Not Your Daddy’s Casino: First-Class Venues Usher In New Era Of Casino Entertainment

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Harder Rock: Hard Rock Live’s flagship Hollywood, Florida, resort sports a 6,500-capacity, $130 million theater that has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Metallica. Courtesy Hard Rock Live

Casino properties have long provided first-class amenities, cuisine, lodging, convenience and gaming under one roof. Now, the entertainment offerings are catching up.

The proliferation of tribal gaming properties has seen many humble bingo halls of the 1970s evolve to all-inclusive resort-style properties featuring all the comforts of the modern Vegas-style adult playground. 

With gamblers no longer needing to head to Nevada or Atlantic City to get their fill, enterprising tribal leadership groups have seen the demand for live entertainment and have invested substantially, most notably by building new dedicated performance venues.

The most recent example is The Venue, a $100 million, 4,500-seat theater at Thunder Valley Casino Resort near Sacramento, California, which opened in February with a weekend of the Eagles, Bruno Mars and Santana.  Those high-profile shows were no fluke, with tour dates as well as special one-offs following from artists known for the arena-and-above level, including Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson, The Lumineers, Jo Koy (two nights) and more. 

“We’re very pleased with the first six months, and we’re only looking to have even better experiences over the next several years,” says Jon Bow, entertainment director at Thunder Valley. “We’ve built some great momentum certainly in the market. Guests are really enjoying themselves at our new venue, as well as artists. So we couldn’t be happier with the product we’re able to offer.”  

Rolling Thunder: The Venue at Thunder Valley Casino & Resort near Sacramento, California, opened in February with the Eagles, Bruno Mars and Santana. The 4,500-seat venue was a $100 million project. Courtesy Thunder Valley Casino & Resort

Like many tribal properties, Thunder Valley has long offered entertainment, with major touring artists playing in an outdoor parking lot setting akin to a fair or amphitheater show. Last year the concert series totaled 30 ticketed performances, but a year-round, permanent and dedicated concert venue takes things to a new level nearly overnight. 

“We just had our 50th event this past Saturday in our new building in The Venue,” said Bow, who noted that August 12’s Peter Frampton show will be the 700th live music event at the casino overall.  “It’s really satisfying to just be a part of this. It’s truly exciting.”

Southern Californication: The Red Hot Chili Peppers opened up the 2,500-capacity Yaamava’ Theater near Palm Springs with a private gig. Courtesy Yamavaa’ Theater

“Our partners Live Nation are also helping book this room, and it’s awesome because we’re getting tour stops,” Maddocks adds, noting the ability to do standing-room-only shows and all-ages, which has led to punk and metal shows. “No other casino in the area is doing all-ages shows like we’re doing. We’ve done 18 different genres in our first year and we’ve got more to come.”

Thunder Valley’s Venue joins other recent high-profile theater openings in California including Yaamava’ Theater in the Inland Empire (see page 24) and Hard Rock Live Sacramento, which both opened last year.  “We did 68 shows from June 3rd of last year through June 2nd of this year,” says Randy Maddocks, director of entertainment at Hard Rock Live Sacramento. The 2,500-capacity (seated or GA) venue opened with a Maroon 5 gig in June. Despite multiple tribal properties and a major NBA arena in the market, there’s still room for venues of different types. 

The momentum has spread to more rural markets as well, such as Eagle Mountain Casino in Porterville, California, which recently opened a brand-new casino property and is in the process of building a permanent theater, although is currently hosting high-profile concerts in its showroom. Opening events in the somewhat remote Central California property near Bakersfield this summer included Reba McEntire, Los Tigres Del Norte, Gabriel Iglesias and Chris Young.

Old opinions die hard, but any stigma for artists playing casinos at the end of their careers or acting as a loss leader to lure guests to the slot machines may finally be gone for good. 

“It’s no longer that you can’t play at the casino, because some of these beautiful new venues at the casinos are better than a lot of (other options),” says Billy Brill, president of DWP  Talent Services. “The artists are in a beautiful room, they have great dressing rooms and as everybody progresses, the better artists want to play at the casinos.” Properties within Brill’s portfolio include Agua Caliente Casino near Palm Springs, Eagle Mountain Casino, Seneca Casinos near Buffalo, Pearl River Casino in Mississippi and Thunder Valley Casino Resort. 

“There’s definitely a changing of the guard,” adds Joe Moallempour, who works alongside Brill as national casino coordinator and talent buyer at DWP Talent Services. “(Properties like) Porterville are leaping from being one of the casinos that booked for the drop as a loss leader to now learning to book a show like Agua or Thunder Valley, with the proper scaling and I’m getting the proper back-end requirements for every artist. We’re trying to shift everybody towards a more profitable, productive model.” 

Eagle Mountain’s previous casino property prohibited the sale of alcohol and was in an even less-convenient location up a steep mountain. Gabriel Iglesias, during his 90-minute set at the new showroom, joked about previously performing at a tent outside the casino, with staff warning him of rattlesnakes and wild dogs rummaging  in the parking lot. 

While many casino properties are just now finding their way into the hard-ticket events business, some were ahead of the curve and have become such a normal part of the industry that they often aren’t even thought of as part of a casino or tribal business specifically.

“We don’t look at our venue as a casino venue,” says Tom Cantone, president of Mohegan Entertainment which includes the venerable 10,000-capacity Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. “We look at our venue as we’re in the arena business that happens to have amenities around it, similar to Disney with the Magic Kingdom. They’ve  got rides and restaurants and all kinds of cool stuff, and that’s what we’ve got. The epicenter of our $2 billion resort here is the arena.” Cantone mentions recent high-profile sellouts at the property, including two Tool concerts and four sellouts from red-hot comedy sensation Matt Rife, which Cantone says sold out with zero marketing dollars behind it.  

The casino development story continues at Mohegan, with the new 5,000-seat OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a $90-million investment, opening last fall with a Billy Joel performance. That venue sold out three Matt Rife shows in less than an hour, Cantone says. 

“The nice thing about it is I can route a lot of the arena tours to our new venue in Canada,” Cantone says of the OLG Stage. “That gives us the advantage of a little firepower that maybe a smaller casino showroom wouldn’t have.” 

Cantone says the competition for entertainment is fierce, but, when it comes down to it, is the real reason people come.

“What separates you is your personality and what you have in the house that night,” said Cantone. “If Lady Gaga is in your house and nobody else has her, you win. If Bruce Springsteen’s in the house, you win. Bon Jovi, those are the names that separate you and differentiate you, because  really, we’re all the same (otherwise). Who has the coolest thrill ride?”

With the hospitality and amenities long in place at casinos, it may have only been a matter of time that some developed into standalone concert venues.

“Tours are looking for places that are fully self-contained,” said Monica Reeves, senior director of entertainment at Agua Caliente, whose 2,500-seat “The Show” venue that opened in the early 2010s and is considered one of the first of its kind on the West Coast. “They don’t have to bring in their own equipment and they feel like they can make themselves at home quickly. We have very accommodating dressing room space, load-in space, it’s all an added bonus to them, on top of our hospitality when they arrive. We want them to feel like family and that they’re welcomed, and that just keeps bringing them back.”

There are differences between the tribal and non-tribal world, with different rules and regulations that differ from sovereign nation and from tribe to tribe.

“I’m Native American myself and working in tribal gaming has always been something that’s really special to me because I understand the importance of what we’re doing and how it’s not just about the bottom line for shareholders,” says Christian Printup, a casino and live entertainment veteran who was recently named vice president of entertainment at Foxwoods Resorts in Connecticut, a giant in the space. “The stakeholders are the nation members, the tribal members. As an enrolled tribal member myself it’s something that I’m very passionate about and very blessed to be able to work in.” Active performance venues at Foxwoods include the 4,000-capacity Premier Theater, the Great Theater Showroom (1,400), and a new multipurpose Ring Maker Expo space.  Foxwoods is one of the largest casinos in North America at 9 million square feet. 

“It’s a really active schedule,” says Printup, whose experience includes at Seneca Casinos near Buffalo and Tachi Palace in Lemoore, California. “You’ll see two, three shows every weekend, sometimes two shows in one night. They’ve done a great job and have a storied history and I’m hoping I can take my talents and help them take things even further.”

Knowing the intricacies of the casino business requires specialized experience.

“As a talent buyer, you are always tap dancing, playing one against the other and trying to find a road through,” says Kell Houston, whose Houston Productions works with more than 20 tribal properties in the U.S., with venues including Sandia Amphitheater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, AVA Amphitheater in Tucson, Arizona, Chinook Winds in Lincoln City, Oregon, and Rolling Hills in Corning, California. 

“Tribal casinos are relationship driven. People will come in with a business plan, but the tribes want to have a lot of say and are very hands-on, and every property is very different.”  Rolling Hills Casino Resort in Northern California recently built a standalone amphitheater, the 5,000-plus capacity Obsidian Spirits Amphitheater, with recent shows including Dierks Bentley, Bush and Steve Aoki. Rolling Hills previously featured outdoor entertainment in a green space.

Houston says the promoter landscape has changed in recent decades to be more corporate, but the hands-on needs of casino properties makes experience valuable. 

“I’ve got a good, strong business, and saying ‘no’ to a show deal is something you have to learn to do,” Houston adds, noting that properties are getting more sophisticated in live entertainment. 

Looking forward, as the type of entertainment continues to evolve and vary, there seems little reason to expect the space to slow down.

“I think the venues will get better, the entertainment will get much younger,” predicts Brill. “Ten years from now, it’ll be more sophisticated and the acts will look totally different. It’ll be a different world but It’ll be a bright world. I can’t wait. It’ll be fantastic.”