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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

10 bucks and you're a 'star'

10 October 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- This is one thing that happens here that won't stay here.

At least that's the hope of Jennifer Worthington, the creative force behind the Coyote Ugly bars who thinks Las Vegas is the perfect spot for the next big thing in "interactive entertainment" - one that, literally and figuratively, will put the party crowd in the spotlight.

Worthington was a 20-something producer with an impressive Hollywood resume that included the big-budget movies "Armageddon" and "The Rock" when she set aside her film career for the high-risk business of food and beverage operations in Las Vegas.

She had just wrapped the movie "Coyote Ugly," which followed a group of female bartenders working at the notoriously rowdy New York bar where employees administer tequila shots and female customers are encouraged to dance atop tables.

What better place to launch another Coyote Ugly bar, she thought, than Las Vegas, where tourists take on alter egos and consume naughty, mass-marketed entertainment.

Coyote Ugly, in its sixth year at New York-New York, would become one of the only new clubs on the Strip to combine a staff of cover-girl-attractive women with no dress code or exclusionary policies.

More important was what was happening inside, where female customers could not only drink and dance but become the entertainment.

Worthington, though, already was planning something more ambitious.

After $10 million in startup costs, some of it to develop patents on technology, Worthington in April launched Spotlight Live, a venue that is part "American Idol," part restaurant and bar, in New York's Times Square.

The restaurant features a high-tech theater and sound system allowing customers to perform their favorite songs in front of diners with help from professional backup singers, sound recordings and lighting.

Performances are uploaded to the Internet so family and friends back in, say, Cleveland, can watch the performances live. During their song, customers also appear on a giant JumboTron sign outside the Times Square venue, entertaining passers-by.

It costs $10 to perform, and for $20 more, customers can buy DVDs or CDs of their performance. Personalized posters are $15. Spotlight Live also offers private recording studios for customers who don't want an audience.

Even the worst amateurs can end up with a passable CD, thanks to engineers in a mixing booth who can make sure the professional singers and background music drown out off-key or shrill notes so that the customer is none the wiser. Diners also can vote for their favorite performance, instant message other tables and post comments online using touch-screens at each table.

But that's just window dressing compared with the real kicker: The best performers will get a record contract from Sony, one of the venue's corporate sponsors.

Worthington opened Spotlight Live in Times Square to establish credibility in the music industry by capitalizing on the large number of artists and publicists based in New York. Celebrity appearances by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs have helped create buzz among tourists.

"That's part of the aspirational experience for people, that they were on the same stage that P. Diddy was on last night," Worthington said.

She is negotiating with a Strip casino to launch the venue in Las Vegas, which is expected to be a bigger draw than the New York location.

Her partners in Spotlight Live, celebrity Chef Kerry Simon and restaurant developer Elizabeth Blau, have established reputations in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is the kind of place where the country's obsession with reality show television and its cult of celebrity and instant celebrity can truly flower, Worthington said.

"Even if you're not going to get a record contract, you're going to get your 15 minutes of fame," she said. "In Vegas, people do things they'd never do at home. You have librarians getting on top of bars and singing."

For some Americans, gaining notoriety can be more complicated, maybe going on a reality show and "eating snakes for $50,000," she said.

"Interactive entertainment" is a buzz phrase marketers have used in recent years to describe the kinds of experiences companies should be offering their been-there-done-that customers, whether it be bikini-clad cocktail servers or shows with audience participation.

One expert thinks Worthington is on the right track.

The Spotlight Live concept goes beyond the typical interactive experience offered in Las Vegas, which encourages visitors to engage in escapist activities and incorporates entertainment, such as roving performers, into normally mundane experiences such as shopping and dining, said Jim Gentleman, senior vice president of account management and strategy for Las Vegas advertising and marketing firm Schadler Kramer Group.

In the 1950s and 1960s Las Vegas lounges were intimate settings where stars mixed with the audience and sat in the crowd after their shows, occasionally joining less-known performers on stage, he said.

"Perhaps this is the lounge scene of the 21st century, where the tourist becomes the celebrity," he said.

Much like reality shows, the venue tries to give average folks an experience that's normally off limits to people who aren't celebrities, Gentleman said.

Or, in the case of Las Vegas, high rollers.