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April 19, 2018

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No MGM Resorts: It’s now Las Vegas Village and Las Vegas Festival Grounds

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Steve Marcus

Rock in Rio CEO Luis Justo listens to Chris Baldizan, senior vice president of entertainment for MGM Resorts, during a Rock in Rio news conference Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. The event was held to unveil a mock-up of Rock Street, one of three thematic streets inside the City of Rock.

Route 91 Harvest at MGM Resorts Village

The inaugural Route 91 Harvest country music festival on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, at MGM Resorts Village. Launch slideshow »

Route 91 Harvest: Day 2

Day 2 of the inaugural Route 91 Harvest country music festival with headliner Miranda Lambert on Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, at MGM Resorts Village. Launch slideshow »

Route 91 Harvest: Day 3

Jason Aldean performs during the third and final night of the Route 91 Harvest country music festival Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, at MGM Resorts Village. Launch slideshow »

Rock in Rio USA Day 3: Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift performs at Rock in Rio USA on Friday, May 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Turns out these “MGM Resorts” titles have been a little too, shall we say, narrowly focused.

Today the names of the wide-open spaces that host music and cultural festivals on the Strip are Las Vegas Village and Las Vegas Festival Grounds. Lopped is the MGM Resorts affiliation, although the Las Vegas resort company still owns both of those parcels.

But the change in name, leading into this weekend’s Route 91 Harvest Country Music Fest at Las Vegas Village, is to note the civic qualities of the multiday events in Las Vegas.

The one-time MGM Resorts Village is the same spot across from Luxor and Mandalay Bay on the east side of the Strip, but it is being titled anew to remind that the entire city can partner in this experience.

“We have changed the name because we have learned and believe that these venues, and the new Las Vegas Arena, have to be considered as community to be successful,” says MGM Resorts Vice President of Entertainment Chris Baldizan, who oversees both of those party plots.

“We’ve done everything we can to pull the branding of MGM off and use Las Vegas.”

This is to maximize business partnerships with those companies that do not happen to be MGM Resorts. The first test of this new strategy is one of the company’s great outdoor success stories.

Route 91 Harvest is back with a powerhouse country lineup for three days of music, food and imbibing (two-stepping, as always, is optional). Friday night’s end-of-evening headliners are Thomas Rhett at 8:10 p.m., followed by Florida Georgia Line at 9:50.

On Saturday, it’s Lady Antebellum at 8:40 p.m., followed by Keith Urban at 10:20. On Sunday, it’s Jake Owen at 8:30 p.m., followed by Tim McGraw at 10:10. (For information, including the shuttle and Uber pickup and drop-off points for the festival, go to R91Harvest.com.)

Aside from Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, the lineup of headliners is testosterone-heavy. No matter. The three-day Route 91 Harvest event is selling at twice the pace of last year’s festival, moving at least 25,000 tickets per day.

Baldizan expects to announce a sellout as of Friday morning, and the strong sales are likely to push the event off the Village to Las Vegas Festival Grounds (the onetime MGM Resorts Festival Grounds) for the 2016 show.

“Brian O’Connell of Live Nation does as good a job of booking artists as anybody, and he’s here all week, and we’re talking about the possibility of moving this over to the Festival Grounds next year,” says Baldizan, who made it clear during last year’s inaugural event that expanding Route 91 to the 52-acre space on Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue was a short-term goal.

“It’s the first weekend in October (technically Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2). I’m biased, of course, but we have a great event, and we’ve done a great job of branding it.”

As is the case in any significant outdoor festival, the first year — at least — is an investment in the long-term viability of the event.

“We spent a lot of money last year, and we certainly didn’t make any money,” Baldizan says. “But it was toward building the brand, and now we are seeing the results.”

Should the festival move, as expected to Festival Grounds, it would join the three-day “Party for a Cause” music festival April 1-3, which is a complementary event to the Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Still undetermined is the future of Rock in Rio USA on the Strip. The next event in Las Vegas is to be May 2017, but the first Rock in Rio event in May significantly underperformed financially, as original estimates of 320,000 spectators over four days and two weekends fell far short.

The official attendance numbers were about 130,000 tickets sold, total. Unconfirmed reports of financial losses stemming from the festival range from early estimates of $22 million to more recent reports of $36 million.

Even considering the reality that festivals usually use their first year as an investment for growth, Rock in Rio was a financial disappointment, and momentum toward a fall event at Festival Grounds ebbed soon after Rock in Rio packed up and left.

But Baldizan says the Rock in Rio performance alone was not the reason there has been no booking of a fall, follow-up event to Rock in Rio on Festival Grounds.

“That hasn’t come to fruition as fast as we would have liked. We have had several discussions about events, but it is a big undertaking to take on a festival like Rock in Rio on that particular site. It’s a big space, there are infrastructure needs to be put into place, and you need to understand you’re not going to be making money in the first couple of years,” Baldizan says.

“I don’t think necessarily that (Rock in Rio) dissuaded anybody, but it did make people become more cautiously optimistic. We all know there are a plethora of festivals around the country, so it has to be done first-class to be successful, and Rock in Rio did that.

“ … It was just the unfortunate circumstance of coming into a new venue, in a new market, with a new brand and trying to keep the integrity of an event that doesn’t always translate to the American audience.”

Nonetheless, Baldizan says, “in my heart of hearts, I think Rock in Rio will be back,” and officials with the Brazilian-based festival also say that Las Vegas is their focus for 2017.

Baldizan is not yet prepared to announce any other acts at Festival Grounds, saying, “I hope to make a couple of big announcements, but I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. We’re working on it, and we have a couple of the big festival promoters and producers here this weekend looking at Route 91, and that’s when the light bulb goes on.”

Meantime, the two events thus far planned for Festival Grounds are country music events.

Coincidence?

“We have proof of all types of music that have been successful at festivals, at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and Coachella,” Baldizan says. “But country is still the strongest format. You start looking at all types of music, and a lot of genres have been segmented into subgenres.

“In country, there’s new country and classic country. We have a lot of new country this year, but we had Dwight Yoakam last year and Mark Chesnutt, who are classic country guys, and they still have a lot of popularity.”

Though Route 91 Harvest is an outdoor experience, MGM Resorts — sorry, Las Vegas — Village is not a typical festival layout.

“We’re in a space where there are 60,000 to 70,000 hotel rooms that are easy to get to, you can have dinner and go back and take a shower, watch a ballgame if you want,” Baldizan says. “This is not just a stage in a parking lot, and we’re not in the middle of a field camping.”

No, the only campfire at Route 91 is likely to be pyro from the stage. The hot dogs and burgers are already provided.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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