When the coronavirus pandemic shut down production in Los Angeles in March, the producers of Shark Tank started to look for other options. They ultimately picked up and left the city, filming their 12th season at The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. The result was probably the show’s best season ever, according to showrunner/exec producer Clay Newbill.
Created by Mark Burnett based on the international format Dragons’ Den, the ABC reality series follows entrepreneurs as they make business presentations to a panel of elite investors, or “sharks” — including billionaire Mark Cuban and branding expert Daymond John — who decide whether they’d like to invest in their company or product. At its core, the show is about being disruptive and thinking outside the box. And this year, John commented to Newbill, ”the show that’s about innovation had to get innovative.”
In order to assure a safe shoot in Las Vegas, Newbill worked closely with The Venetian Resort President and COO George Markantonis, and a small portion of the venue’s staff, to create and maintain a COVID bubble.
In a conversation with Deadline, the pair break down the work that went into devising a bubble at the world’s second-largest hotel, as well as the specific safety protocols followed during production. Newbill also teases the new season, which is set to premiere tonight at 8 PT.
DEADLINE: How did Shark Tank come to shoot its 12th season at The Venetian?
CLAY NEWBILL: When we were planning, L.A. had been locked down for quite a while. We started looking into alternative options outside of the Los Angeles area, in case L.A. was going to continue to be locked down, and MGM Television worked closely with industry leaders and medical experts to put the safest plan possible for our Shark Tank season in place.
Mark Cuban had a relationship with Patrick Dumont at The Venetian Resort Group and put us in touch with George. We looked at several other locations, and after speaking with George and the team at The Venetian Resort, it was far and clear the best option. The Venetian Resort was able to provide us with — we felt at the time — the safest possible route, or plan, for taping the show.
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DEADLINE: Tell us a bit more about that plan. What made The Venetian the ideal venue to host this series during the pandemic?
GEORGE MARKANTONIS: When Clay reached out to us with his team, they were interested in finding a location that had enough space to fit the set and the production needs, but it also had to have the ability to house an entire cast and crew, within close proximity.
We also had to have the highest safety standards possible for a bubble throughout the production, and quite frankly, we are probably one of the rare facilities that can do that. The Venetian Resort comprises 18 million square feet. We dedicated a million square feet of space to the Shark Tank bubble, and we were able to create, within one location, a single, secure facility. So the stars aligned, and we were off.
NEWBILL: The Venetian Resort was going to be able to provide a bubble environment for the crew, the entrepreneurs and the sharks. We’re talking about over 250 people, during the entire time of production, so that was [reason] one. Two was, they had an established, proven, accurate and fast testing system. A testing system that was in place already was critical for us to be able to schedule the show, because without that, you just can’t move forward productively with a schedule. The last one was, as George mentioned, one million square feet. Where we built the set was 86,000 square feet, which allowed us to spread out. We had so much space, we couldn’t even utilize all the space they offered.
And of course, if you’re going to be coming into having to live in a bubble for an extended period of time, the fact that The Venetian Resort is a five-star resort and won the Condé Nast Best Resort in Las Vegas in 2019 doesn’t hurt, right? If you’re going to be stuck in a hotel room or stuck in a bubble for a period of time, I can’t think of any place better than The Venetian. You know, it was an easy sell. The entire team at The Venetian Resort was amazing. The services they provided were world class, so every single person had nothing but great things to say about their experience when they left.
Our goal going in was, we want to come in, shoot this thing in a bubble, be able to produce the show that our fans know and love, and have all the elements that you’d [expect]. Our goal was to produce a top-notch television series, and get out without a single person contracting COVID — and we accomplished that. We tested people before they came, and then we tested people after they arrived, as well. So we were able to get in and get out and stick to our schedule.
As a matter of fact, I’d say this season is probably our best season ever. So we’re super proud of that, and we would have never been able to do it without The Venetian and their help.
DEADLINE: It must have been quite challenging to safely transport Shark Tank’s cast and crew to Las Vegas, making sure that you would be able to put on a show with all the elements viewers have come to expect.
NEWBILL: Well, one of the first things George told us, on our first call, was that they’re in the entertainment business. They had the facilities, and were able to help us to make that move. And yes, it was no easy task, in any way, shape or form. But everybody was completely committed to making this work, and one of the things I’m really most proud of is the fact that all 250 people that made this trip — from our crew, from the folks at The Venetian, from our sharks to all the entrepreneurs, everyone bought into the plan and were committed to making this work. And that’s the only reason that it did work, is because everybody stuck to that plan.
It was hairy; it was stressful at times because of the schedule. You know, we’ve been producing this show for 11 seasons on the Sony lot, and the familiarity of that, it’s almost like going home every day. This was going to be very different, [but] The Venetian was able to help us make that transition, and make it as easy as possible.
DEADLINE: What exactly went into creating a bubble environment at The Venetian and maintaining it throughout the duration of the shoot? I assume Shark Tank’s cast and crew never left the premises until you wrapped.
MARKANTONIS: Exactly right. To have a pure bubble, we had to make sure that all of the cast, the crew, the celebrities were within that bubble for the entire duration of almost two months.
Creating a bubble is not just a matter of creating privacy. We dedicated, in our Palazzo tower, one third of that tower — the guest suites — to the production members only. They had their own separate check-in area when they arrived. When they arrived, everyone had to go through COVID testing protocols with a quick turnaround, and once they entered the bubble, and they were put into the guest suites. Those suites had dedicated elevator banks that brought them down to the ground floor.
We had sealed off access to any of the public areas of the resort from that elevator bank. In fact, we built a temporary wall, directing people who exited that elevator bank into another dedicated corridor, which took them all the way to the site where the set was set up, in The Sands Expo Center. And they never left that bubble.
Even the meals were in that zone, specially prepared under all of the protocols that we have. So this was a real bubble. It went from check-in and housing, but the key was also isolation of the group.
DEADLINE: From your perspective, George, what was most challenging, in the work you did to assure a safe and efficient shoot?
MARKANTONIS: For us, this was the first time when the Venetian Clean protocols were going to be in use for full-scale production. Venetian Clean is a moniker for over 800 safety protocols that we’d established prior to opening, which are easily accessible on our website. Prior to opening, and since opening, we have done over 40,000 COVID tests on our team members and, frankly, with their household members as well. We do front-of-house COVID testing now every two or three weeks; it’s part of the process. We want to make sure that anything we can do, we do. So, I think that was the main concern: Is everything going to flow? How do we make sure that the group is isolated but has full accessibility to the other members of the group?
Obviously, food and beverage was initially going to be a challenge, because we have nearly 100 restaurants in this complex, and yet we were going to have a bubble of 200-300 people, who would be eating only within their own giant ballroom meeting room, making sure that what they were dining on was going to be cuisine that reflected the type of resort they were in.
But all of these were exciting opportunities. For us, it was not something that we can’t do, because we host some of the world’s biggest expos and tours here. I will say that it was so easy to deal with Clay and the team. Frankly, teamwork was a huge situation between ABC, Sony, ourselves.
[But] one other challenge we had was keeping this under wraps, because that was one of the clauses. “Sure, nobody really knows that Shark Tank is filming a whole season here. OK.” Well, we have about 8,500 employees. … But it really did work. We created a code word to refer to the group; we didn’t use the words “Shark Tank.”
There were only maybe a couple hundred [employees] who were in the know, and when I say that, I’m talking about people like culinarians, preparing multiple meals, banquet teams, cleaning teams. The other team members still had a hotel operation outside of this bubble that we were running, and it was just a matter of, “Yes, there’s a production over there. The people are tight-lipped. Never heard of it.” And there we are.
DEADLINE: In retrospect, what do you feel is unique about the protocols you employed to prevent exposure to COVID-19, in comparison to what the rest of the entertainment and hospitality industries have done?
MARKANTONIS: I think we’re one of the leaders, certainly in our industry, with health and safety protocols. We don’t hesitate to put into gear anything that we think will be beneficial to everybody. I’m not going to say that there aren’t others who can do the same thing, but I would say that I couldn’t even name one other who would have the space that we have — both meeting and conference space, as well as the amount of suites, and the accessibility. Because our chairman has built almost a resort designed for social distancing, if required, and certainly to create bubbles. I mean, we could probably run two or three bubbles simultaneously here, if we needed to. We wouldn’t do it, but we could.
DEADLINE: Clay, what else can you tell us about Shark Tank Season 12? Why do you think it’s the show’s best season yet?
NEWBILL: The entrepreneurs we have this season, their stories are so inspiring. [Production started] back in August, and we’re definitely not out of the woods yet. The COVID pandemic is still going on, but August was a long time ago. So, there was a lot of stress involved, and I think the entrepreneurs that came in, they have incredibly emotional stories of what they’ve overcome.
The stakes are real. They’re so excited to get in front of the sharks and have an opportunity to pitch their businesses to the sharks, and America, when it airs, and it was just an incredible experience. [That’s why] we felt it was important to get our show back on the air. In normal times, our show offers people hope and inspiration, and during this pandemic, we feel it’s needed, now more than ever.
I think when people tune into the show this season, they’re going to find all the things they love about this show. It’s got the drama, the comedy, innovative ideas, incredible new guest sharks, fantastic entrepreneurs with these incredible stories, and as entertaining as it is, you’re still learning. Every episode, every pitch you see, you’re learning something new about business, and even if you don’t start a business, you’re learning how to overcome obstacles and how to deal with adversity in your life. And I think that’s one of the [reasons] why the show works, is because entrepreneurs make great television.
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