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December 17, 2017

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Q+A: Sean Christie pulls back layers of new Wynn Las Vegas nightclub Intrigue

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Denise Truscello

Sean Christie, managing partner of Surrender Nightclub, Encore Beach Club and Andrea’s at Steve Wynn’s Encore Las Vegas.

Steve Wynn atop Wynn Las Vegas

Sean Christie talks Intrigue at Wynn Las Vegas

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The opening of Intrigue on April 28, 2016, is revealed on the final industry night of Tryst Nightclub on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, at Wynn Las Vegas. Tryst closed Saturday after a decade to make way for Intrigue.

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The marquee outside Wynn Las Vegas on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, announces the opening of Intrigue on April 28, 2016.

Is a seismic change about to shake up the Strip when it comes to high-paid DJs in our jam-packed nightclubs? The news that Tryst Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas closed Saturday night after a successful decade-long run and will be transformed into Intrigue next April came as a surprise, but the bigger shock was that the new club won’t be shelling out mega-bucks for big-name DJs. No more $400,000-a-night superstars to spin the wheels of steel.

Perhaps the biggest shock? In an interview, Wynn nightclub czar Sean Christie revealed a club within a club and vowed: “If we find out that you’re tweeting or Instagramming or Snapchatting or Periscoping, we’re going to tell you to stop. And if you don’t stop, we’re going to ask you to leave, and we’re going to ask you to not come back because the great part of the financial freedom of a private club is it’s not there to make money.”

The newest concept in nightlife, Intrigue, was revealed at Tryst’s “Final Affair” industry party Thursday night, then the club with the iconic 90-foot waterfall closed Saturday night with DJ Dave Fogg, the venue’s opening and closing night party leader.

The 14,000-square-foot Intrigue will welcome 1,200 guests nightly, considerably smaller than many Las Vegas mega-clubs. The music will be contemporary party crossing genres for a high-energy dancing environment.

I met with Sean — of Surrender, XS, Encore Beach Club and Andrea’s — to understand what is about to happen when Intrigue opens April 28. Over drinks and a delicious dinner by executive chef Joseph Elevado at Andrea’s, Sean began to peel back the layers of Intrigue surrounding the 2016 nightspot.

Intrigue conveys a sense of ever-changing mystery. Does the club ever change?

Yes. The name was not just chosen out of a hat. We are very organic when it comes to our names, and our concepts, more importantly, and so we’re building the club so that on a very frequent and regular basis, a person like yourself who comes to town often or lives here, the idea would be that you would have a different reaction and emotion to the club regularly. So if you came the opening month, one month later the entire club is going to look, feel and act differently than the first month.

The waterfall stays! A new, glass-enclosed patio will allow year-round views to the waterfall and spectacular pyrotechnics show.

Now when you say the look, does that mean walls change, colors change?

Yes, colors change. We have a visual package with that in mind so that full-motion video and all of the great things that technology provides us, the color palate that we chose is so that we can effectively paint through our visuals the club in a different way. So if we wanted, for example, to be all red, it could be, or blue or paisley. In addition to that, our intent is to also add an element of surprise, so in the way that we promote the club and market it, we’re really just going to be marketing and promoting the brand.

You’re going to ask are you going to have a superstar DJ? Generally speaking, the answer is no, but there are definitely going to be occasions where something like that would happen, but we wouldn’t be marketing it. The current market is dominated by the DJ phenomenon. While the current nightlife options at Wynn continue to enjoy the success of EDM, there is an audience who wants an alternative nightlife experience.

Wynn was the first in Las Vegas to embrace the DJ phenomenon, and now we will usher in a unique concept with Intrigue while providing the highest level of luxury and service that customers expect from the Wynn.

So the surprise element is you never know who’s going to be there or what’s going to be happening?

I think that is one of the things that make up a very large and complex strategy to do that, so physically it will also feel that way and also emotionally we hope you feel that way.

It is intriguing that you have decided on a non-big name DJ policy that flies in the face of everything that everybody else is doing on the Strip.

Sure, including us, honestly.

You have the DJs at Surrender, XS and Encore Beach Club. Why the change? During our last interview, you told me the cycle had to go back to being more intimate.

One of the things we talked about with Tryst is that first of all financially we could probably pull it off in terms of paying people exorbitant amounts of money, DJs, to perform, or whatever it is because our check averages and things like that are high, but Tryst inherently is intimate. We’re not expanding the club in terms of the footprint. We’re just making it better, and it’s going to be a brand new club of, course, but actually more of what it is for me and for us as a team and Mr. Wynn, but really for the team that I work with every day, it’s boring to do the same thing time and time again.

It was exciting when we did Encore Beach Club and we brought in Kaskade, then XS started doing big DJs and we got together and tried to corner the market. All those things were organically exciting, but five years later that same level of excitement to do something new is not there.

We did not want to spend all this money so that we could put a pop star or EDM act or hip-hop star, we wanted to go back to the crowd and the people in the crowd having fun, not just staring at the performer.

It’s a bit of a gamble at this moment in time, to say the least? But personally I say the change is needed because we have way too much of the same.

I would say it’s a huge gamble. If everybody saw their favorite band 30 times a year for five years, it ceases to be your favorite band. That’s the way I feel about the clubs in Las Vegas now. Las Vegas is different because we have 40-plus million visitors, it’s a transient city, so we can get away with that type of aggressive programming and marketing. But it’s really gotten to a point where when I look at the crowd when I’m standing in XS or Encore Beach Club, it’s become nightclub revelers with their cell phones in their hands because we’re part of a sharing society.

When I look at that crowd and they sit there with their phones in their hands and their main interest is to video the performance, that’s fine, but we’re already doing that, so I want it to be where you’re looking at the person next to you and having fun. I think it’s more fun to not have to worry about looking at the headline performer. I think it’s more fun to capture moments with your friends; that’s fine, too. But if we’re in a group, I just want to go back to us having fun as a group, and those are things that are core in this new club that we’re doing.

So how do we define intriguing when part of the experience will be looking at your friends or texting to friends?

The club serves as the backdrop to that experience, so I think that if you walk into a great place that has all sorts of entertainment and is focused on you having fun as a customer with great service, a great experience, and all of these things that we do that ultimately we’re serving it up for you, so if you’re not going to have fun, we’ve done everything in our power to make that happen for you.

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Tryst Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas.

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Tryst Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas.

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Tryst Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas.

So the focus is on moving away from the DJ booth and going back to what it was? Studio 54, for instance, was never about an artist in the DJ booth. It was about the crowd. We’re coming full circle?

That’s right. Tryst holds 1,200, whereas there have been nights at XS where 10,000 people have come through the doors. I think that the pressure to pack the club with a large amount of people isn’t there. I actually think that this club works better underutilized on a Saturday night so that we have the freedom to not have to pack it with all these people that are there. It’s not going to necessarily be a numbers game. Of course we’re there to make money, but if we do a good job of getting the message out there that we’re an upscale club that’s fun, there’s focus on all these things, that it’s not about the DJ, I think that we can have the premier club in town.

Please tell me about the club within Intrigue. Is that like Heart of Omnia at Omnia?

It’s completely different than that. When you walk down our stairs on the left-hand side, there’s a kitchen and it’s 1,400 square feet, and that club is a true private club and it’s invite only. So if you go to your example of Heart of Omnia, that would be a major nightclub in any other city; it’s a big room. This is a small room that holds just 150 people that’s a social media-free zone. It’s one of the policies.

How are you going to enforce that — no iPhones, no Androids? People will feel naked!

We’re going to try. First of all, it’s invite only. So if I invite you in and I tell you, Robin, look, you can have your phone because if somebody wants to text you or if your kids are at home and it’s an emergency, those things are important to stay connected, but if we find out that you’re tweeting or Instagramming or Snapchatting or Periscoping, we’re going to tell you to stop. And if you don’t stop, we’re going to ask you to leave. And we’re going to ask you to not come back because the great part of the financial freedom of the private club is it’s not there to make money.

So I don’t have to worry about. All of the finances that we’ve done for the club are for the main part of the club, and that was on purpose so that if we want to have 20 people in the room because there’s a celebrity or someone who’s discerning, we can do that. It’s invite only every single night.

When you say there’s a kitchen there at the moment, does the kitchen stay? Do you serve food?

No. That interior space will be blown out for the private club. It’s probably better to think of it as a cool lounge for 150 people. There will be a lot of fun things and elements in that club; it’s probably more we just want people to go on a date and have people respect their privacy.

So if you can walk me through the wrestling that took place in the discussions of philosophy for this because this is a radical approach, a real sea change for nightclubs in Las Vegas. You’re not going big, you’re not going boxy. Is the waterfall the only holdover?

I would say the stairs and the waterfall are the only things that stay, and really the waterfall is something that no one in the world has, so we position the club around it, but everything else is different.

Was there arm wrestling among all of you because this couldn’t have been a one-man decision?

No, no, no, never is. First of all, it always starts with Steve Wynn. As a group, we take a really deep dive into what do we want to do, who are we, and really what are the truths of the situation. So we started this conversation I would say three years ago. It was three years ago when we recognized that we were in a position that we had put ourselves in that we were paying too much money for the name DJs. The business model is working for us, but as the DJ becomes more popular, we have less of an appetite to have the DJ dictate our entertainment format.

This is major.

It is.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’ll ask it as a question. Is Steve taking on the outrageously high-priced DJ fees now demanded?

I think that we have a healthy business with XS, Encore Beach Club and Surrender, and we’re really just responding to the fact that if we have three nightclubs on property, it made no sense to make that third nightclub a different iteration of the same experience that we have in the other two.

XS got a $10 million upgrade last year to continue its position in the marketplace. We’re spending $10 million more in entertainment next year as a property in DJs, which is up, and the year before that it was up $13 million in entertainment; our budget. So in two years, we’ve gone up $23 million, which is a huge amount of money.

An accountant would say that’s ridiculous when it all sounds the same.

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Ridiculous if it’s all the same. Now we still respect and want that business to be healthy, but it’s not going to be healthy if we take another 1,500-person club on our property and saturate our business. So we are taking it on. I’m a consumer who still goes out. I have been one of the people who lead the charge. I’ve got to tell you I could care less who’s DJ’ing. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. Now it does from a business perspective because if I see David Guetta, for example, at our clubs, I like him personally, he puts out amazing music, and when we have him, our business is widely successful. But I could care less personally about experiencing that when I go to another city.

I’m much more interested personally about doing anything other than that because for the past six years, that has been my primary entertainment that I’ve sought out, and I think that there’s a large audience of people who are in the same boat as me who have been coming to the Wynn since 2009 when XS opened and 2010 when Encore Beach Club opened, and they’ve been there and done that. They’re in their late 20s, late 30s, early 40s, and they’re still going out, and we have to give them a different experience.

A lot of people in their mid-40s and older — I’m aging myself here — now say there’s nowhere to go because we don’t want to go to the mega-clubs because they’re all the same.

One club appears, and then its sister clubs become the same but bigger. Some are losing money because they’re paying the same as we are for DJs. When I go out, I say the same thing. There is no place for a person who doesn’t care about seeing a celebrity DJ. I also think that businesses are so focused on the DJ that they’re forgetting about the service of the customer.

Also something that we’re focusing on, there are all these amazing people who pay $30 to $40 to come in the club and spend $15 to $20 on a drink, those people don’t have the opportunity to have a wild moment at the bar, and they’re not given the same considerations that the person … we’re so focused on how does the table look and what are the petit fours trays and what are these great things that you can purchase for $10,000 and $20,000 that you do once in your lifetime so that you can talk about it with your friends.

We’re going to take that model so that the general-admission customer feels like someone cares about them more than just the table customer, and that’s one of our strategies. Everybody is a VIP.

Is this going to cause seismic changes elsewhere in Las Vegas? Is Las Vegas nightlife ready for a dramatic change like this?

If I didn’t think that Las Vegas nightlife was ready for the change, I wouldn’t have risked my reputation with Steve Wynn to pitch it to him and for him to buy into it and understand it because he’s a smart guy who’s a student, and that’s why he’s Steve Wynn. He’s a student who learns every day, and I don’t think I would have stuck my neck out there. Steve Wynn is ultimately sticking his neck out there because it’s his money, and it’s his name. I don’t think any of us would have stuck our neck out there if we didn’t believe in it.

Was this a 100 percent team-approval process? Or were there holdouts?

I think in any healthy team, there are always holdouts, and there is always healthy banter. The great part about working here, including Steve Wynn, when I sit with him, he wants people to object and give a counterpoint because that’s how we come to a healthy conclusion. So, yes, there were plenty of holdouts, but at the end of the day, we all saw eye-to-eye and decided to move forward as a group, of course always led by Steve.

And he came up with the name Intrigue? Did the name come first or the concept?

The concept came first, and we knew what we wanted to do with the concept, and as we learned more and were presented the visuals and all of these great things that make up the concept, including the private club and the way we’re going to sell the club, then we had many sessions, which are all about, in his words, “searching for the truth of who we are and what we do.”

A group of us, about five of us, started researching names in the spirit of that. Then we had organic sessions where we sit there for an hour and a half and we talk about what do people do in this phase? Why are they there? What do you see? And we just start free flowing and writing names down. I would say we presented him several hundred names, and I would say that he chose 10 names that he liked, which then we go back and we see what the legal ramifications are, the copyrights, the trademarks.

Was Intrigue in the 10?

Intrigue was in the 10. Then we vet out the federal trademarks, then I would say that there were six opportunities, and the one that he liked the most of all of them happened to be Intrigue, which happened to also allow us to legally have a position to stand on, which then came with the name.

What is your definition of Intrigue? Not the club, but the word that will convey what the club will be?

My definition is of curiosity and fascination. I think you said it in the beginning, I want people’s curiosity to be piqued. I want there to be a level of excitement and expectation that when they come there, whether it’s the music, costuming, the visuals, all these things, the service, the waitresses, I want them to not know what’s next because if they know what’s next, then it’s the same as everyone else.

So everything will change: Costumes, service, maybe even drinks?

Sure. Our entire exploration is how can we on a regular basis surprise you without sacrificing all of the core things that we need to do to get you to come back as a customer. We want there to be excitement, it needs to be fun, it needs to be a nightclub.

Some people think that means we’re going to be the next Rose. Rabbit. Lie. Is it going to be the Act, and the answer is no. Why would I want to replicate things that failed? That is not what it’s going to be at all. It’s going to be a nightclub that’s going to be fun at 1 in the morning. We’re going to take it to level 10. We just want to do that with an air of sophistication and class.

Intrigue is going to go back to our core principles at Wynn focused on service, luxury, amazing environments and a five-star fine-dining experience summed up in a nightclub and not sacrificing the energy and the fun aspect. A lot of people think that to offer a five-star experience in a nightclub, you have to sacrifice the fun. We want to make sure customers come to Intrigue and at the end of the day walk away saying not only was that the best service I’ve ever had in a nightclub in Las Vegas or anywhere else, but I also had the most amazing time, and I created a memory.

Is Roger Thomas doing the interiors? Is there a word to describe that at this moment? Modern? Ancient?

Let’s describe it as Wynn. Yes, Roger, will do the interiors. We could have worked with anyone in the world, but what separates us is that the best places that we have, people come to this resort to feel like Steve Wynn touched the knife on the table or the glass, and really in this club because we don’t want to replicate what we did and what other people are doing, we had to go deep down into our core, and really that starts with Steve.

So if he wasn’t touching everything and he wasn’t involved in the discussion, it would be unauthentic, and the only way this works is if this is a true Wynn product. We don’t want you to come into that club and not think that Steve Wynn was involved, that Roger Thomas didn’t design it and that DeRuyter Butler didn’t help orchestrate the entire architecture, so that’s what we did. We played to our strengths.

You think everybody else will follow suit? You think you’re going to change Las Vegas nightlife?

If we’re successful, they will.

Are you becoming more of a theatrical producer than a nightclub operator?

Hopefully it’s a combination of both. Honestly with the kind of theatrics side of it, that’s when I went to Steve and said, “Hey, I need your help.” If we go too far down that road, people will say, “Oh, they’re doing the Box, they’re doing the Act.” So we’re trying to be consciously aware about that. That’s too easy to do, meaning that we know how to do that and because people have already tried that and failed. We just don’t want that to be the central theme.

There’s theater in a secret hallway behind a hidden wall in Lakeside so you can go right into the club from the restaurant without having to come up to the hotel. There will be unique artwork in the hallway by a really cool artist — all a little bit off on purpose.

Will they come the first time to Intrigue knowing there’s no big-name DJ?

It’s not that they won’t come the first time. It’s how are they going to come back regularly. I keep saying to people, “Look, it’s great to sit there and talk about service, but if a 25-year-old girl will not come back because Calvin Harris or Drake is somewhere else in the market, we’ve lost.” It has to precede those things where people say, “I’ve got to go to Intrigue.” Why? Because it’s a cool place.

Also because it’s always different, and you don’t know what to expect and different than the last time you were there? Calvin Harris is the same next Saturday as he was two weeks ago Saturday? Tiesto also the same?

If you were to see Calvin Harris at Omnia and you were to record his set, it’s the same exact set, which is OK. He’s usually popular. I usually don’t have a problem with these things because if that’s what people want, who are we to say it’s not OK or OK? But in order to break that mold, we can’t do that at Intrigue.

Theatrics is not going to be the central theme, but there will definitely be an element of that. That’s supposed to be the cherry on top. We have a lot of different plans and things to come. We just can’t say all of it — yet!

Intrigue opens April, 28, 2016, at Wynn Las Vegas.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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