We are exploring the current state of nightlife in this week’s issue of Las Vegas Weekly. The Tao Group, of which you are a principal partner, continues to be one of the most influential nightlife companies on the Strip. How has the company evolved with the Vegas landscape? When we opened Tao in 2005, we created a model with celebrities coming for their birthday parties or record releases or simply hosting, the days of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, but we also had Jay Z and Jamie Foxx. We thought we led the charge, and many clubs emulated us after that. Then we went with the EDM format with Marquee, even though one year earlier Haze had done that and quickly changed their format. We like to think of ourselves as industry leaders. Then everyone jumped on the bandwagon to the point where the market became saturated. Everyone was doing it.
We’re always looking forward to what is the next thing. We can’t say with certainty that we’ve landed on that, but for example, we created Lavo Casino Club, arguably the coolest room to gamble in Las Vegas. It’s not necessarily moving the needle around town, but it’s a reinvention of who we are and what we do.
Tao, the nightclub, beach club, restaurant and lounge at Venetian, hasn’t strayed far from its original formula. Tao has stayed true to open format, Top 40, mashups, hip-hop, and that overall format has become the alternative. It got to the point where every single club was playing EDM, and unless you were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on DJs, we didn’t feel that was a sustainable business plan into the future. It used to be a special thing to get these guys from Europe or Ibiza in the summer; it was rare to see them in Las Vegas.
At any point did you consider switching the musical format and programming at Tao to compete? The temptation was very strong to switch to EDM. But when we first opened Marquee, that was the different format, and we didn’t want to cannibalize ourselves. Marquee and other EDM clubs became the hottest in town. We debated it very robustly and came to the conclusion we were better off being the alternative, because not everybody wants to listen to EDM all weekend, all year. I myself love both formats. Frankly, it’s refreshing to go to Tao and listen to music that’s not being played much anywhere else. By maintaining what we’ve been doing, everyone knows what they’re gonna get when they come to Tao, and they get it.
Marquee at Cosmopolitan is in its sixth year and still on very solid footing. Do you foresee any changes there, programming or otherwise? I don’t see any sweeping change. Currently our model is probably 80 percent EDM, and the other 20 is alternative. For example, on New Year’s Eve every nightclub had an EDM DJ, so having Drake made a lot of sense. When we opened Marquee in Las Vegas, that weekend I think Rihanna was playing somewhere, and P. Diddy and Kanye West were playing somewhere else, and we had Jay Z and Coldplay opening Cosmo. Then everyone came over from their venues to party with us at Marquee. That was five years ago. New Year’s Eve this last year, we had Bruno Mars and Fetty Wap. I do not see wholesale changes at Marquee, but we are looking for alternatives and what’s next, and it’s not like EDM is here today, gone tomorrow. It’s safe to say it’s here for the long run. But I don’t think EDM is the only thing that’s gonna be valid.
Also at Cosmo, Tao Group is opening Beauty & Essex soon. How is that a different animal from your other restaurants? We’re very excited about it. We’ve had a good story in Vegas, Tao in ’05, Tao Beach in ’07, Lavo in ’08, Marquee in 2010, and between then and now we’ve been doing a lot of renovation on just about everything, constantly tinkering. It’s been eight years since we’ve opened a new restaurant in Las Vegas, and it wasn’t for lack of opportunity. We’ve just been busy with projects in New York and Australia and now LA and Chicago. We consider Vegas our second home, and [partners] Jason [Strauss] and Lou [Abin] have both lived there for 11 years. There’s an oversaturation, we think, of nightclubs, but everybody’s eating, and our restaurants have great followings. With chef Chris Santos and a restaurant division that’s hungry for the next opportunity, it’s a great fit. And Marquee is so busy, yet we don’t have any restaurants in the hotel. Our guests are eating elsewhere before they come to us. It’s a perfect fit, and a perfect addition to the restaurants we have because we have Asian and Italian. This is our multi-ethnic share plate concept.
Once again, avoiding self-cannibalization. You have no idea … we torture each other and ourselves finding the right fit. We’re all about that. We have a saying in our company about profitable growth, not growth at any cost. We’ve opened places across the street from ourselves. We opened a new Tao in New York in anticipation of losing our lease on the first, and now we have two Taos and they’re so different and in different parts of town. We are very strategic.
What has surprised you about changing trends and developments in Las Vegas nightlife over the years? With Jason and Lou there with feet on the ground, we know about most things well in advance, but I think it’s fair to say we were taken by surprise by the explosion of EDM. Again, it’s not like it was never played in Vegas, but no one had dedicated a major nightclub to it, and the one that did, Haze, changed direction in a month. We did not see that explosion. We didn’t expect Steve Wynn to go after our guys or Hakkasan to go after his guys. It became a feeding frenzy. When the numbers started to go out of whack with reality, we knew it was only a matter of time, that it can’t go on like this forever. This bubble may not burst, but it will recede with time.
You live in New York but have been coming to Las Vegas for decades. Did you ever think this kind of entertainment would become so synonymous with the Vegas experience? I think my first trip was in the mid ‘80s, and there literally was not one good restaurant on Las Vegas Boulevard. I remember when Spago opened in the Forum Shops and it was the place to eat in Las Vegas, and not for six months. For years. It slowly turned into a restaurant mecca, but it was still many years before there were more than a few clubs.
I consider myself half-local. Not only have I been going there for a long time, I’ve spent a ton of time there. The first six years of Tao I was in Vegas every week. I’ve seen the town develop, and I’ve seen Tao develop into something we didn’t see at first. Once we did Tao Beach, all of a sudden people were spending their entire weekend with us, then coming back with their company and doing an event there. We designed the place for parties of 20 and parties of 3,000. We designed what didn’t exist in Las Vegas. We were not the first beach club but the first of its kind. We took it to the next level. The competition in Vegas is plentiful and fierce, and a lot of guys have been competing as long there as we have. But we have seen the town grow up over the last 30 or 40 years, and knowing it as intimately as we do has enabled us to react to the market and what is the next big thing and what’s missing.