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Media moguls dancing all the way to the bank in Las Vegas

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It's almost 3 a.m. at the Tao nightclub on the Strip, and the anthem for the night is still blaring: "Party like a rock, party like a rock star."

Photographer Hew Burney, high on energy drinks, cuts through the dancing crowd with the practiced stealth of a running back spotting holes in a defensive line. He snaps pictures of cleavage-baring women who smooch for the camera and tilt half-full bottles of pricey champagne to their lips.

He flits to the next group, but not before tossing out a handful of business cards reading, "That picture you don't remember taking last night. . . . Spyonvegas.com." By the time Burney calls it quits at 4:30 a.m., he's shot 1,400 pictures that will be posted online before most revelers have slept off their hangovers.

The website may masquerade as a "Girls Gone Wild" knockoff, but it's a sophisticated marketing machine that its operators say logs 12 million page views a month, with banner ads from every hot spot in town. It's the brainchild of Ryan Doherty, 31, and Justin Weniger, 26, who have launched five businesses in four years, all tethered to the exploding Vegas night-life scene. Their enterprise, Wendoh Media, also operates a printing business, publishes two magazines and sells VIP passes to nightclubs.

Doherty and Weniger are the new breed of Vegas entrepreneur, finding success in Sin City without stepping foot in a casino. Over the last few years, nightclubs on and near Las Vegas Boulevard have taken on a life of their own, mushrooming from a handful to about 30 today, with two opening next weekend and more in the pipeline. The clubs are considered as vital as a poker room, with gaming companies carving out thousands of square feet for them and erecting huge digital billboard marquees.

The Venetian's Tao restaurant and nightclub raked in more cash than any other restaurant in the country in 2006 with $55 million in sales -- nearly half of that in alcohol -- so it's no surprise that Vegas' robust night life is producing the city's next generation of moguls.

So much cash is flowing into these venues that even the clubs' management companies are branching out. The Light Group, the mastermind behind the Light nightclub at the Bellagio and Jet at the Mirage, is planning three new restaurants, a loft project off the Strip and the Harmon Hotel and Residences at MGM Mirage's $7-billion CityCenter.

The success is also helping buy respect, said Bryan Bass, who teaches nightclub management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"There's definitely a younger generation that's starting to have a larger impact on Las Vegas," he said.

The Light Group's managing partner, Andy Masi, 37, agreed, noting that the Bellagio first rejected his company's idea for a nightclub.

Today, the Bellagio's parent, MGM Mirage, "has given us a hotel to operate and market and run. They no longer think of us as the nightclub kids."

There are no official measures of the economic effects of the clubs. But industry insiders say they are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, driving people into casinos and hotels, and creating scores of new jobs -- including bartenders and bouncers employed by the clubs, and publicists and club photographers, like Burney, who feed off the frenzy and feed back into it.

Consider the success of Pure Management Group. In five years, revenue for the company -- which manages the Pure club at Caesars Palace, Social House and Tangerine at Treasure Island, and Coyote Ugly at New York New York -- has jumped from $25 million to "in excess" of $120 million, said managing partner Steve Davidovici.

Next weekend, Britney Spears will be the host at the opening of the group's much-hyped LAX club at the Luxor. The price tag for the joint? About $20 million. Compare that to Davidovici's Hush, which cost $250,000 when it opened in December 2001 at Polo Towers on the Strip.

"Before, nightclubs were something that was scary -- and the people running them were a little scary," Davidovici said. "But this is a big business with big businesses behind them, and real money being generated."

Before long, UNLV's Bass said, "We'll definitely see a nightclub making $100 million in gross revenue, and that's pretty amazing."

Chad Pallas, director of special events at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, said, "Las Vegas is probably at the level of world-class nightclubs, rivaling New York, Miami, anywhere in the country, and it has a lot to do with the money generated."

So many competing venues means there's no shortage of work for a company like Doherty's and Weniger's Wendoh Media.

Its headquarters a few minutes off the Strip are a work in progress. The office building smells of fresh paint. Loose wires hang from the wall. Posters, magazines, business cards and promotional liquor bottles are stacked on every available shelf. Growing pains, Weniger says, apologizing for the remodeling mess.

Inside, workers -- most of them college graduates in their 20s -- are huddled around conference tables or computer screens, scheming and dreaming.

"The guy who makes all the money in the gold rush is the guy who sells all the shovels," Doherty said. "There are more and more nightclubs growing, and we stay in the middle of all of them. We stay everyone's friend."

By day, they publish two free magazines -- 944 and Racket -- that tout the city's night life. They sell VIP access passes to clubs. Their printing company produces posters and about every postcard and advertising billet handed out to the throngs of people roaming the Strip. Business is so good they're buying a second press. And in four years, the staff has grown from three employees to 95.

Each night, they send out a team of photographers to capture voyeuristic pictures of bar-hopping clubbers, creating what Doherty calls a "library for people's lives."

It's a symbiotic relationship: Clubs give the photographers almost unrestricted access; in exchange, deft editing on Spyonvegas.com makes every lounge look packed with gorgeous, buxom women -- even when they're not.

The company says the website last month logged 12 million page views, where people could check out the pictures and download them for free. That's compared to 30,000 a month less than a year ago.

"We could be in New York or San Francisco, but Vegas is definitely a better brand for us to develop," said Luis Kain, 28, whose software, Oosah, powers the website. "There's more money here, and the level of growth can come faster. I don't think there's a ceiling here."


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