Q’s With Life Is Beautiful’s Justin Weniger

Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival
– Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival
2 Chainz performs on Downtown Stage during day 1 of the 2017 Life Is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas.
Now in its sixth year, Las Vegas’ Life is Beautiful festival, which kicks off this weekend, has had a major impact on helping revitalize an often overlooked part of Sin City while contributing $185 million to the economy. Here, festival CEO and former UNLV outside linebacker Justin Weniger talks about upping this year’s offering, the importance of community and the synergies between school and festivals.
Pollstar: How are you holding up a week before show time?  
Justin Weniger: It’s really exciting right now. We’ve learned over the years that there’s about 50 weeks of planning and two weeks of executing and the better we are with the planning side, the more fun the executing part is. So far everything seems to be going very smooth, which is always a good sign. 
How are ticket sales this year?
We sold out. And amazingly we were able to increase capacity this year by about 22 percent. Last year was key; we went from never selling out the festival to selling out the first day tickets went on sale and we could’ve sold a lot more. We want to make sure the experience for the guests, from the time they walked out of their hotel room to the time they got back that night, was seamless, so we were pretty conservative last year with our capacity. 
What’s the capacity?
It will be 55,000 a day this year.
I think every venue or festival owner would love to have a 22 percent cap increase. How did you do it? 
The space we use is huge, it’s 18 city blocks. We navigate around the flow of people and kind of baby-step it up. We don’t want to go and add 40,000 people and get overly aggressive. Safety is always our No. 1 concern, but not far behind that is overall guest experience and making sure people don’t take too long walking between stages and there’s no massive pinch points or anything like that. 
And what’s driving the increase?
We’re growing the number of people to match the offerings. If you look at what we’ve done from a lineup standpoint, [topped by The Weeknd, Florence + The Machine and Arcade Fire] I think it compares to any festival in the country. We’ve really, really focused on being more of a bottom-up mentality. I think that Travis Scott is like, listed No.4 four this year, and he has one of the biggest hip-hop albums of the year. 

Justin Weniger
– Justin Weniger
What are the big hurdles you’ve got left to go through?
The challenge of this festival is that we’re shutting down 18 city blocks so it’s not like we can be in the festival footprint building this out for six weeks. We’ve got to do it quickly and we’re just starting to close down streets and bring in stages, and 280,000 square feet of sod, and artists are painting murals. It all happens very quickly and in a lot of cases overnight, and comes together in the one festival.

What’s new this year that fans should be excited about? 
Every year we increase the level of programming. The music lineup speaks for itself and fans are really excited about that. Our pillars have been the art and the ideas series. Outside of that, we looked at comedy and this year went much bigger with Hannibal Buress, Michelle Wolf and the whole lineup. We also increased the culinary program. 
We have chefs doing live, open-fire cookouts. We like to create an open sense of discovery within the footprint. It really takes a full three days for fans to come, see, experience and enjoy everything.
It’s interesting how the festival has been a part of Vegas’ urban revitalization.
There’s a real sense of community around it. 
I think everybody’s bought into this idea that doing things like this has been a major driver of our economy in downtown Vegas. 

In the first five years of the festival, we’ve done over $185 million of economic impact for the city of Las Vegas measured by a third party and we do full reports on that every year. 
This is our college market issue. You were a student athlete at UNLV, right?
I was. I was born in New Jersey and went to high school in Los Angeles and ended up going to UNLV to play football for John Robinson, who was the old head coach at USC.
A lot of what I learned, and what helped shape me in a lot of ways, was not necessarily on the football field but through the educational process of not only being a student, but being a student athlete. I focused on that a lot. 

What was your position?
I was an outside linebacker.
So strength and speed, that’s no easy position.
I wish I could tell you I was the most talented, fleet-footed outside linebacker in the world. It certainly wasn’t the case. I think I survived on hard work and good intuition, but that’s a story for another day. But in learning all that, I became almost addicted to that idea of teamwork, and what that meant, and that feeling that I got as a student athlete and what I learned from that.
How has that informed your relationship with UNLV?
I’ve gone back and been able to build great relationships there with the administration, with the athletics department, with the deans of a lot of their different schools within UNLV. People don’t realize this, but I think UNLV is currently the No. 1 hospitality school in the country, which being in Las Vegas there’s many opportunities to learn hospitality. So we’ve gone in and worked with them on programs, and having kids in the hospitality school volunteer, and just come out to the festival and be part of it, and learn.
Let’s hear more about the programs.
We’ve done a lot of internships. We’re in talks right now to potentially create a keystone class at UNLV around Life is Beautiful so kids will be able to work on the festival throughout the course of the year as a class credit and then it culminates in the event at the festival with them chairing initiatives and things like that. We’re fortunate that we live in a city that supports initiatives like this and we have institutions like UNLV that see the value in partnering in events like this to the advantage of the community.
How many students are interning for you now? 
Last I checked there were 80 students from the hospitality school. We have a few interns working within marketing and content creation. I’m actually giving a guided tour of the festival footprint to every captain of every athletic team. That’s happening Thursday before the festival. I’m just taking them around, and doing an extended Q&A with them at the festival footprint and that’s not a recruiting tool or a pipeline, it’s just us showing the synergies. Like your place as a member of a team or as a leader of a team doesn’t end when you’re done playing football or basketball or whatever sport you’re in. What you’re learning now by being a leader or a good team member will give you opportunities to do anything you want in life.