Celebrity power is seducing a new generation of Sin City worshippers.
Fifty feet away from me, Britney Spears is suspended mid-air. Her long gown drapes dramatically to the floor, while two enormous angel wings extend from her shoulders, drawn upwards as if she is about to take flight into the heavens themselves – or at least the rafters of the Axis Theatre at Planet Hollywood.
I sing along word-for-word to her 2004 ballad, Everytime, with the younger crowd of 20-somethings, as the world's largest indoor projection screen blooms with animated cherry blossoms. Pastel confetti begins to snow from the rooftop rigging and the audience snatch at it greedily, as if each piece had been elaborately snipped by Britney backstage before the show.
As far as Britney's angel gimmick goes, it's small fry compared to other Vegas shows: Cher had a golden chariot, Elton a piano with 68 LED video screens, and Shania Twain crooned You're Still the One to a live white horse on stage. However, these acts mean nothing to the Gen-Y audience in Las Vegas tonight. To them, Britney is the be-all and end-all of the Sin City experience.
My poor husband, however, is bewildered by all the love for Britney. It doesn't help that next to him is a guy utterly losing his mind over seeing Britney perform, wiping tears away with one hand, using his illuminated phone like a torch with the other, pausing from his personal duet with the pop icon to occasionally scream Britney's signature line, "WORK B**TCH!"
Work indeed. According to Billboard magazine, ticket sales for Britney's Piece of Me Vegas residency have grossed over $A53.78 million dollars, and the pop icon is said to have signed to continue the show into 2017. For her trouble, Spears is rumoured to be paid more than $15.3 million per year - and then there is the overpriced merchandise in the Britney gift store, filled with items including glitter mugs, hoodies and undies bearing her "work" slogan.
Britney Spears's residency at Planet Hollywood represents a new era for Vegas, a city anxious to introduce itself to a new generation. While gambling used to make the money in Vegas, non-gaming revenue now accounts for 64 per cent of the city's income, with live entertainment a significant part of that mix.
For casinos, headline acts fill hotel rooms, restaurants, bars and gaming floors, along with raking in millions of dollars in box-office revenue. For the fans, a trip out to Vegas to see a show is a guaranteed good time, with social media bragging rights. However, for big-name acts, a Vegas residency is a convenient way to make maximum dollars without the hassle, jetlag and logistics of a world tour.
Depending on their star power, residencies offered by the big casinos are increasingly flexible, with acts able to pick and choose the months and nights they perform, allowing them to fly in, do a block of shows and, in Britney's case, fly back to pick up the kids from school the next day.
Production budgets and backing tracks are generous, and premium-priced corporate, VIP and meet-and-greet packages add extra coin to the kitty. Why tour the world, when the fans can come to you?
Acts of greatness
This year, big name acts taking the bait include Mariah Carey, who starts her first Vegas shows this month , while Elton John and Rod Stewart continue to extend their Vegas run. Carlos Santana, Boyz II Men and Diana Ross are also set to perform this year.
Australian acts continue to make their mark on the Vegas scene. Excalibur casino hosts The Thunder from Down Undermale revue and the Australian Bee Gees Tribute Show. Human Nature has a multi-year residency at The Venetian and Olivia Newton John plays the Flamingo until September.
However, the big news is Celine Dion, who is returning to Caesar's Palace in August after indefinitely halting her residency in 2014. The Canadian singer has performed an incredible 927 shows at The Colosseum venue since 2003.
Rise of the club scene
While Britney Spears's residency may have brought a younger crowd to town, Gen Y is prone to distraction, and Vegas offers plenty of temptation. The electronic dance music scene has exploded in recent years, and increasingly, visiting a club in Vegas is more of a "must-do" experience than shelling out big bucks to see a show.
Casinos know it, and have gotten creative with ways to keep the party going. Along with the traditional club space, they've also reinvented their pool areas as day clubs and beach clubs. Brunch clubs have been teased at some casinos (adding food to the music & booze party mix), while purpose built after-hours clubs are also popular.
Apart from cover fees (gentlemen traditionally pay more than the ladies), drinks and bottle service, clubs make a fair amount of their money selling tables, with booths closest to the dance floor (the most elite seats in the club) costing thousands.
Clubs aren't immune to needing headline acts, however, and many have invested heavily by inking lucrative, multi-year residency deals with internationally renowned DJs like Calvin Harris, deadmau5 and Tiesto. The Wynn casino group has been the most aggressive, signing over two dozen resident DJs, including Avicii and Diplo to their 2015 line up.
Increasingly, clubs are being used for live performances, with club venues striking a middle ground for up-and-coming artists not yet able to fill an arena (think Iggy Azalea) along with popular performers past their peak who can still pull a decent crowd (like 50 Cent).
Despite only opening in May 2014, Drai's nightclub recently expanded its stage to accommodate the increasing trend towards club acts. When we visit, the queue to get into the club snakes around the gambling floor of The Cromwell, with hundreds of people in line taking selfies against a strategically logo-imprinted backdrop, the kind celebrities are photographed against.
However, as we were staying at The Cromwell, we were given immediate, complimentary access to the club. Located on the 11th floor of the hotel, Drai's nightclub spills out onto the rooftop pool deck, offering views over the strip, the Bellagio fountains and all the neon Vegas has to offer. The darkened club is packed with a thumping capacity crowd dancing under the stars.
A festival future?
While headliners such as Britney and a thriving club scene hook a younger generation on the virtues of Vegas, the city isn't resting on its laurels as it looks for the next big thing to draw in the punters. Slowly and deliberately, Vegas has begun to move towards the festival market. Established festivals in Vegas include the successful Electric Daisy Carnival, Life is Beautiful and I Heart Radio festivals.
The biggest investment in growing the festival market has been made by MGM, who have almost completed the 33-hectare MGM Resorts Festival Grounds at the north of the strip, which will accommodate up 80,000 people. The first event will be the inaugural North American version of Rock in Rio, held this month with headline acts including Metallica, Taylor Swift and No Doubt.
With good weather, excellent flight connections and an abundance of hotel rooms, festivals are a logical step for a city keen to retain its crown as the entertainment capital of the world.
Virgin Australia fly from Sydney to Las Vegas via Los Angeles with sale fares from $1511AUD. See www.virginaustralia.com
The Cromwell offers 188 boutique hotel rooms with complimentary access to Drai's nightclub, with online bookings from $105USD. See www.caesars.com/cromwell
STARS HEADLINING IN 2015
Axis Theatre, Planet Hollywood; April, May, August, September
The Venetian Theatre, The Venetian; April
The Colosseum, Caesar's Palace; May, June
Boyz II Men
Terry Fator Theatre, The Mirage; March, April, May
The Colosseum, Caesar's Palace; August
The Colosseum, Caesar's Palace; April & October 2015
Olivia Newtown John
Donny & Marie Showroom, The Flamingo; to September 2015
The Colosseum, Caesar's Palace; August 2015- January 2016
The Sands Room, The Venetian; Tuesday- Saturday until December 2015
House of Blues, Mandalay Bay; May, September & November
Electronic Dairy Carnival
Las Vegas Speedway; June
Life is Beautiful
Rock in Rio
MGM Festival Grounds; May
The writer was as a guest of Caesar's Entertainment Corporation and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).