Gambling On Creative Bookings

That the casino business has undergone near-convulsive change the last few decades comes as news to no one. But what might be surprising is a subtle shift in strategies away from the gaming tables and onto the live entertainment stages.

Thunder Valley Outdoor Amphitheatre
Thunder Valley Casino Resort
– Thunder Valley Outdoor Amphitheatre

In fact, some casino managers, marketing staff and talent buyers are filling their calendars without regard to whether guests even set foot on the gaming floors.

“Booking for the drop” – what talent buyer Billy Brill of

In addition to providing top-shelf resort amenities like AAA diamond-rated dining and spas, venues like

Jon Bow, Thunder Valley’s entertainment manager, cites bookings with Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick, Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and Pat Benatar and Toto as success stories.

But he’s also had success with more unconventional pairings like a sold-out show last summer with comedian Jo Koy and hip hop dance crew Jabbawockeez. Another example of genre-bending bookings is a co-bill with Il Divo and LeAnn Rimes.

Thunder Valley Casino Resort
– Jabbawockeez

“It’s a diverse lineup that can reach out to lots of different demographics,” Bow told Pollstar. “We pride ourselves in having something for everyone here. Believe it or not, this casino has been around since 2003, and at every concert we still get some guests who have never visited the property before.

“Obviously entertainment is a driver in getting guests to the property and we know that if they have a great experience at our property, they’re going to think about us for maybe coming out to dinner on a future trip,” Bow said.

Providing an unforgettable experience for guests is the stated goal, of course, but a byproduct of making people happy is information and data provided by audiences of such generational and genre mashups.

“There are shows we do, like Il Divo with LeAnn Rimes, that are also advantageous to do because they bring different crowds together in one atmosphere,” Bow explained. “It is very different. We like to think of it as two audiences merging together. Maybe one will become a fan of the other one and that will even boost ticket sales. You’re getting your database from the LeAnn Rimes fans, and you are combing that with the Il Divo fans, and having a full house as well.

Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang together this year is another. Granted they are both blues, but you have kind of a classic element with Buddy and a more modern, contemporary blues element with Jonny. That kind of merges some of the demographic together as well and it’s a really exciting show for the fans and for us,” Bow said.

Bow and his staff work with talent buyer Brill to brainstorm such “dream team” bookings, and approach agents whose enthusiasm for such sometimes counterintuitive pairings can run cold. But, Bow says that, for the most part, agents are not only cooperative but interested in seeing what transpires.

“We have great relationships with all the agencies we work with,” Bow said. “Sometimes we will work with an agency that is dead set with one of their artists doing ‘An Evening With’ and, other times, they’re open to the possibility of adding an opening act because it just brings that much more to the show.

“If that means bringing Felix Cavaliere to the stage 45 minutes before Brian Wilson to warm the guests up, that’s what we’re going to want to do. It creates that great experience for the guests. As long as the agent is open to it, it’s a win-win for everybody. They are, for the most part, open to these possibilities, and we’ve come up with some crazy ones.”

Jo Koy
Thunder Valley Casino Resort
– Jo Koy

Bow acknowledges the need to nurture agent relationships and making them part of the creative process when it comes to packaging one-off shows at Thunder Valley. But that’s probably true for any talent buyer or venue doing inhouse booking and creating programming.

“Often, we’re looking to put a couple of headliners together,” Bow said. “We’ll seek agents’ input on some shows. We’ll have one artist that we’re definitely locked in on, and we’ll ask their opinions about anyone else on their roster that could be a co-headliner.

“The majority of the time, we’re coming up with the idea and saying, ‘We’d like this person and this person.’ But we do value the agents’ input and they know who works together and who doesn’t work together well. So, obviously, we have to get their opinion and feedback when we are creating packages like this. They’ve been very valuable.”

In the casino industry over the last 20-30 years since gaming made its way out of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the biggest constant has been change.

Kathy Hickman, Thunder Valley’s vice president of marketing, spent 25 years at Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas before coming to Northern California in 2012. Non-traditional bookings are becoming a force on the horizon, Bow and Hickman say, pointing to near-instant sellouts for two such productions.

“We’re diving more into non-traditional types of entertainment,” Bow said. “We opened up our season with a touring version of ‘

“We’re opening our outdoor season in 2018, our 200th show, with ‘The Price Is Right – Live’ because there were so many positive reviews from that. I’d say we’re definitely looking at more non-traditional entertainment as a possible trend you’ll see popping up at casinos,” Bow said.

Theresa Caputo, ‘The Long Island Medium,” is another example of non-traditional programming that connected with concertgoers, Bow and Hickman agreed.

“Millions of people watch her show and she has a connection with people. When she was here, she definitely connected, and I don’t believe in that stuff! But when she was done, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I might believe in some of it!’ It really becomes a personal experience,” Hickman said.

“In the casino world, entertainment was the way to get people through the doors and to the tables. When I came here I was amazed that this property, their entertainment, stands on its own.

“There are very few comp tickets that go out for our shows. Jon, and this property, have done an incredible job of turning a profit every single solitary year on cash ticket sales, not comped tickets. That’s not something I’ve experienced in the casino industry.”

But despite what is being booked, the game is changing for gaming.

“Most history has shown that you book acts that attract the gamers. You want them on the casino floor. Here, I don’t even think any more than 5 percent of our tickets go to our players. The rest are cash ticket sales. Even in Las Vegas, the entertainment is the attraction. The resort and the amenities support the attraction experience,” Hickman said.