Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wynn on Garth, Bette and Beyonce, A Teleplay

Steve Wynn had asked me not to air the audio of our recent conversation, but he gave me full permission to report the newsworthy stuff that we discussed in writing. I was going to use this sequence about Bette, Garth, Garth's plane, Beyonce and more in different blog posts, but it's so much fun I figured I'd just get out of the way and let the conversation speak for itself. The conversation took place on Nov. 24. Enjoy.

Friess: And when is Bette Midler starting at the Encore?

Wynn: Who? Bette Midler?

Friess: Sure, she’s leaving Caesars, she’ll want another gig.

Wynn: Is Bette leaving?

Friess: Yeah, she’s ending her contract at the end of January. You know that, don’t you?

Wynn: I did not know it.

Friess: Oh, OK. Well, she’s leaving Caesars at the end of January.

Wynn: Who’s taking her place?

Friess: They haven’t said anything yet. Right now the only person that have in there is Cher.

Wynn: Uh-huh.

Friess: So right now they’re out looking for people. And I’m sure you are, too. I’m sure you’re looking for other headliners to fill in for Garth.

Wynn: I only have certain names that I like.

Friess: And I assume Bette’s one of them.

Wynn: Uh, I didn’t know she was leaving until you just told me.

Friess: Can you share some of the other names?

Wynn: No. I don’t want to telegraph what we’re trying to do.

Friess: Well, I’ll tell you this. This idea of doing Garth as this intimate, unplugged thing is fascinating if you do it with other people, too.

Wynn: You can’t do it with other people, Steve. He is so unbelievable when he does it. He walks out with a guitar over his shoulder. The man’s voice, his ability to tell his story, he totally extemporizes. He’s funny, he’s talented, he talks about his history. He talks about Ricky Skaggs to Boz Skaggs, James Taylor to Bob Seger, Billy Joel to Elton John. He sings all their stuff. He does “Against The Wind” better than Seger does. Best thing I’ve seen since the Rat Pack.

Friess: I think somebody like Bette could do an unplugged set, too.

Wynn: I think Bette Midler can do anything she wants. I think she’s the most gifted girl. I think she’s fabulous.

Friess: And you’re gonna be on the phone with her in the next half hour.

Wynn [Laughing]: Well, you gave me the tip off. I’m gonna call her and ask her what she wants to do. And seeing Bette Midler in a 1,500-seat theater is a kick in the ass. To be that close to her?

Friess: I just think it’s a brilliant bit of counterprogramming to get these big stars to do these smaller, more intimate shows.

Wynn: I agree with you. The question is if I can get them to do it. I can’t pay them $500,000 a show. Can’t do it.

Friess: I need to ask you a very simple question about Garth. This idea that you’re buying him a plane. Are you buying him an actual physical plane and he keeps it?

Wynn: He keeps it.

Friess: And he takes it wherever he wants to go.

Wynn: It’s his airplane.

Friess: I’m trying to figure out – those are planes cost $20- or $30 million.

Wynn: This was a great market for airplanes, so it cost a little less. There are hundreds of airplanes for sale.

Friess: Did you buy the one Sarah Palin put on eBay?

Wynn: No, no. I bought him a beautiful Canadair 604. [Click here to see Garth's plane!-sf] It’s a big wide airplane it’s got almost a 4,000 mile range. It can take him anywhere he wants to go but it’s very comfortable. It’s as wide as a Global Express.

Friess: I just don’t understand the math behind this deal.

Wynn: I know. I know ya don’t and that’s because we won’t tell ya.

Friess: Well I understand that, but don’t you see why it would be puzzling? The expense of him and the ticket prices ... and I’ve calculated out the ticket values and I don’t see how you make money.

Wynn: If you take the ticket price and mutliply it by 60 shows at 1500 people a show and you take $125 a ticket and you say well, 'That won't work plus the cost of a jet.'

Friess: Am I wrong?

Wynn: No, you’re right.

Friess: So, how does it work?

Wynn [Laughing]: I don’t wanna tell ya.

Friess [Sighing]: OK.

Wynn: Let’s put it this way. When I got through with Beyonce, I was short. It didn’t work.

Friess: She didn’t really sell out, did she?

Wynn: Yes she did. Absolutely. 100 percent.

Friess: Oh, OK. And the tickets were more expensive.

Wynn: Yeah. But all I’m saying is, we made a terrific amount of money because of the casino. Remember, our only source of income is not the tickets. We have rooms, we have food, beverage and gambling

Friess: Well then I guess the question is, are the shows becoming a loss-leader again.

Wynn: In the case of Garth Brooks, for sure. I don’t mind telling you that.

Friess: Got it.

Wynn: But a loss leader against ticket sales, Steve.

Friess: That’s the old Vegas model then. Cheap entertainment to bring them in to use the other stuff.

Wynn: That’s right. And that’s what Garth is. That’s no secret.

Friess: So is this a function of the economy then?

Wynn: No, no, no, no. It’s a function of getting one of the great world-class performers to compromise so this can happen but even that compromise creates the situation you’re describing. Garth wanted to do this with me. He bent to it. He cooperated. Could Garth Brooks get more money somewhere else? Conceivably yes. But this was the biggest deal I’ve ever made in my life. But it was based upon the fact that I believe Garth Brooks is worth it, that he brings something to our hotel, to our enterprise, a soul, a warmth, a gift to my guests that leave saying that something special happened while they were here. Something they couldn’t see at Texas Stadium or at the Thomas and Mack Arena or Sam Boyd Stadium.

End scene.

Dave Berns Feels "Relief" About Leaving KNPR

In this week's Vegas media shocker, Dave Berns, the host of KNPR's two-hour daily talk and interview show "State of Nevada," left his job abruptly today.

It was a poorly kept secret around KNPR and among those who appeared often on the program -- myself included -- that Berns had grown frustrated and uncomfortable with the direction of the program and clashed with KNPR General Manager Flo Rogers. But today, reached by phone, Berns insisted the parting was amicable.

"Right now, I have a sense of relief and it's because doing the show every day creates a lot of pressure," said Berns, a former Review-Journal business writer and editor and publisher of Las Vegas Business Press, both owned by Stephens Media. "It's nice not to have some pressure."

Berns was vague about his differences with Rogers, who created the show along with former Vegas TV anchor Gwen Castaldi in 2003. Berns subbed for Castaldi often and then became the full-time anchor four years ago after her retirement.

"Basically, Flo and I have had a number of conversations about the direction of the program," he said. "She sees it one way, I see it as another. I won't go into specifics. This is about the direction of the show. The bottom line is, Flo hired me four years ago and this show is her creation. It's not my bat and not my ball. She's been great to me, given me every opportunity to grow professionally and as a person."

As Dave would with a cagey guest, I asked the question a few more ways. He's evidently learned a thing or two from all those politicians he interviewed, though.

"The show I've been doing is the show I could see us continuing to do," he said. "Flo has a slightly different version of it. I don't want to go into her version. We've agreed to leave it at that."

Rogers was unavailable for comment today but said through a spokeswoman: "Obviously, we wish Dave all the best."

Berns had already been stripped of some of his authority related to the show earlier this year. He was, as host and senior producer, the final arbiter of what went on the program until last summer when former Las Vegas Business Press editor Ian Mylchreest became executive producer. Berns says now that this was a logical division of labor, that it did free him to focus on his hosting responsibilities and that Ian remains a close friend. "It just takes a lot of work to keep up with you and (Steve) Sebelius and (Jon) Ralston on Nevada Week in Review and reading all your blogs," he said. "I welcomed the change."

If all this had been brewing for so long, why now?

"It just felt right for the both of us," Berns said. "Part of it is, it's really important for the station to have a good clean transition, so the artificial nature of the end of the year helps."

Berns said he's got several shows on tape to be played this month and that the December holidays are typically a period for reruns anyhow.

Berns brought to his role at KNPR a newspaperman's doggedness with politicians and public officials that Castaldi lacked as a former TV anchor. Castaldi dwelled frequently in long interviews with Vegas old-timers whereas Berns showed a fascination for topics that occasionally were only loosely related to Las Vegas but could be involved in the broader water-cooler discussion of the day. He'd frequently invoke his Jewish, New Yorker and Baby Boomer credentials to engender comraderie with the likes of Harvey Fierstein, Hal Prince and others.

His interviews with Andre Agassi and Tony Curtis rank among his most memorable.

"When Agassi was in recently, I almost felt like I was talking to my younger brother," he said. "And when Tony Curtis was in, I almost felt like I was talking to my father. For some reason, the shorthand was all there and it just worked."

No anchor replacement has been announced.

[Disclosure: I have been a frequent guest of "State of Nevada" and substitute hosted twice this year.]

Wynn Alters Garth Ticketing Plan

I'm working on a piece to post for one of my clients about the Garth Brooks ticketing and anti-scalping effort, but there was some news that I felt needed to get out NOW.

In a letter to ticketholders that arrived yesterday, Wynn Resorts laid out a system that involved ticketholders and all of the people coming to see the show arriving from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. to get their tickets in a ballroom. Everyone would show ID, receive a handstamp and wristband that they cannot remove until the enter the theater. Each ticket would have the name of the person whose seat it is printed on it and ID would be checked for every attendee at the door of the theater.

Well, ignore all that. Wynn spokeswoman Jennifer Dunne just told me they've changed the plan yet again. Now:

* Only the purchaser has to come get the tickets, although names of everyone attending is still printed on each ticket and no changes will be permitted.
* Never mind about the wrist bands and hand stamps. Not doing that.
* ID will be checked at the door of the theater randomly, not universally.

Anyone who can't use a ticket can get a full refund within, I presume, a reasonable length of time prior to the show. A standby line forms at noon the day of each show for folks to buy returned seats at the Wynn box office.

Gotta get back to writing my piece. But I figured I ought to get this up asap for those who care.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tiger = Vegas Stimulus Package?

It's a little disconcerting that the same night as my column about how Tiger's scandal could help Vegas, the mayor himself says so and Jon Ralston smacks him down on Twitter as buffoonish. Ahh, well. For the record, I am not saying that committing adultery while in Vegas is something I endorse. I'm just saying, as I suspect the mayor might, that it's good for business. There's a difference. Anyhow, enjoy. -sf

Welcome to Fabulous Lust Vegas, Mr. Woods



I got dragged kicking and screaming into an on-air discussion about the Tiger Woods sex scandal last week by KNPR State of Nevada host Dave Berns. I had happily avoided the topic in its first week and felt smug and superior about sticking to the real and important news of CityCenter and strippermobiles.

“I don’t want to talk about Tiger Woods, Dave,” I moaned at 8 a.m., when Dave asked me to come in for a ramble about several recent topics. “I just don’t care about him.”

Still, the opportunity to discuss the other matters on the docket propelled me to show up and play along. So at about 10 a.m., Berns raised a question that I felt at the time was an erudite person’s excuse to roll in the gutter:

“The revelations that are coming out about Tiger Woods’ personal life, could this endanger Las Vegas’ reputation in some way as a place that you can go and you can have a bacchanal, you can have a wide-open party, you can spend money and you can do it assuredly knowing that whatever you do there truly does stay there?”

Go ahead, roll your eyes. I sure did. And then, when I began answering and started paying a little more attention to this matter elsewhere, I realized it is a legitimate question with, to my mind, a pretty surprising answer.

You see, the more I’ve thought about it, the more it appears to me that the Tiger Woods scandal and its now-multiple Vegas tie-ins is actually one of the best things that has happened to this city in a long, long time.

First, though, let’s answer Dave’s question. Do these revelations betray the “what happens here stays here” ethos?

Read the REST at LasVegasWeekly.Com.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Murren and Ralston: It's Even Worse

Jon Ralston undersold himself -- or teased us to watch, if you believe him to be that diabolical -- regarding his exchange with MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren about Murren's remark to me that he's never been in Encore or Palazzo and doesn't even know when Encore had opened.

Here's the whole exchange, which begins when Ralston asks him about the remark and quotes from my L.A. Weekly story:

Murren: Honestly, I wouldn’t have gone to the spa tower if I didn’t work at MGM Mirage and Bellagio opened up the spa tower. There would be no reason for it. I wouldn’t need to. I live in Summerlin. I have a great community. I coach my kids. I have a lot of restaurants out there. If I didn't work in the resort community, I probably wouldn't come down here much. That was my point. That is my point as a counterpoint to CityCenter. I really believe it is not a casino-hotel. I really would not be upset at all if people never visit Aria that live here, but I would be upset if they didn’t try to wander around CityCenter and enjoy the environment. I think that’s something that would be enhancing to them.

Ralston: You don’t think as the CEO of the biggest employer in the valley, you should check out the competition once in a while?

Murren: I do, but you know we have great people. You called me the Father of CityCenter. You know, Jon, that we have 50,000 people working for us right now. I have the most talented men and women in management that know more about than I will ever know about casino operations, hotel operations, casino marketing, hotel marketing, I don’t need to go to every property to get an idea what’s happening.

Click on the image below to watch this segment.

You can watch all four segments of Jon's talk with Murren here. Well worthwhile.

So here's the problem. Murren admits he has no need to go to any of these places, it's not his thing, he wouldn't even have gone to his own property if it weren't his job. This is NOT a man who has a great passion for the offerings that Vegas-goers enjoy. He does not identify with most of you who read this blog.

And yet Jim Murren has just decided that he understands what travelers who come here want -- to the tune of a $8.5 billion complex. There's a disconnect there and it's a very, very important one.

Murren speaks of "themed resorts" as if (a) they're tawdry and (b) anyone's opened a new one since 1999. All that has been built -- I'm leaving out Aladdin/Planet Hollywood because that's a strange anomaly in so many ways -- in recent years have been upscale quarters for the increasingly wealthy, hip and cultured. What's new this decade? The Palms, Wynn, Encore, Palazzo, Palms Place, Red Rock Resort and M. Not a theme to be found in any of those. And Murren would know this if he'd do his due diligence as head of this corporation. (Palazzo, despite its name, really is themeless.)

No, the argument could be made that in a marketplace increasingly crowded with stuff for a class of people whose numbers are shrinking, a new themed resort geared to the rest of us would be a delightful, welcome and distinctive change of pace.

What's more, Murren is eschewing the sort of serious in-the-trenches research that Wynn, Maloof, the Fertittas, the Boyds, the Marnells and others are known to do in a constant fashion. You just can't understand Vegas secondhand or from a report. Just ask anyone who was dragged here kicking and screaming by a spouse or friend and then had all their preconceived notions erased.

CityCenter was Jim Murren's idea. A community is now reliant on its success. But when Murren tells us he thinks he knows what travelers want in Las Vegas, he's basing it on what?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Murren Is OK With Locals Skipping Aria

One of the quotes that fell out of my 4,100-word L.A. Weekly opus on CityCenter in the editing phase was this from RateVegas.Com owner Hunter Hillegas: "It's almost as though if Jim Murren could have built Aria without a casino, he would have." Murren, of course, is the MGM Mirage CEO.

I asked CityCenter president Bobby Baldwin about that notion and he found it "completely ridiculous."

Baldwin: He has an affinity to making money and he knows he couldn't make any money at CityCenter if he didn't have a powerful casino-resort. So there was never any discussion of having no casino at all in there.

Friess: Right, but you are a gambler. You understand the appeal of gambling.

Baldwin: So does Jim Murren, even though he's not a gambler. ... He knows that the casino component of any casino-resort is the economic driver of its economic results. So he's acutely aware of that.

OK. So Murren knows it's necessary. That's not the same as liking it and most of the company's planned future expansion outside of Las Vegas aims to rebrand MGM Mirage as a hospitality company with non-gaming hotels in Dubai, Egypt, China and elsewhere.

The reason I bring this up is because Jon Ralston asked Murren today about his admission -- boast? -- to me that he'd never been in Encore or Palazzo. Here's that quote to me in its entirety:

I’ve never been in Encore, when did it open up? I’ve never been into Palazzo. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t need to go. But I do know – I have nothing against either one of those guys, especially Steve Wynn, I like him a lot. But [CityCenter] is not going to be, for most people, the same as just another resort opening up. I know it won’t.

Now, it's not just that he's saying he's never been in but that he seems proud that he doesn't even know when the last most significant events in his marketplace occurred. That would seem strange in and of itself -- surely the head of Coffee Bean knows when a new Starbucks opens nearby, right? -- but now comes Murren's further explanation of the remark to Ralston in a TV interview for Ralston's "Face To Face" show. According to Ralston's transcript of his interview with Murren, which should air tonight on Las Vegas One, Murren said:

"I live in Summerlin. I have a great community. I coach my kids. I have a lot of restaurants out there. If I didn't work in the resort community, I probably wouldn't come down here much. That was my point. That is my point as a counterpoint to CityCenter. I really believe it is not a casino-hotel. I really would not be upset at all if people never visit Aria that live here. ... ."

Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Baldwin said Aria's casino is the economic engine of the whole she-bang and Murren knows that. But Murren doesn't even care if his neighbors ever see it and, if he didn't have to because he gets millions to do so, he might never bother either! This is not a ringing endorsement of the most significant financial element of your new endeavor, is it?

So let's remove Aria from CityCenter. Without it, you're left with four buildings containing private residences, two of which are also hotels that contain no shows or casinos. And you have a 500,000-square-foot "retail and entertainment district" with some of the most expensive products anyone can sell anywhere in the world, not exactly a locals-friendly shopping experience. Plus a whole lot of terrific art and an oft-mentioned pocket park that Murren recommends as a neat place to sit even though there's no place (yet) to sit. (Note to fellow journos: There is only one pocket park at CityCenter. One. So "pocket parks" is not accurate. Thanks.)

Again, there are lots of elements of CityCenter I love. But it is worrisome when a massive gaming company is being piloted by someone who isn't personally aware of his competition and seems so personally uncomfortable with the heart of his business.

I asked Steve Wynn about this, too. In the old days, it was customary for the casino moguls to walk one another around their properties pre-opening. It was standard for them to attend one another's openings, too. And here's what Wynn replied when told of Murren's statement:

"He didn’t ask me! I’d love to give him a tour. He can have anything he wants. He can go in the back of the house, he can go in the accounting room, he can look at the financial statements. Oh, hell, if he called me up if he wanted to know what the daily operating expenses were, I’d tell him. Absolute open book."

Wynn has walked CityCenter or at least the Crystals, by the way, with his former
protege Bobby Baldwin. No idea what he thought of it, though. His company did this on Sunday...

RT @Brian_Fey: I'd like to see a scan of that.  I'm sure its ... on Twitpic

...though. The Twitterverse lauded Wynn's class but I'm sure MGM Mirage did the same for Encore and Palazzo. And I found the second sentence in that full-page R-J ad a little loaded:

"Most of all we wish the thousands of people that will staff CityCenter a happy and secure future."

Oh, and one more thing. You think maybe if I wore a disguise and pretended to be Murren, Wynn would show me all that stuff, too? Worth a shot, no?

Following up on The Sun's Firings

I'm not going to belabor the Greenspun Media Group firings much longer except to note that, for those who haven't looked, the count on the list I'm compiling is now 37. I appeared with Dave Berns on "State of Nevada" on KNPR last week to mull the thing and it dawned on me during that chat that the Greenspun family hadn't invested heavily in just one industry now in dire straits -- media -- but in at least two others, casinos (via now-bankrupt Station Casinos) and real estate. Yikes, huh?

Also, Jon Ralston, the most prominent and significant brand associated with Greenspun Media Group, finally wrote some thoughts on the carnage four days -- and an email from me baffling over why he hadn't said anything -- later. Knowing that Ralston would be instantly all over Review-Journal publisher Sherm Frederick if Sherm had fired three dozen people and then wrote a column pretending that this "consolidation" would produce a better product and waxing on about "hope," what Jon did write was intriguing and worth sharing.

This was at the bottom of the Friday edition of his daily e-mail newsletter, the Ralston Flash:

Dear Flashees,

I have been tardy in not commenting on the layoffs at Greenspun Media this week. I am almost glad I let a blizzard of events in my own extreme-entropy-filled life get in the way because I have been able to soak in the various takes, most of them uninformed, from the outside.

Amid all the handwringing are two realities: The company’s financial constriction and the brutally sad loss of 40 jobs.

I have no clue of the parent company’s balance sheet but I am sure it is no different than most of the major companies in Southern Nevada – that is, hurting. So I am sure the Greenspuns felt they had to do something to stanch the bleeding, no matter how painful, just as gaming goliaths and development behemoths have. But it just feels different to people in the business when this happens to others in the business, especially those of us still with jobs. We feel guilt mixed with sympathy and overall, a sense of loss, both tangible and intangible.

There were some great, talented people let go this week and I hope they find jobs, even though employment in journalism is more and more dicey. These are dark days for those of us who prize the profession, as we have seen newspapers and TV stations cut and gut their staffs, and I wonder if the quality can be maintained.

I have seen and heard criticism of how this was handled at Greenpsun Central. [sic] So be it. But is there a good way to handle such a cataclysm? I don’t think anything could have softened the blow for those laid off this week. As for the observation that this is the dismantling of an organization that just won a Pulitzer, that the Sun grabbed the prize and then disbanded the team, let’s wait awhile. A new business and journalism model is in its nascent stages, so let’s see how it plays out. I’m hopeful that this is not, as some ominously foretell, the beginning of the end, but rather a new beginning.

One more valedictory: I wanted to say a word of thanks and well wishes to Mike Kelley, the Sun managing editor who presided over that Pulitzer and is now leaving the organization to spend more time with his grandchildren. Kelley arguably created something even greater and more monstrous than a Pulitzer, something called “Face to Face with Jon Ralston.” It was his vision that gave me the chance to do what has become the most enjoyable part of my journalistic career. For that, I shall be eternally grateful. He is a real newsman and I wish him all the best.

I'll ignore all the "those dastardly outsiders don't know the real story" crap because it's what some people say about many of Jon's commentaries, too, so I know he doesn't mean it. And I'll say that it's too bad Jon didn't pay homage to his own dismissed editor, Pat Teague, since Pat probably would've prevented Jon from misspelling the name of his own employer.

Nah, I'll move right on to the part where Jon asks: "But is there a good way to handle such a cataclysm?"

In fact, there is! I read a very interesting piece about this very topic recently! The headline was "Workplace transparency helps ease pain of employee layoffs." The piece opens with these four words: "Talk to us. Please." The idea is that layoffs are a little less stinging when both those who leave and those who remain have a clue what the circumstance of the company is. Also -- and this isn't in that story but kinda is a teaspoon of common sense -- it does nobody favors to have their former boss try to cast their unemployment as a cause for anyone to feel affirmed or upbeat. And I can't tell you the number of emails I've received from the fired thanking me to keeping that list. Being acknowledged for your service, it seems, also makes the pain a little more palatable.

Oh, that story I just referenced? Ahh, right. It was in IN Business Las Vegas. It was probably edited by Jeff Simpson, now the former editor of the GMG publication which also carries a weekly column by Jon Ralston.

It ran on Nov. 27. Four days before the Sun's Black Tuesday.