Sunday, March 20, 2016 | 2 a.m.
It was Monday night, at a dinner on the deck of Lago, overlooking the Fountains at Bellagio, when a familiar voice wafted over the scene.
“Is that Pitbull?” asked my dining mate.
“Sounds like him, yep,” I said. “I guess they’re using him for the water show now.”
“No, for real,” she said, pointing toward the wavy expanse. “Out there. Is that him?”
In the distance we saw a bald figure, grooving to the rhythm, accompanied by three performers on a platform just under the water’s surface. On the Strip beyond the stage was a series of flashing lights from what seemed to be Metro Police cars.
Our eyes weren’t tricking us. Pitbull, who is in town for a headlining run at Axis theater at Planet Hollywood, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Travis Barker of Blink-182 and Robin Thicke of “Blurred Lines” fame were performing with a half-dozen dancers. They seemed to walk on water out there, and pedestrians halted to roar their approval.
As we learned, the performance was for a set of commercials to air on TNT during coverage of the NBA Playoffs. I thought of how much this would mean to the Bellagio, to have a national television spot filmed on the property.
The event reminded me of the power of a free attraction in Las Vegas. The Bellagio Fountains can be seen for free by anyone passing by the resort. The fountains cost between $40 million and $75 million to build and reportedly $300,000 to $400,000 a month to operate. But in terms of what the fountains offer in marketing value, they have paid for themselves many times over since opening with the hotel in 1998.
The fountains are the example I use when trying to argue in favor of no-cost entertainment in Las Vegas. If a hotel invests in a show or an attraction that is free to the public, or if a resort subsidizes a ticketed show, it can benefit the operators in ways that are not readily quantified. The volcano at Mirage long has been that resort’s signature effect — and it costs nothing to see.
Just a few days ago, I was introduced to a 40-foot attraction that further reinforced the appeal of no-cost amenities in Las Vegas. She is Bliss Dance, an imposing installation outside T-Mobile Arena. The sculpture can be likened to a new-age David, staggering in her construction and certain to be one of the more photographed attractions on the Strip.
Before her arrival at T-Mobile and the Park, Bliss Dance stood at Treasure Island — the one in California, not the Strip resort. She was inspired by dancers at Burning Man.
And the statue is here for the long haul, made of sturdy mesh-metal weighing 7,500 pounds and furnished with 3,000 tiny LED lights.
“People can come right up to her and touch her,” artist Marco Cochrane said at the structure’s unveiling March 4. “We want that. This will be a gathering spot for all types of people visiting Las Vegas.”
Asked how much Bliss Dance was worth, Cochrane smiled and said, “You mean, if you wanted to buy it? Millions.”
Other examples of wise hotel investments in no-cost entertainment are the Bellagio Conservatory and the Fremont Street Experience canopy.
It may sound obvious, but it bears emphasizing that hotels can use free amenities to draw in guests who normally would not visit. I often wish hotels were more aggressive about investing in entertainment, especially in their lounges. I frequently speak about this very issue with Lon Bronson, who has fronted his All-Star Band for a quarter of a century.
Bronson is frustrated by the reluctance of hotels to underwrite free or low-cost entertainment, so much so that bands like his risk becoming extinct if they are required to make enough money at the bar to subsidize the band’s payment for a gig.
“Just tell them you are the water show,” I often say to Lon and other entertainers trying to forge a lounge residency in town.
It is not lost on me that Lago and its view of the water show is just next door to Hyde nightclub. Hyde once occupied the space where the Fontana Bar once stood, a wonderful live-music venue that overlooked the Bellagio Fountains. But the room was taken apart so the hotel could partner with SBE Entertainment for a more profitable concept: Hyde.
One of the acts that auditioned for the Fontana Bar was the Lon Bronson All-Star Band, which was turned away because the suits who watched the audition said the band was not visually dazzling enough for that space.
I guess you can’t win them all, but I’ll be back to check out the water show. So, probably, will you.