Casino Buyers: The Steady Touring Game

Casinos still offer the typical concertgoer much more than just music, but the days of the soft ticket might be numbered – at least according to Mystic Lake Casino’s David Julian.

“The whole soft-ticket perspective doesn’t really mean what it meant 10 years ago, 15 years ago, when you went to a Las Vegas casino or any casino around the country and you got comped into the show,” Julian said. “Well guess what, you don’t get comped into a show anymore unless you’re a valued player or have some kind of worth to that property.
“So, how do we respond when we’re going out and buying for these venues and we’re getting quoted a certain price for acts based on a soft ticket?”

As usual when getting agents and talent buyers together, there’s always room for interpretation, even from the beginning.

“It kind of gives a bad connotation when you say soft-ticket venue, because I don’t think that’s such a bad thing,” APA’s Frank Wing said. “If you’re getting the right people to spend x amount of money, who cares whether you gave away that ticket for free?”

William Morris Endeavor’s Rob Heller, who represents Diana Krall and Don Rickles among others, said it’s not an exact science.

“The casino marketplace still represents, thankfully, a bit of a softer ticket to us as sales folks, even though it’s becoming more of a bottom-line agenda for casinos,” Heller said.

Kurt Melien from Caesars Entertainment, which handles 40 different venue properties, reminded everyone that you can always just say no.

“For the acts that are still pricing themselves like it’s 2003 or 2004, we’re just not doing it,” Melien said. “Maybe it works in other places, but it’s not for us.

“Ten years ago I think it was easier, when it was all profits in the casino business where you could sort of soft-invest and support the loyalty of the casino. But I think it’s clear since the downtown that it’s just not the case anymore.”

As primarily Native American gaming destinations, non-Vegas casinos share the experience of being in secondary or tertiary markets, which presents differences from the normal big-concert markets.

Houston Productions’ Kell Houston, who does shows almost exclusively with Indian properties, says it’s important to understand the geography.

“In secondary markets, where probably 80 or 90 percent of the Indian gaming casinos are, it’s a plane ride or two-hour drive just to get to the property.

“So it’s a captured market. You can’t do long-running shows, you’re really pulling from maybe a 50, 60 or maybe a 100-mile radius coming to your property for events, so it’s a little different program from when you’re going to Vegas with a transient audience.”

Melien agreed but said it’s still the same concept when buying.

“Sure, the economics might be a little more flexible in secondary markets in order to lure the right act to a difficult-to-get-to venue, because sure there’s a premium to that, but there’s still that same level of discipline, there should be relative value to how that act is priced.”

The panel also discussed merch deals, where venues feel that providing the platform for selling means they deserve a chunk of sales, while artists feel it’s their material and therefore their revenue.

Marketing and promotion are also a challenge in the casino market.

“Take a show I did with Taylor Hicks,” Houston said. “I did a show with him up in the northwest, and they neglected to do any television advertising. Four hundred people showed up.

“We went off site to have lunch, and we walked into the restaurant and women were swooning at the sight of him, and they didn’t even know he was playing 2 miles up the road.

“We did the same show in Michigan, which has a very active TV commercial advertising account, and packed the house because of visibility. You have to really know your market,” Houston said, adding that for some artists, such as psychic Sylvia Browne, sales go through the roof through online advertising and ticketing alone.

Also there’s the problem of a casino’s special front-row perks for high-rollers and special player’s club members, where the best seat in the house often goes not only soft, but empty.

Artists are never happy to see that bare seat, and it’s frustrating to have to give up the first few rows to the casino. To remedy this, the panelists suggested taking another section of the house – it doesn’t have to be the very first row – and adding extras such as open bar privileges or backstage access to make that fan forget about the actual front seat.

Besides, the secret about live music and gambling is already out, as far as “the drop” of gross gaming revenues is concerned.

“We’re pretty up front about it, but entertainment is probably the least effective way to drive gaming revenues,” Melien said.

Now that’s hard ticketing.


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