Big Stars on Small Budgets
By Leo Jakobson
March 30, 2012
Blocks and Buyouts
The easiest and least expensive way to incorporate Las Vegas entertainers into your meeting is to reserve a large block of tickets to a show on one night or, if the group is large enough, do a full buyout of a show.
For most groups, that’s the only feasible way to incorporate the biggest and most expensive names, like Elton John, into an event. It also the only way to see the hugely popular Cirque du Soleil shows that have become synonymous with Las Vegas over the past few years. With seven shows in the city—all but one at MGM Resorts International properties—there are options to appeal to almost any group.
For sizable groups, however, lead time is critical. Cirque du Soleil shows go on sale six to eight months ahead of a given performance, says Aaron Hinterleitner, a Cirque du Soleil sales account executive who works with groups in Las Vegas. For buyouts, that means planning it eight months to a year out. There are exceptions—one Cirque du Soleil client wanted to add a second show to its event and were able to buy a performance of The Beatles Love, at The Mirage, shortly after it had gone on sale. But that was seven months out, he notes. “I looked at the overall sold tickets and it was quite low, because it was a midweek date to a late performance, so we were able to proceed with the buyout and have the box office communicate to the guests that we would move them to another show,” he says. “So it is possible, but we have to look at how many seats are sold at that time.”
This also applies to shows like Shania Twain at Caesars Palace, whose tickets went on sale months ago for a run beginning in December, says Jill Schneider, director of citywide entertainment group sales for Caesars Entertainment. “For those, the further out the better,” she says. “Those tickets sell so quickly, and most shows are sold out nightly.” But for shows of headliners below the international superstar level, tickets go on sale 90 days out, she adds.
Blue Man Group, which has a show at The Venetian, has a VIP package that offers premium seating, a program, and a meet-and-greet with the performers after the show. The group also offers corporate group packages that combine dinner at various Venetian restaurants with the show and admission to the LAVO nightclub after it. Blue Man Group also can arrange coach transportation to the show from other Las Vegas hotels.
Headliners like George Wallace also have special ticket packages with perks that can work well with groups, Schneider says. Donny & Marie offer a VIP ticket with a meet-and-greet after the show, as well as preferred seating, Schneider says. “George Wallace does the same thing—and you get a CD as well.”
And even with a partial buyout, some artists are “willing to do a shout-out for the company,” Schneider says. “It adds a little branding and makes the participants feel special.”
Bring the Cirque Performers In
“Cirque du Soleil has a great reputation, and when people go to Las Vegas, they more often than not want to see something produced by Cirque du Soleil,” says Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation and Travel, an incentive travel and meeting planning firm based in Dallas. “They’ve heard so much about it.”
That said, the nature of the shows—the elaborate sets, aerial acts, and importance placed on artistic integrity—makes it impossible to bring them out of their theaters, says Hinterleitner. But Cirque du Soleil puts a lot of effort into working with groups, he adds, noting: “We really work with the client to understand their objectives, their needs, their branding, and their overall message for the conference, and we try to integrate that into the show.”
There are two basic ways the Cirque du Soleil team does that. For large enough groups, Cirque du Soleil will “bring some of the characters from the show in to either a reception before going to the show, or maybe the breakfast that morning, to whip up excitement,” Hinterleitner says.
The performers “come in full costume and circulate for 20 or 30 minutes,” says Boyd, who recently brought performers from O to a reception at The Bellagio for a 350-person incentive group.
“Of course with Cirque du Soleil, they’re quiet—they just circulate, they do their acrobatics,” he says. “People get excited to see them, because these are the people they’re going to be seeing on stage that night, or in a couple of nights. Now, it’s not free, they charge for it, but it’s nominal.”
The performers can also do photo sessions, and the usher/performers have occasionally escorted groups to the theater, Hinterleitner says. For logistical reasons, performers can only go to the hotel where their show is based.
For full buyouts, Cirque du Soleil can make small changes or additions to the show, such as having the speaking usher/performers who open otherwise silent shows like Zumanity at New York-New York bring something into their banter, Hinterleitner says. “We also look at integrating the CEO, using that person to do a welcome introduction prior to the show starting,” he adds.
And on a couple of occasions, retailer groups like Victoria’s Secret have even been able to secure artistic approval to have performers wear their clothing, Hinterleitner notes.
One of the most difficult balancing acts in the meetings industry right now may be putting on an event for people in the healthcare field. You’ve got to excite and entertain them at a suitably high level, yet costs must be kept low and any suggestion of extravagance is out of the question. Now make those participants C-level executives, and you’ve got a real high wire to walk.
That is the problem facing Kerry Price, vice president of strategic customer engagement for Amerinet, a leading healthcare group purchasing organization based in St. Louis, MO. Every February, she has to provide some entertainment and excitement—what she calls “the wow factor”—for 150 CEOs, plus guests, of hospitals, healthcare systems, and non-acute facilities like outpatient clinics at the company’s annual executive conference in Las Vegas.
While the days are filled with serious work and education, the Entertainment Capital of the World provides Price with plenty of opportunities to bring in well-known entertainers for a final-night awards dinner that will leave her top-level participants dazzled without busting her budget or making the perception-sensitive group opt out.
Despite those limitations, Price secured the well-known comedian George Wallace to do a 45-minute set between dinner and dessert at this year’s awards banquet at Caesars Palace. Wallace, who has had a show five nights a week at The Flamingo for many years, is being promoted as “The New Mr. Las Vegas,” and his name and face are hard to miss on the Strip—sometimes several stories high—or in any of the eight Las Vegas properties owned by The Flamingo’s parent company, Caesars Entertainment.
“I want people to walk away saying, ‘Wow, that was such a great meeting and George Wallace was excellent.’ And not have it break my bank to use him,” Price says. “That’s the critical piece right there. In healthcare, you have to be very cautious about that. We don’t do anything extravagant at Amerinet.”
Not only was Wallace a huge hit, but Price kept costs down because she didn’t have to deal with the logistics or costs of flying him in.
“It was a Saturday night, and he had a 10 p.m. show right across the street at The Flamingo,” Price says. “We worked the timing of it so that he started at 8:30 p.m. At 8:15 p.m. he was in the green room, 8:30 p.m. he took the stage, and at 9:15 p.m. he left,” heading back across the street in a limo to get ready for his regular show, she explains.
Access to top talent is something you can’t find in Boston or Chicago, says Richard Gaeta, president of Salem, MA-based Premier Incentives. “Las Vegas offers a wealth of options in terms of entertainment right there,” he says. “It’s far more affordable. They’re physically there, so you’re not paying for airfare, you’re not paying for rooms, at worst you have some food and beverages in the changing rooms. And if the client has the budget to afford the higher-cost entertainers, they’re there and they’ll do it.”
In fact, using a high-profile Las Vegas entertainer at a meeting or conference in Las Vegas provides the same basic benefits as incentive travel, Gaeta says. “Attendees go back home with bragging rights: ‘We had George Wallace at our event, I talked to the guy,’ that type of thing. That’s huge. And these guys are really very approachable when they’re in a corporate environment. Some of them are a little temperamental, but the majority are willing to talk and mingle and schmooze. We love Vegas for that reason. You can’t go anywhere else in the world and be able to put that together.”
Price, who has a long-term contract at Caesars Entertainment for several annual meetings, agrees. “Number one it’s a cost factor,” she says. “Those people are already there, and they’ve already established themselves in Las Vegas. My group may already have seen them but chances are they haven’t. And I’m a firm believer that when in Rome … so when in Vegas, why not bring in a headliner that gives them an experience that lets them say when they leave, ‘Wow, I saw a Vegas show.’ ”
Price arranged to bring in Wallace by working with Jill Schneider, director of citywide entertainment group sales for Caesars Entertainment, who acts as a liaison between meeting, incentive, conference, and event customers of the company’s Las Vegas hotels and the 32 shows at those properties.
That includes everyone from superstar headliners at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace like Elton John, Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, and, as of this coming December, Shania Twain, as well as well-known acts like Wallace, Donny & Marie, and Penn & Teller, to variety shows such as Absinthe (Caesar’s Cirque du Soleil-type show) and Name That Tune Live. And of course, the more risque fare like Peep Show or Chippendales. Schneider does not handle the performers who cycle through Las Vegas for a few shows while on tour, however.
Timing Is Everything
With the appropriate lead time and budget—private performances by Caesars Entertainment headliners run $10,000 to $40,000, except for top Colosseum stars, whose appearance fees are closer to $1 million—Schneider says it’s a simple process to book a Las Vegas headliner if the event is scheduled on the performer’s day off.
“If it lands on a day the show is dark, then it’s just easy,” she says. “Since I have so much content citywide, we have so much to choose from. If one headliner’s not available, I can go to another one or two and ask them how their schedules look.”
Wallace, she notes, is dark Sunday and Monday, while Human Nature, an Australian trio that performs Motown standards at the Imperial Palace, doesn’t run on Thursday or Friday.
And not all the headliners have evening shows. Two of Schneider’s performers—Mac King and Nathan Burton—are magician/comedians with shows in the afternoon, which make for very easy transitions to evening events and receptions.
But if the client wants a headliner on a day when an evening show is scheduled, there can be substantial logistical obstacles to overcome, says Schneider. Unlike Wallace, many top Las Vegas shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and run 90 minutes, which conflicts with the key after-dinner time slot most planners would need them for.
Ventriloquist Terry Fator, who shot to fame on the 2007 season of television show America’s Got Talent, also starts his show at The Mirage, an MGM Resorts International property, at 7:30 p.m. And the seven Cirque du Soleil shows at MGM Resorts properties all have 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. curtains daily (although due to the importance of lighting, design, aerial setup, and artistic integrity the Las Vegas Cirque casts don’t perform outside their theaters).
Still, a determined client can make something special happen, Schneider says. “A lot of times, clients want the talent so much that they’ll be willing to bring them in earlier to launch their dinners, or they wait for them to finish dinner, and we run [the performers] across the street to do the grand finale,” she says. “That seems to work out really well.”
A group like Human Nature “can come in for a 15- to 20-minute appearance, which sometimes really works very well for our clients,” Schneider says.
But hiccups can occur with schedules this tight, as Price has learned. She contracted with Human Nature two years ago, and while the 30-minute post-dinner performance was a big hit, there wasn’t enough time allotted between the end of the group’s regular show and the start time of Price’s event. She had to cover by stretching out her awards presentation for 20 minutes. “It was a weeknight, but that doesn’t matter—traffic in Vegas is traffic in Vegas, and it can take you two hours to cross the Strip.”
In Fator’s case, the obstacle is not traffic, but vocal stress. His act, which involves both banter with his puppet characters and having them impersonate famous singers, takes “an incredible toll on my vocal cords,” he says. “My voice doctor has told me that an hour and a half a day is the maximum that I can do, and I have to do it all at once.”
That said, on infrequent occasions he will do shorter performances in the afternoon, well before his regular 7:30 p.m. curtain.
“I couldn’t do a full hour and a half,” Fator says. “But if someone wanted to book me for a half-hour show, depending on my schedule I might be able to do that. I just can’t do that every day. I still want to be doing this when I’m 80.”
A Customized Performance
Most headliners are happy to work with a corporate client to customize a show, says Schneider, whether that’s Burton making a CEO “magically” appear or Wallace doing his regular act—which involves asking audience members where they are from and what they do, and then riffing on the response.
“The artist typically likes to know some background on the group [that has hired them],” Schneider says. “I think the artists appreciate us trying to do creative things.”
One example that she gives was a planned show for a convention of the Red Hat Society, a social organization for women over 50 that claims 80,000 members in 30 countries. The group was planning “to do a buyout of Name That Tune Live,” Schneider says. While the arrangements fell through after the show was shut down, Schneider had approached the performers and suggested customizing the music to songs that include the words ‘red,’ ‘lady,’ ‘hat,’ or ‘society,’ ” Schneider says.
Still, when working with entertainers, Price’s main concern was not what they’re willing to add to their shows, but what they’re willing to delete. In Wallace’s case, Price decided she wanted to hire him when he did a 45-minute after-dinner performance before his public 10 p.m. show at a meeting planner familiarization trip put on by Caesars Entertainment in November.
“Part of his act normally involves healthcare and making fun of healthcare,” she says. “When I saw him on the fam trip, a good part of it was him asking the audience, ‘Where are you from, what do you do?’ Somebody said, ‘I’m in healthcare,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I hate you,’ and then he went into it. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t have that. These are all CEOs of hospitals.’ ”
So when she talked to Schneider about hiring him, Price told her, “I really like him, however I can’t have that. If he wants to poke a little fun at doctors, that’s one thing, but these guys really take their jobs very seriously. [Wallace] was great. Because I cautioned him about the audience, he worked with me, and he never once put [inflammatory material] in there, so he didn’t offend anyone in my audience, which I so appreciate because sometimes people say, ‘Hey, that’s part of my act, like it or leave it.’ ”
In fact, in the green room just before he went on, Wallace showed her his notes, which clearly said, “no healthcare jokes,” she adds.
That doesn’t always work, though. A few years ago, at another event Price runs in a different city, she says she “asked the [entertainers] not to do something. They chose to ignore me and did it anyway, and I kind of took some heat because of it.”
The same applies to profanity, Price adds, noting that her executive conference CEOs are a very conservative group. And it’s up to the meeting owner to pass along specific needs or sensitivities about their group.
“If there are any sensitive issues or corporate culture issues, most of the time the client will let me know, and I will pass that on to the artist,” says Schneider. “We really try to be as corporate friendly as we can.”
She also strongly recommends that the client see the show during the site inspection, to make sure it’s a fit for the group.
While Fator’s show is “family-friendly,” he says, there are a couple of images that he acknowledges “tap dance on the line.” But he was happy to remove them during a recent show he did for a corporation in San Antonio, TX.
“I’m there to please the audience; I’m there to please the people who are bringing me,” Fator says. “I have no problem with that at all.”
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