Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 | 1:50 p.m.
NEW YORK — At this writing, The Kats Report Bureau is the Bouchon Bakery courtyard at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Over my left shoulder looms 30 Rock, the NBC-TV fortress. Over my right looms … a pigeon, perched on a shrub, eyeing my banana-nut muffin with aggressive intent.
The theme this weekend is crowds, mass gatherings as they are now known, and how to lure and entertain such. I am reminded of this as waves of people traverse this center, taking photos, wading in and out of at such outlets as the Lego store and Anthropologie and descending to the Rock Center Cafe just below street level.
It is something of an art form, and certainly an inexact science, creating an environment where a high concentration of individuals can be effectively assembled. And it is an area where Las Vegas has once more proven to be at the head of the field.
Friday was the grand announcement of the first half-dozen acts to headline Rock in Rio on the Strip in May 2015, filling the event space now called MGM Resorts Festival Grounds. Metallica, Linkin Park, Taylor Swift, No Doubt, John Legend and The Deftones will be performing at some point during at the “City of Rock” mass gathering set for May 8-9 and 15-16.
As Rock in Rio sets the stage(s) for its temporary takeover of the Strip, Las Vegas already will have hosted the second annual Life Is Beautiful festival downtown in October and is home to the greatest mass gathering event in electronic dance music, Electric Daisy Carnival, which next year returns for its fifth spectacle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Upwards of 700,000 fans will attend just those three festivals next year.
As one tourism official said as we stared at the rendering of the Rock in Rio grounds, “All of a sudden, Las Vegas is getting really competitive for mass gatherings.”
Oh, yeah. We’re taking it outside, No Doubt. And nearly as impressive as the unannounced appearance by that venerable band (and believe me, there has never been a news conference that wouldn’t benefit from the arrival of Gwen Stefani) was a first glimpse at the detailed model of what the grounds will actually look like.
The permanent venue will cover somewhere between 37 (the size noted in Rock in Rio news releases) and 44 (the size noted by MGM Resorts officials) acres at Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. All the way west to the cusp of Industrial Road, and to the south where it edges the property being developed by Genting Group for Resorts World Las Vegas (at the old Stardust site) and also the old Frontier property recently purchased by James Packer’s Crown Resorts in a partnership with investment firm Oaktree Capital Management and ex-Wynn Las Vegas President Andrew Pascal.
For anyone who has gazed down on that patch of dirt from the Stratosphere, or while touring the city from a helicopter, to observe that model was a bracing moment. A half-dozen stages are being built around the site, including the Main Stage right on the northeast corner of the footprint, with SLS right across the Strip to the east. A series of little, house-like structures also were placed inside the rendering of the festival grounds. These are to accommodate food and merchandise vendors. The VIP compound, which is a concept many rock-festival fans disdain, is built at the back of the Main Stage spectator grounds facing the stage but intended to be used as a networking enclave rather than just a concert viewing space.
There is a Ferris wheel — evidently to be called a Ferris wheel — in the middle with other rides and attractions in development. To be summoned are roaming entertainers, such as magicians and dancers and mimes (oh my!). Of course, there is a zip line to carry fans and, on occasion, artists over the crowd. What is the point of hosting a big festival if you don’t have a zip line?
Most telling was that this prefab model represents permanence, and long-term planning, not just from Rock in Rio but also from the property’s operating team at MGM Resorts International. Rock in Rio will be staged in alternate years beginning in 2015 (unless those officials feel that the demand for these festivals merits a change in the business model), with tentative plans for 2017 and 2019. But aside from Rock in Rio and its 300,000 fans at every festival, the space is to be booked at various times throughout the year. It is likely to be plugged in when the weather is friendly and acts can be signed that are significant enough to populate at least the Main Stage spectator area.
MGM Resorts Village, to the east of Luxor and Mandalay Bay on the Strip, is a complementary venue that is busy with events through October. Coming up next weekend is the Route 91 Harvest country music festival headlined by Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Brantley Gilbert. On Oct. 10-11, it’s the Wine Amplified Festival, a production of Rock ‘n Roll Wine with Train and Blink-182 headlining.
During the planning and announcing all of this outdoor frivolity, I was most interested to learn that Daren Libonati, one of the region’s leading experts on event staging of all variety, has been drafted by MGM Resorts as a consultant. Libonati has been working with company entertainment exec Chris Baldizan on booking and coordinating events at MGM Resorts Village. Libonati is a guy to keep an eye on, always, for his nearly two decades of experience in promoting events in this city. He has seen the whole rodeo, metaphorically and in fact.
Of course, these outdoor festivals, projects and developments are all in line with a trend that has developed over the past few years. There was a time, not that long ago, when Las Vegas hotel-casinos didn’t want their guests to leave the property. If casino guests pulled away from the tables and machines, hotel officials reasoned, revenues would drop. But now, there is money to be made — and fun to be enacted — outside.
Whether entertaining a group of three at a blackjack table, 300 in a showroom, 3,000 in a music hall or 300,000 at a festival starring Metallica, Las Vegas has it covered. It is what sets us apart. All that’s left is, well, all the work. And that’s already started.