Strip is that there’s nothing wrong with a big entertainment company doing festivals—just don’t try to do it in-house,” he says. “Find two or three creative kids and put some resources behind them.”

With Rock in Rio every other spring, Electronic Daisy Carnival each summer and Life Is Beautiful in the fall, Las Vegas will have three cornerstone live events that will benefit each other and the city. But that’s not enough. For Choudhry, it’s about more than maximizing revenues; it’s about, unapologetically, community.

“I have a business I’m trying to make successful,” he says, “but more than that, I live here. For this to be a city that has everything, we need more events. There are 30 to 50 festivals in Austin each year. We need that here. Some will be successful, some won’t.”

Rotella agrees. “We’re going to see more festivals,” he says. “That’s exciting—it will make the city more of a destination for people who don’t come here now. We’re seeing it already.”

So while the 1990s were the era of the megaresort, it might not be surprising that, decades from now, people will look back at the 2010s as the era of the big Vegas festival.

Photos by Erik Kabik.


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