An hour before Deadmau5 takes the decks on a Saturday night at MGM Grand’s Hakkasan, anxious clubgoers are already packing the dancefloor, not so much dancing as pressing up against each other in attempts to inch forward toward the central DJ booth. From the VIP tables flanking the walls, the scene almost looks more like the crowd at a concert than patrons at one of the world’s most lavish nightclubs. Five years after Las Vegas’ initial club explosion, the gap between the two audiences is increasingly narrow.
While the demographic filling the Strip’s clubs has largely remained the same, the experience clubgoers pursue has evolved from one of celebrity-seeking, bottle service exclusivity to an immersive, performance-driven entertainment experience within the club walls. Today’s nightlife scene is less club-hopping and cover charges and more ticketed events for which clubgoers plan weeks in advance. It’s the headliner—not the thrill of getting past the velvet rope—that draws the crowd.
Industry players credit that change to a combination of customers’ evolving tastes and a shifting economic landscape that has cemented nightclubs as a critical part of Las Vegas’ identity.
“As more clubs open and casinos are driving so much financial support into building these amazing nightclubs throughout the Strip, the expectation of the customer is higher; their sophistication is higher,” says Tao Group co-owner Jason Strauss. “It’s a much more competitive market and a much more fast-paced landscape for club owners and hospitality owners.”
The shift began around 2008, when the heyday of the über-exclusive, celebrity-hosted nightclub-lounge peaked along with the economy. The same day Strauss was getting ready to open Lavo at the Palazzo, the Dow fell 70 points—and continued to dive over the next three days.
Throughout Las Vegas and the world, nightclub operators scrambled for a strategy. “They couldn’t afford to be complacent anymore. They had to up their game and to really take care of their customers, to give them the best experience possible for the money that they were spending,” says Light Group Creative Director and nightlife veteran Nick Gold.
In order to compete, clubs shifted toward creating unique experiences to entice customers—top name DJs, dancers and theatrical performances that would appeal to both the big spenders and the bros pooling their money for a weekend getaway.
With the rise of EDM in pop music and Electric Daisy Carnival’s move to Las Vegas in 2011, club operators leveraged the genre’s popularity to tap the growing market of dance music fans. EDM moved into the main room, along with expansive coordinated productions, paving the way for the Light Group/Cirque du Soleil collaboration Light at Mandalay Bay, where the focus on top-tier technology, immersive performance and buzzworthy DJ talent is matched by its attentiveness to the GA fan experience.
“We don’t underestimate the value of that person who might spend 20 bucks on a ticket. That person, to me, is just as important as the person who buys the 85-liter bottle of whatever it is,” says Light Music and Marketing Director and former Swedish House Mafia manager Amy Thomson, an industry powerhouse whose résumé dates back to legendary London nightclub Ministry of Sound.
Thomson says she wants to appeal to the GA customer. “It’s that person screaming when the DJ comes on; it’s what makes your night; it’s what makes the DJ’s night. It’s the person who will listen to new music and tweet and try to Shazam it and try to ask the DJ what it is. I’m not the least bit interested in opening a massive VIP bar.”
That’s not to say the VIP doesn’t remain a critical part of the nightclub ecosystem. But these days, you’re more likely to find booths and cabanas flanking the sidelines of the club while the DJs—and their fans—take center stage on the dancefloor.
“Every lesson I ever learned, from Pacha Ibiza backwards, is that if the dancefloor’s kicking, the VIPs are happy. And that’s it,” Thomson says.
“If you put the VIPs on the dancefloor, the dancefloor dies. And then no one’s happy.”
And keeping up with the evolving Vegas clubber means staying connected through technology and social media—and giving them something to tweet about.
“Marquee just passed 30,000 followers on Instragram. That’s the most-followed Instagram account of any club in Vegas,” Strauss says. “We have an entire team whose job is to live and breathe culture. The customer is becoming savvier, so we have to be that much quicker.”
When asked to predict who will be lining up outside Marquee five years from now, Strauss is less concerned about who than why.
“Who knows? That’s all in the future. For a group like us, our success will come on how quickly we can identify that trend, adapt and deliver on that experience.”