Aretha Franklin belts it out at Seneca Niagara Casino last May 28. (AP Photo/Oscar Wells Gabriel II)

All the Casino’s a Stage: Entertainment Is One of the Safest Bets in Gaming Business

Doug Meigs
9/29/11

Entertainment strategies vary at Indian casinos—some tribes have luxurious resorts with elaborate concert venues, while others cater to the more modest needs of smaller communities. Both types face many of the same challenges in booking, promotion and facility development.

Representatives from across Indian country—including those from the Tulalip Tribes’ two casinos in Washington, the Seneca Gaming Corporation’s three casinos in New York, and the Winnebago’s WinnaVegas in Iowa—spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about their entertainment strategies.

West Coast: Tulalip Tribes

Entertainment plays a key role in attracting and rewarding gamblers, says Glenn Stolle, entertainment manager for the Tulalip Tribes’ Tulalip Resort Casino. The tribe also owns and operates an older and smaller community casino, Quil Ceda Creek Casino.

The Tulalip Resort Casino cabaret seats 480 and the outdoor amphitheater has room for 2,500 people. Quil Ceda Creek can hold up to 1,500 people in its gaming area. Its nightclub has 250 seats for events. “Quil Ceda Creek is more the neighborhood casino—a small, more intimate location. [Tulalip Resort] is more of a resort destination, so what we’re doing here [at Tulalip Resort] is bigger,” Stolle says.

The cabaret at Tulalip Resort just got a $200,000 renovation of its sound and lighting system that includes a Yamaha 7.1 surround sound stereo system, four high-definition widescreens and a reconstructed stage. Shows are generally free to guests. When booking acts, Stolle looks for performers who will draw players onto the casino floor after the show. Acts range from classic rock to country, with some jazz. He says country acts have become increasingly popular, and he has coordinated promotion with regional country radio stations. A weekly comedy night is another draw.

The casino’s target age demographic is 55 and up, though it is experimenting with ways to attract younger guests, including a Battle of the Bands that ran from April until August. Bands from Tacoma, Seattle and local areas competed for a chance to record an album. “We will usually rotate through a dozen and a half different bands and a few [new ones] that we find. I get all kinds of different press packets, and if they sound good, we give people a try,” he says. “You’re not going to know how good [bands really are]—or how they will be received by the guests—until you bring them in. Especially with a new act, it can be a crapshoot.”

East Coast: Seneca Nation

Staying abreast of acts performing at regional competitors is essential to maintain market competitiveness, says Jim Wise, senior vice president of marketing for the Seneca Gaming Corporation. The corporation oversees three gaming properties—Seneca Allegheny, Seneca Niagara and Seneca Buffalo Creek. The Allegheny and Niagara Falls location are the tribe’s main entertainment-focused operations—both have more than 2,000-seat entertainment centers.

Seneca Niagara is located a few blocks from the Canadian border, and Wise says guests come from northwestern New York and Ontario. They come from local nearby cities, such as Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and from as far away as Toronto. Wise considers his competitors to be both gaming and commercial establishments in all of those areas.

Wise says that with limited entertainment dollars to go around in the area, advertising and marketing with local radio and publications is important, as well as direct mail, social media and a public relations firm that coordinates interviews between the booked performers and the local media.

The Seneca casinos avoid booking a musician or comedian when the local market is flush with his or her genre. “We try to make sure that an act is [underexposed] to ensure that their loyal fans will come out. We try to be about four to six months out on all of our booking decisions, hoping that other people are paying attention to what we are booking and trying not to be competitive with us. We try to get our schedules lined up as early as possible to get the tickets on sale earlier and establish our position,” he says.

Wise reports that both the Allegheny and Niagara event centers sell 40 to 50 percent of seats in cash. “Even if you’re not a gaming customer, we want to attract you to come in and buy show tickets. Such people frequently fill up our restaurants with cash business, and maybe they play a couple of dollars on slots or tables, but if it’s not their thing, then we still want to be a viable place for them to come and do business for our nongaming amenities.”

Midwest: The Winnebago

The occasional weather disruption is to be expected in the north during winter, but sometimes disaster strikes. When the Missouri River flooded last summer, it forced the Winnebago Tribe to cancel a big festival and on June 10 temporarily closed its WinnaVegas casino in western Iowa. “This would have been our fifth year with an outdoor three-day festival,” says Marketing Manager Deana Whistler.

The casino, in its 20th year of operation, has been booking entertainment for the past 15 years. WinnaVegas’s indoor concert arena seats 800, and the festival grounds can accommodate up to 6,000. WinnaVegas has scheduled a replacement outdoor festival for October 8 to 9.

Whistler says the casino pulls many gamers from nearby Sioux City, and most guests come from within a 60-mile radius of the venue.

WinnaVegas reopened on July 27 thanks to amphibious “ducks”—i.e., vehicles that can drive into flooded areas. The ducks transported guests to the casino. “There was still water across the street, and that was the only way that our county would let us open again to have people in the casino,” Whistler recalls. “They were necessary for weeks simply to access the casino.”

Whistler said the casino tried to make the best of the circumstances, and the duck vehicles even eventually became a sort of attraction for curious guests.

You never know when your good luck might come in the form of a duck.

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