My Day with Professor Moran Cerf

It was 6:55 am on Thursday, December 7, 2017, I read the Southwest flight status for the Professor’s trip to land at McCarran Airport at 7:15 am. Then he would have to get his bags and walk out to Passenger Pick-Up, so I figured that would take another 30 minutes for him to get out to my car. But I was wrong. I looked up at my desktop, refreshed the flight status page from the night before and all I could read in bold red letters was: “At Gate” and it was only 6:56 am. The professor’s flight had landed half an hour early. I left my house, got into the car and made a mad dash for the airport. In the meanwhile, all I could think was that one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world is flying to Las Vegas on his own dime and spending a full day with me without any compensation and I was running half an hour late to pick him up?

Professor Moran Cerf has over 100 TV, radio, print publication credits. He has spoken at several TED and TEDx events. He travels to a different city every week to give a lecture. The Fortune 500 companies are hiring him and his PhD students to study their most complex problems and here I am racing down Spring Mountain Road in a Toyota Highlander trying to get to Passenger Pick-Up before the Professor because I did not want him to wait out in the 37 degree weather that morning. This was going to be the start of one hell of a day!

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How did this all come about? About 9 months ago, I came up with the idea of reaching out to the top marketing professors in the country to help me with this dilemma that I’ve had for the past five years in my business: how do you fill the seats of a Las Vegas show? The answer is much more difficult than it sounds because no one has come up with a consistent, predictable formula yet. Finding a solution to filling seats in Vegas is like playing the stock market. You will never be correct all the time, but you can minimize your risk by diversifying your portfolio. In the same way, you can fill a room by using several different tools for marketing a show and hope that several people from each ticket source will attend the show. On average, only 30% of Las Vegas showrooms are filled on any given night. This is a terrible number because it is not enough for the show to break even and not enough to keep the show going for even six months. Many shows don’t even last six months. The Las Vegas show, contrary to popular belief, is not a cash cow.

So I reached out to all these marketing professors from across the country and one responded to me via email – Moran Cerf. I was grateful that one professor responded. I was even more grateful that he was the professor leading the charge in using the most advanced scientific techniques to study neuroscience, behavioral economics, decision-making, the brain’s activities and several other new marketing tools which applied to business. And now, I was hoping it would also apply to the marketing and selling of tickets in Las Vegas. Over the next nine months, I would email, call and text the professor with more and more information about what I was trying to do and why it was important. I felt this was tremendously vital information to the Las Vegas community and to the arts community because starving artists were coming to Vegas thinking they could produce a show on the Strip only to find out that it is almost impossible to compete and sell tickets to any new show. How is one supposed to compete against the public relations strength of the Cirque du Soleil shows? How is a show supposed to afford Vegas.com’s digital marketing packages if their theater only has 150 seats and a $40 price point? What show can compete against the SEO keyword footprint of many of these Vegas ticket brokers that focus on selling the big shows because they get a bigger commission and can sell more tickets? How can the casinos take the money of these struggling artists and their investors when they know full well that they even have trouble sometimes filling a showroom for the A-list celebrity shows that they pay for themselves?

Why would the casinos do this to the newly-arrived Vegas performer? The argument is that it costs the casinos money to open these showrooms and they are not a charity, so they need to charge something. And thus my dilemma — everyone is producing shows but no one knows how to fill them consistently and predictably. I knew I couldn’t figure this out on my own, so I sought out the greatest marketing minds in the country to help me figure it out. And Professor Moran Cerf responded to the call.

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So after a little bit of tardiness on my part, I picked up the professor. Just the night before, he had been up the entire night working with his students to prepare him for this trip. His two PhD data analytics students were supposed to come with him during the trip to assist in the analysis of the show data, but they were foreign students and had certain visa requirements with the school that they were not able to complete prior to the trip, so Professor Cerf ended up flying solo. Moran was dressed down when I picked him up in a gray bubble jacket with a white v-neck underneath, jeans and sneakers. He had two small bags. I gave him the keys to the hotel room I secured for him at the Rio Hotel and Casino, and he told me that he would change prior to his lecture at the Rio or at the venue itself.

Our first stop was at a local breakfast spot – Egg Works. The professor got to know my background in the entertainment industry and how I started my business and we also got to talk about the dilemma of the ticket sales in Las Vegas.  It was a cordial breakfast and then we went straight to Lamar Billboards – the largest billboard company in Las Vegas and the third largest billboard company in the United States. We met with account executives Jim Villela and Suzy LaMonica. These two representatives for Lamar were a wealth of information and a tremendous resource. They were hospitable, friendly, open and direct with their answers to our questions. What we learned in that meeting was that even though there is no direct ROI that can be calculated with the billboards all over Vegas, they are still a highly valued media because 85% of their customers renew their contracts and many of their customers become concerned when any of their billboards are down for any period of time. Jim and Suzy talked about the history of Lamar, the ubiquitous presence of billboards in Vegas, and they also mentioned how Lamar addressed the needs of the smaller businesses in Las Vegas by creating advertising options that were affordable for their budgets.

This discussion along with the story of my company and our pursuits in Vegas may have triggered a phone call from the Professor to his mentor as we drove in the car to our next destination. Although the conversation was in Hebrew, Moran explained when he got off the phone that he told his colleague they must start working more with smaller businesses. He and his mentor and their students and team have been helping the largest companies in the tech space for a long time. He believed it was now time to start helping the small businesses.

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Our next destination was straight for the RedFlint Experience Center in downtown Vegas on 300 4th Street. The University of Phoenix was generous enough to lend their conference room without cost for Professor Cerf’s lecture. I initially spoke to our audience about how I came to think about this ticketing problem in Vegas and how I reached out to the Professor. I gave a brief intro for the Professor and then he spoke. And it was a wonderful talk with question and answer for 75 minutes. There were only 20 people in the room but he spoke as if it were a TED Talk of a thousand people. He shared some of his latest findings. He shared some of the information he had in his other talks at Fortune 500 company events. He was personable to the audience and at the end, he offered his team to work on any major issue in marketing and ticketing that the audience members were willing to share with him. This was quite an offer since his team of PhDs are the same students that Facebook and other tech companies utilize to solve their problems.

After the lecture, we drove to the Golden Nugget downtown. I did my best to share some Las Vegas history and information about the sites, attractions and the hotels. I should have brushed up before the Professor arrived on my Vegas history. We met at a Mexican restaurant with LuAnn Terrell – the top Vegas show marketer. Her career included over 20 years on the road with Gallagher promoting his shows and over 20 years promoting shows for Las Vegas. LuAnn gave her perspective about the issues of ticketing in Vegas with the overall crux of the conversation being — shows need to sell tickets to tourists before they arrive in Vegas. Otherwise it is either too late to sell tickets or the show is scrambling for the three or four days that the tourist is here. And if they can’t catch the tourists during that time period, then the shows resort to filling seats with locals for free or at a steep discount.

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After meeting with LuAnn, I brought the Professor to his hotel room because he still hadn’t been to his room and it was 4 pm already. He changed his flight from the first flight the next morning to 11:55 pm this same day! He figured we would go to a few more meetings, go to a show, have dinner and then fly out. After an hour and a half of wrestling with the airlines, he finally booked the flight he wanted and we were off to our next meetings. At this point, Professor Cerf was still running on only three hours of sleep from the flight the night before.

Our next meeting was with Steve Edwards of iWerx Connect and Michael Grema – local Vegas organizer of TED and TEDx events. Both gave opposing views of how businesses were being affected by social media in Las Vegas. Steve had the experience of running his own digital marketing company and Michael shared his knowledge from the many groups and organizations he worked with in the downtown Vegas area on a daily basis. Moran spoke very little during this conversation. He was an academic between a debate of two practitioners of social media on the ground level.

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(from left to right: Michael Grema, Professor Moran Cerf, Philip Peredo, Steve Edwards)

After that short meeting, the Professor and I went to the Paris Casino Hotel to watch a new show that had only been out in Las Vegas for the past two months – Circus 1903. The show had received much hype as the performers had been contestants on America’s Got Talent. The show took place in the beautiful 1,400 seat Paris Theater Showroom. The show itself matched the majesty of the room with some of the top variety acts in the world in tightrope walking, juggling, comedy, bicycle riding and several other traditional circus acts that had a modern spin. The affable and funny emcee even brought children to the stage several times and made the show enjoyable for everyone of all ages. This was an excellent example of a Las Vegas show because of the wonderful Vegas theater, the excellent show production, and especially because of the attendance – probably less than 20% of the seats were full in the theater. It was at this point when the Professor realized the true magnitude of the issue we had been discussing for the past ten months. It finally all sunk in. Vegas shows are great but not enough people are watching them.

After Circus 1903, I decided to give the Professor the true Vegas experience; and so I took him to Sapphire – the world’s largest gentlemen’s club. What is a Vegas trip without visiting a strip club? But this was no ordinary visit to the strip club. I took him to Sapphire during the club’s 15 year anniversary party. There was a purple theme. Cirque du Soleil performers entertained the guests. And the popular and highly-acclaimed Prince Tribute band performed in the showroom. This was the 300 seat state-of-the-art showroom that housed the Sapphire Comedy Hour – another show that I wanted the professor and his students to study. There was a wonderful buffet in the showroom and on the main floor of the club. There was an open bar and so I got the Professor and myself two glasses of white wine while we ate sushi, mushroom risotto, prime rib, and several other plates of decadence. I gave Moran a tour of the club’s over 100,000 square feet including the pool, VIP rooms, skyboxes, main floor and karaoke room. We listened to Prince for a little while and then we left. As we walked out, one of Sapphire’s “entertainers” approached the Professor and gave him a parting gift bag which included a nice block candle with a sticker of Sapphire’s 15 year anniversary as a momento. The Professor liked it.

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After leaving Sapphire, I brought Professor Cerf back to the Rio to get his bags and off we went to the airport. We were 90 minutes early for his flight, which was uncommon for Moran as he likes to arrive to the airport as the gates are closing. We talked some more about next steps including another visit by the Professor and his students in a month or two and me providing his team more data from the shows.

As I bid the Professor adieu, I felt a feeling of collegiality and excitement for the future. I have been gathering all the pieces of the puzzle for selling tickets in Las Vegas for the past five years; and now I feel I have met the individual who can finally complete the puzzle for me.

Let me know if you’d like to be a part of the Professor’s next visit.