Leadership / 09.08.21
The Show Must Go On: Las Vegas’ Great Reopening
In a city where gambling is the major pastime, ticketing professionals and those who staff and put on live events in Las Vegas have been making some of the biggest wagers in the pandemic era. Most of the bets have centered on the town’s reopening in the time of coronavirus and, more specifically, getting people back in the seats, the stands, at the tables and slot machines.
The challenge is ongoing. Early on in the reopening, it was all about assuring the masses that they would be safe. “The most difficult aspect of the return of the Las Vegas we all love has been the level of consumer confidence,” says LasVegasTickets.com President Ken Solky. “As COVID-19 cases began to subside at the end of Q! this year, restrictions were severely reduced, and the floodgates of events burst open. Those fans who had spent the better part of a year relegated to home viewing of entertainment were more than ready to return to their favorite event venues, hotel resorts, restaurants and bars. It’s been imperative to make certain that fans were kept safe and felt safe.”
For some, this meant planning and strategizing well before restrictions were eased and the people returned. Erik Eisenberg, Vice President of Ticket Sales & Service for the Las Vegas Aviators, credits the Minor League Baseball team’s ticket operations team led by Siobhan Steiermann for doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
“[They] did a tremendous job being ready with multiple manifests,” he says. “We had reduced-capacity manifests for varying capacity limitations, a full-capacity manifest and a separate buildout for our premium seats. As soon as we got the go-ahead to return to 100% capacity, we were already prepared and flipped the switch to activate the season tickets at that point.”
Rob Bundschuh, Director of Ticket Operations for the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, says the key to his venue’s success during the reopening has been keeping fans “informed of changes to our ticketing process, scheduling and new COVID-19 rules.” He continues, “We have been able to navigate the constantly changing landscape through consistent communication between our associates, fans and partners. Every venue has dealt with schedule changes throughout the past 18 months, but these changes have taught us how to better adapt quickly to rescheduling events and informing our guests.”
For indoor venues, the struggle has been the ever-changing and fluid guidance related to vaccines, masks, variants and other safety precautions. These and other moving targets have “kept us on our toes,” says John Burnett, Vice President and CFO of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. “The need for new technology, policies and procedures to ensure the safety and well-being of our guests, staff and artists has also been challenging. Finally, re-staffing has been an unexpected challenge. Many people have taken the last 18 months to reevaluate their work and home life.”
Some ticketing pros interviewed for this article had to stay abreast of changing policies and procedures across multiple venues and shows. One such person is Bruce Bielenberg, Regional Director of Ticketing – Las Vegas for AEG Presents. “In the first phase of reopening,” he says, “it became obvious that only smaller venues and shows would be able to reopen due to the social distancing and capacity limitations. The first shows that reopened had to deal with seating pods and the infamous ‘entertainment moat’ that separated the artist from the audience. Some acts got very creative in that phase, for sure. And even now with the requirements of vaccination cards, negative tests and mask enforcements, it has been challenging.”
Mark Gargarin, Director of Ticketing for the Spiegelworld theater company, remembers back to last October and being the very first show to reopen in Las Vegas (“Absinthe” at Caesars Palace). “Opening at 25% capacity or no more than 150 people was a tough decision for us to make, but we made it happen,” he says. “Trying to sell the tickets to showgoers was not a challenge at all. Many were ready to come to Las Vegas.”
Then in December, the biggest challenge was dropped on Gargarin and his team when they had to change capacity to no more than 50 people in the venue. They ultimately made the decision to close. The stage, and so many others, went dark for the next three-plus months.
“Finally,” he says, “we were able to reopen in March 2021 once again with only 150 seats, which we did. Again, we only opened one show out of three to start off with, which is ‘Absinthe.’ From there, the capacity limits changed almost every two weeks. We were adjusting constantly. We started off with seats being sold in pods — tables of two, three, four, five or six guests. All pods/tables were 6 to 7 feet apart from each other and had to be purchased as a whole. No single tickets were sold, as the pod was sold as a set. However, because many were interested in vacationing and watching a show, we didn't have any challenges in selling them at the call center.”
Fast forward to now, and “Absinthe” is at 570 capacity — still not the full number. “Atomic Saloon Show” at The Venetian Resort reopened in May 2021. That show is still only at 75% capacity. And Gargarin is excited to announce that he and his team are reopening their third show, “Opium,” at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas this month.
Others simply just want things to move quicker. Safety is, of course, paramount. But among some longtime Las Vegas players, the reopening is not happening fast enough. “The speed with which everything is reopening hasn’t been met,” says Roger Jones, owner of VegasTickets.com. “People are working tremendously hard and long hours. However, staff has not been brought back fast enough, nor empowered with all the tools necessary to reopen at full strength. The rules, regulations, mandates, capacity restrictions, distancing, pod sizes, health check, etc. have been difficult to follow and constantly changing. Once you think you have it and can share with guests, it changes.”
And then there have been the personal challenges and obstacles to overcome. Everyone interviewed for this piece is a leader on some level. And the burden of leadership during this unprecedented worldwide health crisis has taken its toll.
Kathy Merachnik, Company Manager for Cirque du Soleil, was among the most candid. “For me personally,” she says, “it was the first long-term break from employment that I’ve ever had. While it was a treat to be able to slow down, relax and take stock, it made me realize how much I treasure live entertainment as well as the connection with the amazing artists, technicians and staff that I work with every day. Going from the slower pace of not working to relaunching two shows was quite a drastic — and welcome — change. Not only did we have to figure out a plan on how to reopen the show, the added layer of COVID-19 protocols created an additional challenge. The team came together and created an eight-week rehearsal/tech schedule that had to incorporate our new reality and had to be flexible enough to change with the latest protocol updates. It was challenging, exhilarating, and, ultimately, we ended up with two amazing shows.”
Bundschuh of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway also faced stresses he’d never dealt with before in his career. “The transition from getting staff set up to work from home and then transitioning back into the office and keeping up with the demand has been a great challenge,” he says. “With the amount of work and the varied challenges, accomplishing these tasks with less face-to-face interaction has required some adjustments. We’ve seen a tremendous effort from our team to make these transitions in a very seamless matter.”
He continues, “Personally, much like everyone else, just facing the uncertainty has created a great deal of stress for everyone. The world seems to change daily, and that presents challenges at work, at home, with your family and friends, and just in the way you go about your everyday life.”
For the Aviators’ Eisenberg, the challenges were a lot closer to the home. Actually, they were at home. He says, “My second child was born Feb. 28, 2020, two weeks before the world shut down. Raising two kids during the pandemic was challenging. It was great being able to spend time with them, but it was also challenging in the fact that there wasn’t any distractions or outside entertainment options available. We stayed isolated because we did not want the kids to get COVID-19. So, finding new ways to entertain them inside the house was the most difficult part.”
AEG Presents’ Bielenberg has found comfort in an industry camaraderie that was there before the pandemic but has only become stronger through adversity. He says, “Over the past 18 months, I have learned even more how valuable the ‘tribe’ is in our industry. There is no doubt that the [INTIX] Wednesday Wisdom sessions kept me mentally in the game. Just hearing your peers express similar concerns and emotions. And then to learn how people began to adapt to the curveball that we were all thrown — not only here in Las Vegas, but across the country and around the world — I think we saw different segments of the live industry reaching out to each other and working together: sports and fine arts, small and large venues, secondary market and primary market, independent promoters and large touring folks.”
Looking ahead to the fourth quarter of 2021 and into next year, most of the interviewees expressed both a resolve and a cautious optimism that Las Vegas will remain on track and will continue to be an oasis in the desert of worldwide uncertainty.
“I still have some minor concerns about the fourth quarter,” Bielenberg says. “We need to avoid another wave. Looking forward to 2022, we need our convention business to return to Las Vegas. That is how we fill seats for our mid-week shows. And it doesn’t look like that will return to full volume until at least mid-2022. The return of international travel may take even longer to return. But this town is resilient and continues to pick itself back up when knocked down. Just when you think it has lost its appeal, it reinvents itself.”
Eisenberg expressed an equal measure of optimism and caution: “For the fourth quarter, I would say I’m slightly optimistic. As more and more people get vaccinated and we see teams like the Raiders implementing vaccine mandates, this will hopefully get us closer to herd immunity as a country. As for 2022, I’m extremely optimistic about our season and live events as a whole. We already have groups looking to book large-scale events at the ballpark.”
For others, thoughts of the near future and 2022 tap into a well of emotions. Solky of LasVegasTickets.com says, “I feel optimistic, hopeful and truly blessed. I work in an industry full of intelligent, dedicated, loyal and hard-working individuals. Entertainment is such a strong part of the fabric of our great country. People want to be entertained. They need to be entertained. They count on live events as not only a distraction from the everyday normal life, but it is way to express their joys, feelings, hopes and dreams for a brighter tomorrow.”
Jones of VegasTickets.com agrees, adding, “Looking ahead to the fourth quarter and beyond, I remain optimistic about the return of entertainment. I think the reason I feel that way is that nothing replaces live entertainment. The feeling of a connection with other fans in the same place at the same time for the same reason cannot be replicated anywhere other than in live entertainment. That is why people will find a way to master any new requirements, continue to go out, and attendance and spending will continue to come back.”
Perhaps Bundschuh summed it up best, “There will be more challenges ahead, but we are resilient, and we will power through. As we say in Las Vegas, the shows must go on!”
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Tags: Music , Theater , Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus , Las Vegas