Our post-LIB interview with fest founder Rehan Choudhry

Rehan Choudhry helped bring the inaugural Life Is Beautiful Festival to Downtown Las Vegas last weekend.
Photo: Corlene Byrd

We caught up with the man at the helm of the LIB team on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after his festival shut its gates.

So are you all rested up? I am not rested up at all. I am both physically and emotionally exhausted.

How do you feel the festival performed overall? I have never felt better about anything in my life. And the feedback we’re getting is, universally, that the world we’ve been living in down here could potentially be better for a long time because of a two-day event. It was unbelievable.

How do you measure the festival’s success at this point? Our primary performance measurements were awareness of the festival; adoption of the brand and an understanding of all the elements and the purpose behind putting them together; the actual guest experience on the ground; and the obvious ones, attendance and strong partner brand association. And we met or exceeded expectations across the board.

The attendance number was about 60,000 for the two days, which was unbelievably relieving, because I’ve used that number so many times that to actually get there was part of the challenge. And then what we did with the people down here was part two. And aside from some trash issues on the first day that we tried to resolve on the second day, the guest experience was pretty flawless, on a lot of different levels.

The Killers @ Life Is Beautiful

We had several, different tiers of experiences, from the kickoff party to the culinary crawls to the speeches and demonstrations to the music, and the feedback that we’re receiving is that, regardless of what they attended, people have the same feedback across the board. There were a lot of people that just went to a lot of talks over the two days. And there were a lot of people who spent a lot of time in culinary over the two days. And people who did nothing but enjoy the music. And everybody’s experience sounds like they all went to the same stuff, which means there was consistency in the experience and that we executed the brand evenly across all the different areas. What we wanted in the beginning was to speak to four audiences independently and get them all under one umbrella brand, which I believe is gonna happen even more next year, because now people know what to expect from the art and from the learning and from the culinary demonstrations. So going back and trying to exceed expectations again is going to be a lot of fun, because we have a good baseline.

To top it off, Natalie [Young] at Eat told me that the seven days leading up to the event were the biggest seven days that she’s ever had. So to hear that she found success on a business level, when we really had nothing to do with the restaurant outside of one stop on the culinary crawl, it worked, man. It just worked.

You mentioned next year. Can you say with 100 percent certainty LIB will be back in Las Vegas in 2014? We will be back next year. The question right now is just what dates, but we’ll be back next year.

2013 Life Is Beautiful: Day 2, Part 1

I did a lot of stuff—saw a ton of music, ate a bunch of food, tried some different beers, saw all the art, caught part of the “Warhol Screen Tests”—and there were still a lot of things I didn’t get to, like the chef demos and the learning talks. Do you think there might have been some extraneous elements to the festival, things you might strip away or replace next year? I think there’s definitely an opportunity to bring in additional elements. What those are? I need to sit down and get creative, and right now I’m trying to process how I’m gonna do my laundry today. I’ve been living in the El Cortez for the last three weeks. But I can tell you, the growth potential for this thing is tremendous.

Looking back, I was pleasantly surprised by how busy the learning sessions and the culinary demonstrations were, but obviously not everything’s gonna be strongly attended just given timing. There were a couple culinary demos that were lightly attended—I think a couple of them were just competing for the same audience at the same time. So I think we need to be a little cautious of that; if I’m gonna have culinary enthusiasts come out for a food and wine festival, that they’re able to go to the things that they need to go to.

And there’s also some stuff on the music side. You’re never gonna be able to get away from layered programming at a festival; if you do, it just creates too much dead space. But one of the resounding pieces of feedback was that Empire of the Sun and The Killers shouldn’t have been stacked on top of each other, because we were speaking to the same audience for both, whereas Kings of Leon and Pretty Lights makes more sense, because those are two distinct groups of people. So I think next year we’re gonna be more cognizant of who the real audiences are, to make sure they’re not spread too thin.

Another piece of feedback that I had given the team was, my family spent the entire weekend going from the Culinary Village to the Alchemy Garden to the main stage. They didn’t go to Ambassador Stage because it wasn’t their type of programming, and they spent so much time walking that distance. If those three things had been closer together—given that we had rock bands, and most of the people into rock bands are older-demo audiences who want to drink and eat—it could have created its own ecosystem. Whereas not having as much food near the Ambassador Stage, which was mostly electronic and hip-hop, may have made more sense. It’s like inviting all your friends over to your house for a great dinner party, but all the booze has to be drank in your neighbor’s house.

2013 Life Is Beautiful: Day 2, Part 2

You mentioned Eat. What other feedback are you getting from businesses in the area? A Las Vegas Sun story reported that some Fremont East bar owners were complaining about having to close Saturday at midnight, even though they’d been informed they would have to ahead of time. Business owners are entrepreneurs, and their world revolves around their venues, so for them to see momentum throughout the day and want to continue that throughout the evening is completely understandable. One thing that everyone’s learning is what it takes logistically, from a security perspective, to be able turn a festival day over day, which is why people couldn’t stay open overnight.

I think trying to make adjustments next year to ensure that everyone maximizes the opportunity makes sense. But I can tell you that, from off-the-cuff feedback from Michael Morton, La Comida hit record numbers each day. I’ve never seen the Beat busier, consistently. So that was a good feeling, to know that people who weren’t really part of the core curation or execution of the festival had a great experience, too. And I heard that the bars on the Fremont Street Experience were packed and that the El Cortez was very excited with their afterparties and their events during the day.

Do you see an opportunity to add more afterparties next year, to keep the party going longer? I love concerts, man, so part of the growth plan is to have aftershows all over the city; it doesn’t have to be limited to Downtown. While the core festival will always be focused on Downtown, to do shows everywhere would be great. So it’s definitely on our radar, but there’s a point where you’re biting off too much. The first year was all about flawless execution of the actual festival, and then next year we’ll really figure out how to blow this thing up.

In terms of significant problems, the beam that fell over didn’t end up hurting anyone, right? No, it ended up being a pretty minor incident.

You guys immediately tweeted about the entrance moving. And it seemed like you responded to complaints about the trash situation on Saturday by keeping Sunday cleaner. The feedback that our communications and social media team gave us was that some other festivals did not respond to questions or comments quickly enough, and they did address issues. So part of our culture from the very beginning was, regardless of who’s having the conversation and what the tone of the conversation is, we were going to get involved in every conversation, we were going to acknowledge where we went wrong if we went wrong and we were going to make changes if we need to. And I’m so proud of the team, because they clearly showed that they could do that.

On the business side, can Year 1 be a loss leader to set up future editions, or does it need to break even or turn a profit its own right to be a success? My philosophy has always been that if a festival is gunning to make a significant profit in the first year, they’re not thinking big enough. So the way my partners and I approached this festival was, we were going to build a business that was going to last beyond us. And success for us from a business perspective is, did we set the foundation to be able to look everyone in Vegas in the eye and say this is going to be here for a long period of time? And I don’t think we could have done a better job at that.

So when we sit down as a partner group, the question we’re asking ourselves is, does this business have the opportunity to be successful? And the answer is a resounding yes. I can tell you there isn’t an unhappy person in this group. And it’s strictly because I was very fortunate to be able to align with people who have vision for the future, and the future is beyond next week.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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