The concept of experiencing live entertainment while in a gambling business has been around since the days of the wild west with saloons delivering musical talent in the form of piano players, singers and dancers to their guests. Such practices have come a long way since the 19th century, evolving from ragtime at the local watering hole to watching A-list talent performing at the biggest casinos and resorts in the world.
Post-World War II was arguably the golden era for casinos with audiences seeking entertainment from jazz bands and orchestras playing what is now referred to as “casino music,” a musical movement that was sparked and elevated by legendary acts such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley who often performed in Las Vegas with residencies.
Nearly seven decades later, the casino business isn’t only alive and strong, it’s booming with A-list talent taking a page from the Rat Pack and making the trek to casino venues, regardless of location, and elevating the industry to new heights. Pollstar rounded up some of the casino’s top executives and music agents to get their thoughts on the current state of the casino business, live entertainment and how the “casino act” has evolved over the years.
Touring Agent, CAA
Senior Entertainment Manager,
Choctaw Casinos & Resorts
Casinos Division Director, C3 Presents
President of Sports & Entertainment Worldwide, Mohegan Gaming
Regional Vice President of Entertainment
Programming & Analysis, Caesars Entertainment
Vice President of Entertainment & Activation, Palms Casino Resort
Music Agent, UTA
Director of Entertainment,
Hard Rock International & Seminole Gaming
President & Agent, Selak Entertainment
Founder & CEO, Day After Day Productions
Global Head of Talent, Danny Wimmer Presents
How do you view the overall state of entertainment at casino venues? What is driving the momentum and is it a new phenomenon?
Christian Amechi: The overall state of entertainment at casino venues is vibrant, dynamic and in a great place looking forward. There’s been a resurgence in live performances, driven by a combination of factors. Of course, the audience’s pent-up demand for live entertainment after the pandemic is a part of it. More so, I think it’s the proliferation of quality “casino acts,” both legacy names and newer talent. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon but casinos are willing to take more chances on breaking acts and it is paying off for all involved.
Deana Baker: Entertainment is an asset of Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant that allows us to continue to elevate and create great resort experiences for our casino guests. Choctaw Casinos & Resorts are the premier entertainment destinations in southeastern Oklahoma of the 10 1/2 counties The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma serves. We’re excited to watch the industry continue to grow as we strive to be cutting-edge to provide our guests with the best entertainment experience possible.
Andrew Blank: The overall state of entertainment at casinos is as strong as ever. The casinos we work with are selling more tickets than ever and continue to book more contemporary artists every day.
Thomas Cantone: Today’s young artists are driving the momentum. Casino venues like ours have become the launching pad for the next generation of major talent — much different than years ago when they would never be caught playing a casino but end their career there.
However, casino venues vary by size and so programming is confined to venue capacity. The 5,000-10,000 capacity venues like ours are much more able to book the national A-List tours and today’s social media sensations. But since most casino venues are smaller, that often limits booking the more high-profile expensive shows, but casino stages keep many traditional names working all year long.
Casinos have always been event-driven and one of the best marketing tools that differentiates your property is the level and quality of entertainment. Whoever can book the hottest names will always win the day.
Mike Hodin: Entertainment drives visitation to our properties and introduces guests to our other amenities, and we continue to build a reputation for strong retail results. We continue to evolve our booking strategy and evaluate live entertainment positioned within and supplemental to the overall casino experience. Our ongoing investments in artist outreach, enhanced amenities and world-class guest experiences continue to pay dividends and position us for growth. Additionally, we increased our property footprint during the pandemic through our merger and dedicated some of that time to capitalizing on those benefits on reopening.
Crystal Robinson-Wesley: It’s on fire. Entertainment is an essential amenity that drives the energy and vibe of a casino, whether through atmospheric programming or ticketed events. The level of A-list talent who play casino venues, particularly in Vegas and at our sister property Yaamava’ is second to none. The momentum comes from capital investments in building state-of-the-art facilities that feature the latest in technology, staging and production. These facilities can host arena and stadium-level production buildouts, which was not always the case. Fans can also see their favorite artists in more intimate venues that casinos often offer.
Darius Sabet: The state of entertainment at casino venues is incredibly healthy – our business has grown in the casino space, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The momentum has primarily been driven by the casinos’ need to develop their next generation of gamers, which is vital for the future of their business. One of the very best ways to do that is to offer compelling entertainment outside of traditional gambling.
Victor Sanchez: Casino entertainment continues to grow and evolve. But at Hard Rock, music and entertainment have been part of our DNA before gaming. At our properties, we’re creating world-class environments for all fans and using entertainment as a strategic differentiator versus an amenity.
Steve Selak: It’s outstanding. Tribal gaming is embracing new genres and types of entertainment. Ten years ago, most would not consider family-friendly holiday entertainment but today they are. Tribal gaming is thriving, and their customers are requesting new programming.
Seth Shomes: I have been in the casino business for 27 years and I couldn’t be prouder of how far entertainment programming has come. We certainly can’t say entertainment in casinos is a “new phenomenon,” but it is amazing to see casinos of all sizes in all regions booking genres that were considered “not casino-friendly” in the past. It is a huge tip of the hat to today’s casino executives that they recognize the public’s insatiability for all different types of artists and entertainment experiences and the fans’ eagerness to see them within a casino setting.
Del Williams: Casino entertainment continues to improve in quality and selectivity. The smart, well-managed casinos are much more strategic with their featured entertainment and looking to be more creative. How an act translates on the playing floor is always going to be a factor, but there is a conscious effort to improve and update the overall image of casino play for the artist and for the consumer.
How has the business changed in recent years? As the casino business recovered from the pandemic, what role did live entertainment have in that recovery – and did the pandemic help you rethink your approach to business?
Amechi: The pandemic was a challenging period, but it definitely provided us the opportunity to rethink and improve our strategies. There’s no doubt that live entertainment played a crucial role in the recovery of the casino business. It brought back the energy and excitement that casinos are known for; as well as helping draw in patrons who were eager for a return to normalcy and to see acts they may not have the opportunity to see otherwise.
Baker: As our property recovered from the pandemic, we had great demand for entertainment. To many, live music is their favorite form of entertainment, and we are happy to be able to provide a unique and intimate experience for our patrons.
Blank: The business has changed more in the last three years than it did in the 10 years prior to the pandemic. Most of the casinos we work with are only making offers on shows that can make money aside from casino gaming. For that to be possible, the casinos have implemented a lot of the same strategies as hard ticket venues, such as dynamic pricing, platinum and higher concession prices. There was no need to rethink the business following the pandemic because once we were back, a lot of what we were working towards before the pandemic really accelerated.
Cantone: We were at one time the only venue in America open. Research has shown that attending a live concert extends the quality of life by seven years — to me there’s no better vaccine. Our product is fun, people want to get away from all the bad news and enjoy life. That’s the part of our business that will never ever change. We like to say, “We don’t sell tickets we make memories.”
Hodin: During the uncertainty of the pandemic, we leaned into engaging with artists and guests so that as we emerged, we were well positioned for success beyond that initial phase of pent-up demand. Our properties were able to leverage a robust content line-up as they reopened, expediting the recovery and return to normalcy.
While our properties continue to value a diversified entertainment line-up, there has also been a noticeable shift towards higher-end acts and quality overall.
Robinson-Wesley: Since Palms reopened in April 2022, we’ve seen a strong recovery. We’re seeing record numbers in various areas, including gaming and ticket revenue. We reopened Pearl Concert Theater with a sold-out concert and have continued that trajectory. I think fans were hungry in general for the return of live entertainment.
From a business standpoint, I see agents, artists, promoters, and venues being more amenable to working together to in essence “get the deal done.” No more noodling over insignificant deal points. Artists want to deliver great shows for their fans, and fans alike are eager to see them. Nothing can garner the velocity that live events can, and we see it in the net positive results on most events nights.
Sabet: Competition has become very intense in the casino business in recent years. In some regions of the country, a venue is competing with half a dozen other casinos plus the traditional live entertainment venues for the same acts. Like the majority of the live entertainment business, casinos took some time to recover from the pandemic and live music was a critical piece of that recovery as audiences had pent-up demand.
Selak: Younger customers are opening new entertainment avenues. Yes, casinos have recovered from the pandemic, and entertainment always plays a role. Many artists were unwilling to travel and perform even after the pandemic ended so nontraditional artists such as hypnotists and mediums filled that void.
Shomes: A big change I have seen is the willingness of casinos to book shows within 60 days as opposed to 10-12 months in advance. With the popularity of social media and digital marketing, the casinos have recognized that they can successfully promote shows without as long of a lead time as was necessary before. This has opened up opportunities for artists that do not confirm a year in advance and has provided the casinos with the ability to be included in routed tours.
Williams: For the casinos we work with, the pandemic reinforced the need to make the audience and artist experience as comfortable and safe as possible. The casino business was greatly affected by the pandemic but has recovered well because of a renewed commitment to cleanliness, and security.
How do casino venues fit into the overall touring circuit? How does the casino entertainment scene differ from other types of venues and what are the similarities?
Baker: Casino venues are a wonderful opportunity for artists and their crews to not only perform to eager audiences but also for artists and fans alike to have fun and relax. At Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant, we have a variety of amenities to enjoy before or after a show. When you visit Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant, it feels like a vacation instead of just another stop on the road.
Blank: Casinos are not consistently being built into as many tours as we would hope. That said, they are part of more tours than ever right now. So many of these casinos have built some world-class venues that artists like to play. When you couple the quality of venues with the amenities they can offer artists and guests, it makes for a great experience for everyone.
Cantone: It’s all about size. Bigger venues like ours will always fit into the routing of national tours. In fact, over 32 national tours have started at Mohegan, many making their arena debuts like Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and more.
Tours like being at a casino venue like ours because it’s an elevator ride to an all-inclusive resort with all the amenities they need: hotel, restaurants, shopping, nightclubs, pools and of course gaming and sports betting. They can’t get that playing a standalone building.
Hodin: From the perspective of booking strategy, we don’t see ourselves as being any different from traditional venues, except for being able to leverage one of the largest databases of known customers to drive overall sales. Caesars has a large enough footprint that we can take advantage of routing scenarios among our own venues, but also coexist within other touring circuits as well. Having venues of different sizes and capacities makes us an attractive partner and a “one-stop shop” for agencies as they route various artists within their rosters.
Robinson-Wesley:Casino venues are a great way to augment a tour. Artists have an opportunity to reset while on the road, ditching the tour bus for lush hotel accommodations at the venue. Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world, so most artists want to play here. But as a venue in a competitive environment, it’s important that we offer something different when routing touring artists. Hospitality and marketing are at the forefront. We put forth aggressive marketing plans with our booking partner, Live Nation — plans that are like that of the larger tours. And ultimately, it’s all about the show. We work closely with artist production to ensure that we deliver the best show for the artist and fans.
Shomes: The days of artists playing casinos as a wind down to their career are over, and I love booking all sorts of shows that are groundbreaking in the casino entertainment space. Whether that is psychic mediums or production shows or movie star-fronted bands, there is clearly a lane in casinos outside of the traditional entertainment shows of the past.
As for differences, casinos have also built incredible restaurants, nightclubs, pools, spas and retail shopping, providing the fan with an experience that is unlike most traditional venues. For me, the trick has always been to figure out the best way to not just book a show but to book an event that checks as many boxes as possible to activate these different experiences.
Has the definition of a “casino act” changed in recent years? What do artists and fans want to see at casino venues, and how are the casino owners and developers adapting?
Amechi: It’s no longer limited to a certain genre or type of performance. Today’s audiences are diverse and have varied tastes, and casino owners and developers are adapting by offering a wider range of entertainment options than they used to. In many cases, this involves taking risks on acts or formats that have never played casinos before. But the buyers understand fans want to see performances that are exciting, engaging, and unique, and that’s exactly what we’re striving to provide at the casino venues.
Baker: Casinos have become a staple on artists’ nationwide tours. We have continued to schedule larger and more diversified acts over the years, including comedians, rock, and specialty acts for ethnic and niche markets. Our team at Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant keeps a pulse on what customers want, such as up-and-coming acts made popular by social media, and works to fulfill those desires to give fans a first-class experience.
Hodin: Honestly, all anyone wants to see is a great show that transports them away for a couple of hours. I don’t think anyone cares how an act is classified anymore. Some people want new acts, while others want nostalgia.
Robinson-Wesley: I think that term has changed drastically and is nearly obsolete. It’s live entertainment in a proper venue. That’s what matters most. No more setting up ballrooms as a concert venue for an act. We have rooms with appropriate amenities for the artists where they can do their whole show without limitations. Fans want to see all the bells and whistles, and more importantly, the acoustics mean everything. Casinos thrive off of hospitality. How we treat the artists who play our venues, and the fans who come to see them, is no different.
Sanchez: From Latin to K-pop and everything in between, casinos are bringing major-level acts from each genre. It’s about expanding and serving all audiences — and not looking at customer base with narrow focus.
Selak: Any entertainment is now a casino act. Fans want good, fast-paced entertainment that can energize them before heading to the gaming floor. Many tribal venues are now on par with the finest Vegas casinos. Ticket buyers are aware of this and are taking advantage of their “hometown” casinos so they do not have to travel a far distance for Vegas-like facilities.
Shomes: Yes and no. I don’t mean to be ambiguous, but the truth is that classic songs and iconic music catalogs will never go out of style. Whether that is an older or current artist, fans want to see who they love and have a great time. And if they can see their favorite artist in a more intimate setting that a casino can provide, it is a massive win-win for everybody.
Williams: The answer to this question depends on the casino. Some casinos prefer to have one act that plays no more than 75 minutes, maybe 90 minutes of total performance over two acts, while other casinos will program three to four acts to give the patrons more value. There are some casinos that have no problem booking “festival-style” programming with multiple acts. Fans in all circles want more value for their money. Entertainment at their favorite casino presents a more attractive destination for multiple days or a weekend stay. The definition of “casino act” is evolving.
Any predictions for the future of the casino entertainment business? What would you like to see?
Amechi: I anticipate continued growth and innovation in the casino entertainment business. Technology will play an increasingly important role, from enhancing audience experiences to determining and uplifting the next generation of “casino acts.” I would like to see a continued focus on diversity and inclusivity in the acts that are booked, reflecting the wide range of interests and backgrounds of the audiences.
Baker: We hope to see the entertainment side of casinos continue to expand, allowing Choctaw Casinos & Resorts more opportunities to put great acts in front of our valued guests from Oklahoma, North Texas and beyond.
Blank: Casinos are playing a significant role in the entertainment industry and that role is only going to get bigger.
Cantone: Stay relevant and current with today’s social media buzz, those platforms have replaced traditional marketing with a new talent pool of overnight sensations that can sell out venues of all sizes.
I booked Matt Rife for a record seven sellouts without spending a nickel of traditional advertising. While the big traditional names are still the cash cow of our business, the next generation is a push button away, already in the house on social media with a following of millions — that is the future.
Hodin: We’re going to see continued growth as more acts see the benefit of our customer base, wide reach and quality of our venues while we focus on investing in those experiences and amenities on our end. The idea of live entertainment has grown so much in terms of production and technology, and at Caesars, we have the ability to provide unparalleled customer experiences and are also at the forefront of the memorable experiences that entertainers want to create for their fans as the industry resets and evolves.
Robinson-Wesley: Casino entertainment will continue to be a revenue contributor to the bottom line. The footfall, volume and brand equity that live entertainment events bring to a casino are unmatched. I see more artists adding casino venues to their schedules. The convenience and amenities are perks. Where else can you have a nice, pre-show dining experience, meet friends for a cocktail in a lounge or speakeasy setting, attend the show and then have a nightcap afterward or dance the night away at a nightclub … all in one place?
Sabet: Casinos across the country are investing in their properties and building quality venues that will attract larger audiences and in-demand artists. UTA is looking forward to continuing our business in this space and connecting our incredible artists with these unique touring opportunities.
Sanchez: The future of casino entertainment is bright, especially as content providers unlock the true marketing potential of all that top-tier casino venues have to offer beyond traditional rooms.
Selak: Tribal gaming’s trajectory is only up! New construction and ideas are shaping much of what is happening today and tribal gaming is part of that overall scene. I’d like to see continued government/tribal cooperation allowing more flexibility for additional growth within the gaming industry.
Shomes:It is easy to just talk on a phone call about my clients, but I really enjoy the collaborative process of listening to the casino’s goals and then aligning my clients’ goals. A sold-out show is always amazing, but there are so many ways to make a casino event special and unique that I wake up every day excited to break new ground. There is nothing more gratifying than pitching a unique idea with a unique marketing angle and then seeing it come to fruition in a successful way.
I certainly appreciate that I have been called a “pioneer” in the casino space, but the credit really goes to the casinos that have been willing to take chances and work hand in hand with myself, management, and the artists time and time again to create a once in a lifetime experience that fans will remember forever.
Williams: We would love to see the casino business continue to elevate entertainment options and evolve to eliminate any stigmas that affected the level of artist stature. Casinos should be viewed by the industry as “vital theater” for touring strategy. The business is going to grow substantially over the next five years.