COURTESY OF LAUGHLIN EVENTS
Sunday, May 11, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The star entertainer hits the outdoor stage just as the sun is setting. Behind him and on either side is a grandiose stage standing several feet tall, with video screens on either side beaming his image to thousands of fans.
The whole scene is framed in shiny steel; in the distance you see a cluster of resorts that have funneled guests to this performance.
Sounds like a great night in Vegas. But it isn’t. This is a night in Laughlin, starring Jason Aldean at the Laughlin Event Center. The new event center sits just off Casino Drive, really the only drive, leading in and out of the unincorporated Clark County gambling town that sits 90 miles south of Las Vegas. Nonetheless, tourism officials from Las Vegas Events are aggressively re-introducing Laughlin as a sensible destination for anyone who wants a quick getaway, whether they live here or are driving in from Laughlin’s biggest “feeder” market, Inland Empire in Southern California.
The goal is to reach a younger, more nimble demographic. Today the average age of a visitor to Laughlin is 63. Sixty-seven percent of visitors to the town are retired. LVE and Laughlin officials would like to shift that to closer to 45, keeping in line with the younger age of the average tourist to Las Vegas.
On this particular weekend, Laughlin is abuzz (or maybe ablaze is a better word) with thousands of fired-up motorcyclists in town for the annual Laughlin River Run bike rally. One thing about the sound of a Harley Davidson kick-started in a hotel parking garage: The force of sound can tip off any car alarm in the immediate area.
The Aldean show is to launch the River Run, on Thursday night, and maybe 7,000 spectators hoof it or climb onto shuttles from Laughlin’s eight hotel-casinos on the bank of the Colorado River. This show is not sold out, but it should be in the venue’s 9,000-seat configuration. The prices, with tickets climbing to $125, were a couple yards high for the value-seekers who visit Laughlin. The show the following night by biker fave Lynyrd Skynyrd also fell short of a full sellout. But the LEC, as it is called, has just opened this year, with a March 14 performance by Reba McEntire. The operators are learning, through the process of real-time market testing, how much to charge for shows at the LEC.
And who are those operators? The man at the top has a surname familiar to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Las Vegas resort design and development: Tony Marnell III. His father, Tony Marnell, heads up Marnell Carrao Associates and was the design architect for Bellagio, the Mirage, M Resort, the Rio and the Forum Shops at Caesars. The Marnell family built and operated M Resort for a little more than a year beginning in 2009, but sold the property to Penn National Gaming in October 2010. In the time since, the younger Marnell’s resort company, Marnell Gaming, has focused its energy on its Laughlin hotel-casinos, Colorado Belle and Edgewater.
Marnell’s deputy in the event center, and at those properties, is Colorado Belle and Edgewater VP Mark Sterbens Jr. The two have been friends since they attended Bishop Gorman High School together, and Sterbens is assigned much of the on-site operations responsibilities. As he points out in a walk-around tour of the facility, all spectators will be funneled in via shuttle or simply walk across from the hotels on the riverbank.
The LEC is impressively designed and constructed, by any measure. The foldout seats on ground level, 3,500 in all, were built by the same company that furnished the seats at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, home of the Cowboys. Soft artificial grass covers the ground of the venue, which features a set of air-conditioned VIP suites facing the stage at the back of the seated section, and two rows of leather-covered recliners. When the sun drops and the temperature cools, it’s a quite-pleasant entertainment experience. As one audience member who had visited Red Rock Resort’s short-lived amphitheater noted, “Red Rock was nice, but this place blows it away.”
Moreover, the LEC is a permanent structure. In recent years Marnell’s group has had to rent bleachers at $150,000 per show at the Laughlin Amphitheater, built on the Edgewater property. Spending that much money on a single performance wasn’t feasible for anybody, sparking the idea to construct the new event center that, over time, will more than pay for itself.
Of course, the challenge at Laughlin’s hotels, and in all of Laughlin, is how to draw a mass of visitors. Not every weekend is the River Run, sad to say. The town suffered mightily during the recession, as it sits far off the beaten path on Highway 163, which is off U.S. 95 as you head south toward Bullhead City, Ariz., making it a destination unto itself.
And that destination’s appeal has ebbed over the past several years. Gas prices have climbed (dissuading anyone who might want to drive a bike, car or RV to Laughlin) and American Indian casinos have sprouted up across the country, cutting into the demographic of visitors who just want to gamble for a weekend. Fifteen years ago, 5 million tourists visited Laughlin. Last year that number was 2 million. Gambling revenue reached a high of $631 million in 2007, but has dipped every year since.
Of course, Las Vegas is not so far away, either. As Colorado Belle General Manager Jeffrey Pfeiffer says during a lunch at the hotel’s new Loading Dock indoor-outdoor eatery, “We need to be the alternative to Las Vegas, and we do that with value.”
To provide Laughlin some fresh appeal, Marnell’s company invested $4.5 million in the LEC, which seats 9,000 for shows and can be assembled to seat 21,000 for boxing events. But this is not just a Marnell operation. Competing properties along the river are buying into the event center. Six of the eight have formed a consortium called the Laughlin Tourism Commission, which focuses its energy on marketing the LEC (the two resorts that have declined are Don Laughlin’s Riverside and the Aquarius, owned by American Gaming, which also owns the Stratosphere and Arizona Charlie’s hotel-casinos in Las Vegas).
LTC presents most of the shows at the new events center with hotels committing to a certain number of tickets before the act is booked (Aldean commanded an appearance fee of more than $500,000). When the collective monetary commitment reaches the point where everyone can make money, the act is signed and hotels take their tickets and sell them to guests or include them in room packages. When Marnell’s company fronts its own money to bring in an event, it offers pre-sale tickets and priority seating to all hotels in town. In either case, Laughlin’s eight resorts, encompassing 11,000 rooms, are working in concert for these concerts.
“The idea is to work together to bring a high volume of tourists to Laughlin,” Pfeiffer says. “When they get here, we’ll fight for them.”
As bait are the Aldeans of the entertainment world. Upcoming shows this month at the LEC are Alan Jackson on May 17, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo co-headlining with Joan Jett on May 25. Down the road its the “Laughlin Laughlin Comedy Fest” starring alumni of “Saturday Night Live” (Dana Carvey, Chris Kattan and Tim Meadows) and Larry the Cable Guy on Oct. 3-4; Toby Keith on Oct. 18 and Tim McGraw on Nov. 8.
Longer-term plans in Laughlin include a motor sports park that would be three times the size of the LEC. Coupled with the event center, it would appeal to such mass gatherings as Insomniac Productions’ Electric Daisy Carnival Events. Similar to the Laughlin River Run, that event would take over the entire market for a series of events over two or three days.
“People need a reason to come to Laughlin.” Sterbens says. “This event center gives them a reason.”