Casino Entertainment

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Entertainment Adds Drive to Casino Innovation*

Consider for a moment the many ways casinos entice customers to patronize their establishments. Advertising and promotions lead the way, followed by special events and comps. Resort amenities were added to the mix in the past decade. These include unique themes and attractions, pools, fine and adventure dining and exhibits of all kinds.

This week let’s take a look at the ways with which casinos use entertainment to generate customer traffic. The original “Mr. Showman,” circus promoter P.T. Barnum was fond of saying, “The thing I like about my job is I can sell the same ticket over and over again.” Just as our own Don Usherson, Gaming Today’s venerable casino entertainment round-up columnist. It’s worked for Las Vegas for decades. Now it’s working for heartland casinos too.

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Peddlers of American popular culture know that both domestic and international audiences are receptive to their wares. Casinos are especially receptive because they feel they must provide entertainment as a part of the mix of offerings that define them. And nowadays their customers expect it. And today, the definition of entertainment is expansive and varied. Accordingly we see stage shows, amusement rides, collectable exhibitions, lighting displays, artworks, virtual reality centers, and artificial environments of all kinds sprouting up all over. It’s the Disneyization of the gaming industry run amok. But judging by results, it’s working and working very nicely.

Most Midwest casinos, be they tribal operations, or riverboats started off without showrooms but not because entertainment wasn’t considered important. Rather, it was due primarily to a lack of facilities and physical space. As these casinos matured in the late 1990’s, not one has failed to add a variety of entertainment offerings to attract and keep customers. And it’s beginning to pay to off too.

Several factors can be cited. First, is the acknowledgement that entertainment is a traditional casino feature. Indeed, it is more important than ever, says Bally’s entertainment director David Malvin. His casino’s production revue “Jubliee” and Paris Las Vegas’ forthcoming “Notre Dame of Paris” are “absolutely integral elements of the casinos’ personalities. “Both shows concepts are as permanent as our gaming floors,” he said.

A second factor is the need to offer something promotable and different from competitors. Thus, Indian casinos started converting bingo halls into showrooms; riverboats did the same with their hotel banquet rooms. And where such facilities are not available, casinos regularly book local theatres and auditoriums to host touring shows and acts. “The goal is to offer patrons an extra incentive to pursue gaming, not just to entertain them,” said one tribal casino events manager. “If we could drive casino floor traffic by other means we would try that too.”

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A third factor is the sheer number of entertainment acts available at reasonable prices, says Chris Acton, entertainment manager of Traverse Bay Resorts in northern Michigan. “we are signing top-notch name at great prices because these guys want to work this market, “ he said. “There is no shortage of acts that have sought to exploit the casino markets and that works in our favor.”

Acton’s Leelanau Sands Casino’s new showroom seats one thousand people and hosts top acts like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, The Oakridge Boys, Alabama and B.B. King. Talent booking agencies are taking a closer look at the casino market, says Jack McAvay, president of Columbia Theatricals, Inc. “We can’t ignore this market both because of its size and ability to accommodate larger shows. We look forward to the day when many Midwest casinos will have their own production shows.” And he adds, the logistics of putting a show on the road must take economies scale into consideration and that means routing shows in regional segments that shorten the distance and reduce the cost of touring.

But if they don’t develop their own shows, agents such as McAvay will always be on hand to sell them his. “We already see how well musical revues and Broadway fare are doing in Las Vegas. It’s a numbers game, like gambling itself.” Doug Brown of Minneapolis is staking a large part of his company, Good Music Agency, Inc., on the casino market, spawning a new division called Talent Buyers Network. His goal is to make entertainment buying and presenting easier and more economical for casinos that don’t have the expertise. “We represent the talent purchaser, not the talent purveyor,” he said. Judging from the range of his customers, it’s a good move.

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As leisure, media and entertainment continue to merge, and as technology offers new ways of presenting them, we can rest assured that casinos will be at the proverbial crossroads, dishing out the latest and greatest. It would surely make P.T. Barnum proud.

* For four years beginning in 1998 I wrote a weekly column for Las Vegas-based newspaper Gaming Today called “Here in the Midwest.” It was one of a number of regional reports the newspaper featured to expand its readership and advertising base. My column was particularly prized because of the number of Indian casinos that sprouted in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and riverboat casinos in Illinois and Indiana. Add to those the casinos in Ontario, Canada and then the arrival of three large casinos in Detroit in 1999, and I had a great gig. The above column is from November 1999. I left the job after the owner died and was succeeded as editor in chief by his wife. She told me I had to sell advertising too. I said no though I knew it would be more lucrative. That was probably another career mistake but I have no regrets, It was a good gig while it lasted.

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