The unexpected death Friday of popular showroom star Danny Gans at 52 is only one more shock to the already stunned system of Las Vegas.
Tourism is down. Convention attendance is down. And what was seen as a path paved in gold — the pop star with decades of hits performing 50-plus shows per year — is starting to crap out at the casinos.
Last week, Elton John packed up his red piano and bolted after delivering 241 performances over the course of five years at the Coliseum inside Caesars Palace, grossing more than $125 million and filling the hall to better than 95 percent capacity each night he headlined.
His total was dwarfed only by Celine Dion, the woman who made Vegas believe in the pop star residency concept until she packed it up in December 2007. Dion, consistently among the top five concert attractions during her four years and eight months at the Colosseum, grossed $400 million in ticket sales from 717 concerts, according to Billboard Boxscore. (See accompanying story on what the top stars make.)
The economic downturn, not to mention the lack of acts with staying power of Cher or Bette Midler, who now hold down the fort at the Colosseum, indicate a limited future for the residency concept when it comes to concerts.
Indeed, downscaling in ticket prices, expectations and the number of shows booked is emerging as a new model for 2009. During a four-day run at the end of March, Midler played to just 78 percent capacity, selling fewer than 15,000 seats.
Until his death Friday, Gans was one of Sin City’s biggest attractions, despite the fact that he barely made a blip outside of Vegas. In residence since February at hotel moguls Steve Wynn’s Encore Theater, Gans had been voted Voted Las Vegas’ "Entertainer of the Year" for 11 of the past 13 years.
Vegas has a significant question on the table: How much do the economics need to be revamped to make the residency model work?
When Dion called it quits — she promptly went on an international tour and grossed more than $90 million — AEG executives were looking to keep the Colosseum going with residencies and use the renovated Joint at the Hard Rock for one-nighters.
That plan has changed at the Hard Rock, with Carlos Santana coming on board to play 36 shows per year this year and next. It will be the first test of a rock ‘n’ roll residency in Las Vegas. Age-wise, the demographic is the same as those acts that have played the Colosseum, but the Santana booking is based on an act that is music-driven rather than theatrically driven.
Santana’s first run of 12 shows starts May 27 and runs through June 14. After a tour of Europe, he returns for another eight in Las Vegas between Aug. 26 and Sept. 6. Tickets went on sale April 1 for the 2,900-seat venue, and as of Friday none of the shows had sold out.
"We’re hoping the first and second run create buzz and by the third run we’re doing well," said Kevin Chisholm, who has handled various management responsibilities for Santana over the last 20 years.
Santana, who tours off and on between March and September annually, would ordinarily perform at a venue four or five times larger than the Joint, as would any of the performers who play the Colosseum.
Santana’s office received AEG’s offer in October as the recession was clearly having an impact on both Las Vegas and the number of concert tickets sold in general. Due to the comparatively small size of the Joint and the ability to keep prices in line with other Vegas shows, Santana’s management felt there was minimal risk in the deal.
And Santana was not the sort of name one would would hear referenced when the residency concept was broached by managers or booking agents: Rod Stewart, Phil Collins and Diana Ross, certainly, with a pipe dream of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears.
That’s where the new economics of Las Vegas come in. Promoter AEG, the world’s second largest concert promoter and the one booking all shows at the Joint and the Colosseum, is looking at a significantly lower scale with any shows at the Hard Rock.
The orchestra of about 1,000 seats are scaled in price at $299 and $151 with $225 VIP seats at tables on the sides. The first balcony is priced at $125 with the back balcony at $85. A $75 ticket puts a patron in a side balcony on the third level. Suites and VIP tables account for several hundred other tickets.
Besides the fans who adore Santana’s classics, the Hard Rock is banking on high-rollers joining the party as well: Seats at boxes and tables are being offered for $800 and $1,000 on Ticketmaster’s main website.
It’s likely that sell-outs for Santana will gross around $350,000; Cher and Midler sell-outs, in a venue with about 1,200 more seats, were pulling in nearly double that amount when they started last year.
But even they won’t do that level of business anymore. Prices for Cher and Midler tickets have been cut by 9 percent across the board. For Midler’s 60 shows between May 27 and Nov. 15, a new bottom rung of $45.45 has been added and upgrade programs — pay $95 for a $140 seat, for example — were instituted for locals and users of Travelzoo.com. At year’s end, that could have a dramatic effect on the total gross.
Up the street at the Las Vegas Hilton the opposite is true. Barry Manilow, who had the highest average ticket price ($154) of any performer in the U.S. a couple of years ago, has increased ticket prices since he started in February 2005. When he opened, the best seats in the house were $145; those tickets now go for $247 and $192.
While price-cutting has become increasingly common in the concert business, it has not occurred often in Vegas. One manager interviewed for this story said a year ago it was still a city to get top dollar, but booking agents are now finding it requires negotiating.
“No city in America has been harder hit than Las Vegas in the last six months,” the manager said, in terms of concert promoters exercising caution.
AEG and their hotel partners have responded by making their offerings more attractive. Anyone who wants to see Santana west of the Mississippi River in North America over the next 19 months has to travel to Vegas.
It is highly likely that AEG decided on that proviso after seeing the effect John’s touring potentially had on sales of his “Red Piano” shows. In early February, he did 10 of his Vegas shows, selling 95 percent of the tickets. Two years earlier in February, he had a run of 12 shows that all sold out.
The difference — and it could just as well owe to the economic downturn — was that this year John was performing with Billy Joel in key Western markets such as Southern California and Phoenix a month later. While on paper the difference between 95 percent capacity and sold out seems minimal, the “Red Piano” promoter has no chance to see any profit until at least 85 percent of the tickets are sold; that final 5 percent is a significant chunk of the profit center for the casino and the promoter.
The further out from the visit, Vegas experts agree, the more likely visitors are to book tickets at shows and restaurants. But if the visitors don’t support the high-end shows, the prediction John made in jest onstage during his final “Red Piano” show just might come true:
“Who are you going to get to fill in our shoes now? You’ve got Bette Midler, you’ve got Cher. It’s gonna be the Village People next.”