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Reinventing nightlife: How Vegas stays on top of the game with new spaces, sounds and stars

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Wynn Las Vegas will open the mysterious Intrigue nightclub on April 28. Are we ready?
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Over the past decade, the nightclub business has become a truly ubiquitous part of Las Vegas entertainment. You come to Vegas, you go to a club. One cannot be untangled from the other. You used to cut up your casino time with dinner and a show; now you recover from the club by shopping, eating and maybe gambling a bit before you start partying again. If you doubt the draw of Vegas nightlife, check that line of cars flooding in on the 15 from California on Fridays, youthful drivers and passengers looking up at billboards advertising the weekend’s headlining superstar DJs.

And it was just 20 years ago that Vegas clubs began making the jump from more alternative experiences like Club Utopia and the Drink into the casinos they now rule. Club Rio opened in 1995, followed quickly by Studio 54, Ra, Baby’s, C2K, Drai’s Afterhours and more. Those were the predecessors to today’s landscape, in which Nightclub & Bar Media Group finds seven of the top 10 revenue-generating clubs in the country: XS, Hakkasan, Marquee, Tao, Surrender, Hyde and Lavo.

Record-breaking Vegas performances by big-dollar DJs like Calvin Harris (at Omnia) aren't going away.

Record-breaking Vegas performances by big-dollar DJs like Calvin Harris (at Omnia) aren't going away.

Electronic dance music is their dominant sound today, but trends are always shifting, and predictions of a crash have become louder than ever. Forbes published a story subtitled “The uncertain future of EDM” in October, focusing on the possibly precarious popularity of EDM festivals like the 400,000-strong, three-day Electric Daisy Carnival, which returns to Las Vegas in June. Last month, The New York Post’s Page Six opened a column about Vegas “turning up its nose” at the current trend with the line, “Call it the death of the DJ.” This month, Pitchfork put together a timeline explaining “How EDM’s bubble burst,” laying out this argument: “A former subculture was being inflated into a mass-market fad, and—as with ‘electronica’ and disco before—a market correction was in store.”

If that correction has begun, Vegas is staying a few steps ahead. Sensory-overloading megaclubs and high-dollar DJs remain the name of the game, but a closer look reveals a strategic shift. The architects of nightlife are diversifying, offering a wider range of specific experiences while maintaining those that are still bringing lines of revelers. Clubs are getting smaller but the scene is getting bigger. Live music is exploding while those upper-tier DJs are thriving. And this particular portion of Vegas is getting really good at what Vegas has always been about: providing everyone with anything they can imagine.

People go to clubs for different reasons. Some might go for the dating aspect, some for the music, some for the environment, and some might go because they’re being lured to go. –Sujit Kundu

Recognizing how big a piece nightlife is in the Strip puzzle is easy if you look at the Wynn and Encore resorts. They remain the standard of luxury in Las Vegas, the domain of the highest high rollers, setting the pace as Steve Wynn’s original Strip resorts Mirage and Bellagio did decades ago. When Wynn Las Vegas opened in 2005, no one would have predicted that nightclubs would become key components there. Not only are XS and Surrender nightclubs and Encore Beach Club essential to the resorts’ success, Wynn has promoted nightlife guru Sean Christie to chief operating officer.

Pauly Freedman has been an integral part of the Wynn Las Vegas nightlife experience for eight years.

“With Sean as a leader across the property, we have a crusader and advocate for the millennial, who is maybe becoming the core customer,” says Pauly Freedman, a veteran of Vegas nightlife who’s been at Wynn for more than eight years and is co-executive director of the newest venue opening on April 28, Intrigue.

Taking the place of Tryst—the origin of a partnership between Victor Drai and Steve Wynn that laid the foundation for Wynn’s big club moves—Intrigue is a mysterious symbol of what comes next in Vegas nightlife. It will be the opposite of the megaclub, where thousands of partiers wade through a festival-like experience. “It’s about attention to detail, about giving the experience and the service,” Freedman says. Rest assured, it will be gorgeous and intimate, and there will be a fire feature in the middle of a pond backdropped by a 94-foot cascading waterfall, but you’ll be able to have a conversation there. That’s new.

Wynn, generally the only property on the Strip that operates its own nightclubs, also recently appointed Alex Cordova as executive vice president and managing partner of nightlife (after his tenure as executive vice president of marketing for Hakkasan Group), and made more noise by hiring Mark Shunock as creative director for Intrigue. An actor and budding producer, Shunock is best known for starring in Rock of Ages and for starting the monthly show Mondays Dark, a fundraiser for local charities featuring Vegas entertainers of all stripes.

“[Intrigue] is service-driven and luxury-driven. When you walk in, you’re gonna feel like you’ve never felt before,” Shunock says. He won’t go into detail about the programming—Wynn has famously kept quiet about the new club’s atmosphere—but “it’s about making you tilt your head and go, Did that just happen? Wow.”

Though it’ll be done in a unique fashion, Intrigue is not the first nightclub to steer away from DJ-oriented programming. In fact, one prominent Vegas club guy found great success in Miami by pivoting from the format.

Gino LoPinto spent 39 years in Las Vegas, 25 of them in the club game at significant venues like Club Utopia (where Freedman was general manager) and Spearmint Rhino. Two years ago, with partner Dennis DeGori, LoPinto opened E11even, which has quickly become one of Miami’s hottest nightclubs (it got an honorable mention on that Nightclub & Bar Top 100 list). “We needed to create something different, a unique concept that still warranted table sales and upscale clubbing without the DJ dictating our crowd,” he says. “We’ve had great success. Sometimes our sales mimic those of any big club in the country without Tiësto or Calvin Harris, and people are noticing and following suit.”

E11EVEN is likely the only blockbuster club in the country that reserves booking big names for New Year’s Eve or special events such as Miami Music Week. And LoPinto thinks the saturation of top-tier DJs selling out huge Vegas venues isn’t going to stop anytime soon. “Vegas does everything huge. It took the biggest beating during the [economic] crash, but no one else got to the levels Vegas has with clubs and DJs.”

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Hakkasan Group brings Jewel Nightclub to Aria in May.

Hakkasan Group, which routinely sells out massive venues Hakkasan at MGM Grand and Omnia at Caesars Palace when A-list DJs like Calvin Harris, Tiësto, Hardwell and Afrojack are in town, is also diversifying—though that’s an odd thing to say about a global hospitality giant with thousands of employees and 50 nightclubs, dayclubs, restaurants and lounges scattered worldwide.

With several major clubs already on the Strip, Hakkasan Group execs are very aware of the potential for self-cannibalization and are programming accordingly. Hakkasan at MGM Grand is going in a slightly more open-format direction, and executive vice president of operations Derek Silberstein says a variety of content is also in store at Jewel. Set to open May 19 in the 24,000-square-foot space formerly known as Haze at Aria, it was designed by the Rockwell Group with a capacity for 2,000 guests in a main room and a mezzanine level with five exclusive VIP skyboxes.

“Our goal is to exceed our customer expectations and provide the premier nightlife experience in our megaclubs or more intimate venues similar to Jewel,” Silberstein says. “It is located at one of the premier resorts in Las Vegas and will appeal to a variety of audiences and demographics.”

Everyone loves a spectacle. And just as the spaceship-like chandelier wows clubgoers at Omnia, expect Jewel’s 1,400 square feet of LED ribbons draped throughout a domed ceiling to drop some jaws.

Because we were the ones consistently doing what was then just called house music—in 1996 with Club Utopia—and because we were entrenched in it, we did foresee this music taking over. It was so big in Europe and Ibiza. What we didn’t foresee was the DJs becoming so big and so expensive. –Gino LoPinto

Lee Vlastaris, aka DJ Hollywood, was born in Vegas but moved to Atlantic City at age 4. He came back during high school, accidentally started DJing dances when his student council group put him in charge, and began a career in entertainment that has spanned almost the entire existence of nightclubs in Las Vegas.

“We were looked at as a joke in nightlife in the ’90s. LA was looking at Vegas, and nobody wanted to be here,” he says. “They said there was no real culture, no coolness. It was so weird.”

Since he’s been doing it from the beginning—he broke through at the Beach on Paradise Road in 1995, held residencies at SRO, Ra, C2K and elsewhere, and hosted a top-rated radio show on KLUC—and since he’s still in the game—performing at Foxtail and focusing on his Beatclan Artist Management group consulting for SLS, Hard Rock, Caesars and others—Hollywood takes a certain amount of pride in Vegas establishing the idea of the rock-star DJ.

“What they do behind the turntables is no different than someone standing up there with a guitar, interpreting music for a crowd that paid to hear you perform,” he says. “It’s still a very strong draw. But I am excited about the trend moving toward smaller venues, where you can listen to music and not worry about lines or breaking the bank.”

His colleagues at SLS are excited about that, too. Less than two years old, the resort on the north end of the Strip shuttered its larger nightclub, Life, to create the Foundry, an intimate live-music venue that has hosted shows by Kid Cudi, Santigold and Adam Lambert since it opened in early February. With indoor/outdoor club Foxtail and smaller music venue the Sayers Club, SLS offers a colorful spectrum of nightlife entertainment even though it’s much smaller than its megaresort neighbors.

The Drai's Live talent roster, including R&B megastar Chris Brown, has changed the way Las Vegas nightclubs approach live performance.

The Drai's Live talent roster, including R&B megastar Chris Brown, has changed the way Las Vegas nightclubs approach live performance.

“With any trend, you start to see the little cracks, and we noticed people wanting a little more value for their entertainment dollar,” says Matt Minichino, vice president of nightlife and entertainment at SLS and another Vegas vet who’s worked for Hakkasan Group along with the Hard Rock Hotel and the game-changing megaclub Pure (now Omnia). “We’ve had great successes on property with nightlife and seen a demand from people wanting more performances and to be part of more traditional parties.”

Drai’s Beachclub and Nightclub opened in 2014 with the Caesars Entertainment renovation of the former Barbary Coast into the Cromwell. Victor Drai’s latest Las Vegas club began as an opulent rooftop destination, all open-air luxury with stunning Strip views. But it really found its niche last year, morphing suddenly into one of the top hip-hop clubs in the country on the strength of live performances—full concerts, not three-song sets on top of the DJ booth—from the biggest names in R&B and hip-hop. Chris Brown, Future, Trey Songz, Big Sean, T.I., and many others perform regularly at Drai’s.

“We are a hip-hop club and we love it, and it’s coming back so heavy right now,” says Drai’s creative director Tal Cooperman. “Three years from now when a few new hotels open, there will be a major change in terms of clubs, more lounges and mini-clubs than places like XS or Marquee or Omnia. Victor was ahead of the game, and we are going to be sitting pretty. I think everyone is looking at us right now as something different because of this concert series and figuring out that it’s time to do some new stuff.”

Like most venues, Drai’s couldn’t compete in the expensive DJ booking wars, but not every club has found success moving in a different direction. Sujit Kundu—founder and owner of SKAM, a dominant DJ and artist management company—says club owners and talent buyers have been overpaying for big-name DJs because they had to overcome relationships. “If you and I have a 10-year relationship, there’s loyalty there, and in order to break that loyalty, only the casino clubs had the resources to overpay and overcome those relationships,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean the DJ is over by any means. It’s just evolving. I started in house and dance music and evolved to hip-hop. Music is cyclical.”

Club culture has probably never been stronger in Las Vegas. Everybody is doing business. And it’s all about the guest experience. If that part is great, profitability will follow like a shadow. –Rich Wolf

Fierce competition on the Strip has sharpened the nightlife industry into a powerful, ambitious force. Everyone is out to create memorable, Instagrammable experiences through clubs, bars, restaurants and pool parties, trying to anticipate the desires of a seemingly infinite army of party people.

“Venues that provide a good product at a reasonable price will be fine, and if the cost is higher, if they have new, premier talent, they’ll be fine,” Kundu says. “Ten years ago when I made my first million-dollar DJ deal, I thought, This will never last. But the city keeps growing.”

Tao Group's Rich Wolf.

Nightclub-style entertainment has infiltrated every dimension of Vegas. Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull have residencies at Planet Hollywood’s Axis theater, and those concert productions are styled to make the room feel like a nightclub. You can buy a table and get bottle service, provided by Drai’s, while you watch Britney sing and dance.

When Rich Wolf and his partners in Tao Group opened Tao nightclub, lounge and restaurant at Venetian almost 11 years ago, there wasn’t really anything in Las Vegas that combined those elements that way. “There were very few vibe restaurants, maybe just Nobu and N9NE,” Wolf says. “We kind of filled a niche no one had done before, and a lot of people have come along since then and emulated us.”

Indeed, every Las Vegas casino-resort strives to provide the synergy and balance represented by Tao and Tao Beach, to create dynamic venues that offer nightlife, daylife and food and beverage, everything you could possibly need in one place so you don’t have to look anywhere else.

Next door at Palazzo, Tao Group has Lavo, a restaurant and lounge and casino club. Over at the Cosmopolitan, it has Marquee Nightclub and Dayclub—the first Las Vegas club built specifically for the EDM boom—and coming soon, Beauty & Essex restaurant and lounge.

“Competition is plentiful and fierce, and now there are a lot of guys competing who have been in Vegas as long as we have,” Wolf says. “But we have seen the town grow up, and knowing it as intimately as we do has enabled us to react to the market and think about the next big thing and what’s missing, like the casino-club, for example.”

Incorporating gaming into a nightclub environment brings the idea of Las Vegas nightlife full circle. It’s not that the lines are blurred, it’s that there are no lines. Vegas means nightlife, even if it happens during the day, or at a blackjack table, or in a restaurant, or during a concert. Or inside of something we can’t even imagine yet.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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