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That’s Entertainment!

Showrooms and lounges will come back, but when? Entertainment experts give their best guesses.

That’s Entertainment!

Harry Styles has a date to sing at MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 4. That is, September 4, 2021.

The heartthrob former member of One Direction got stood up for his September 5, 2020 date due to Covid-19. He is one of dozens of jilted performers whose shows were either canceled or postponed in Las Vegas by the pandemic. And not just in Las Vegas. From California to Connecticut to Michigan, shows at casinos large and small got the ax after the mid-March closure of casino resorts all over the world.

“I had to reschedule 485 shows. I felt like an air traffic controller with hundreds of planes circling and trying to find a runway open to land them,” says Thomas L. Cantone, president, sports & entertainment for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.

Veteran Las Vegas entertainment manager Clinton Billups handles three artists in residence: Alain Nu: The Man Who Knows; Motown Extreme Review; and the World Famous Ink Spots. He also manages April Brucker, who premiered a one-woman show in February in preparation for a residency of her own to begin in late March.

All four shows now await word to return to the stage.

Four Winds Casino Resort and Hotel in New Buffalo, Michigan canceled July performances by Styx, Smokey Robinson, even Mike Tyson, and August dates for the Beach Boys and Damon Wayans. Melissa Etheridge postponed her September show, but Little River Band remains on the books for September 4 at the Silver Creek Event Center. For now, at least.

Singing On Key

Indeed, entertainment may be the last of the casino offerings to get back to business as usual. It’s certainly not because the performers are running scared.

“Artists are not reluctant; they are just like us in terms of doing what is right for their fans, road production teams and the venues they play at,” says Mark Birtha, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain. “We all place a high value on the safety and health conditions of our venues, and they want to be proud that we are putting on a show that meets those expectations.”

Casino properties are taking the first baby steps in returning to entertainment.

Mohegan Sun in Connecticut ran its first live performances in 96 days at the end of June, in the Roadhouse & Comix venues, with social distancing in place, Cantone says.

Other venues hope to open later this summer, he says.

The Petrossian Bar at Bellagio employs a pianist again, while the Whiskey Down in MGM Grand also features live performers, according to Scott Ghertner, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International.

But showrooms and arenas tied to casino properties remain dark. What will it take to bring back casino entertainment with more than just a lounge act?

For one thing, it will require enough precautions.

In Nevada, Phase 2 of the reopening plan—extended through July—restricts public and private gatherings to no more than 50 people and prohibits the opening of nightclubs and day clubs, live sporting event venues and performance venues with live audiences.

“Unfortunately, we won’t know what will be permitted in Phase 3 until Governor (Steve) Sisolak announces it, so we don’t have a timeline for any of the currently prohibited events to return,” says Maria Phelan, communications manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Certainly a Phase 3 would likely require some type of accommodation, Billups says. “The devil will be in the details.”

Social distancing, for sure. Capacity limits, check. Masks, check.

The new 7,500-seat Hard Rock Live! in Hollywood, Florida was just getting started when the pandemic hit

“Due to a recent spike in Covid-19 cases, Governor Sisolak has now ordered the wearing of face masks in all public spaces and private businesses, which implies that it would at least be four to six weeks before Phase 3 is even considered,” Billups says. “Add to that the time required for properties, producers and ticket brokers to gear up, and then we’re looking at maybe Labor Day openings…if all goes well.”

Most artists totally understand the current situation and have worked with booking agents, ticket brokers and media teams to push shows back to more favorable dates, Birtha says. “That’s when we will have more guidance and guidelines in place.”

Cantone says he is in constant communication with performers and their people, reaching out to tours. “Artists can’t wait to perform again. It’s the passion for performing live that can’t be replaced with streaming. Fans need to be there. It’s part of making memories. I’m sure this has been the longest time most have not performed.”

In some cases, national tours are pushing dates to 2021, and that is understandable, Birtha says. Harry Styles, for example.

In Las Vegas, the Dionne Warwick residency in Cleopatra’s Barge has been rescheduled to mid-November. Sting’s residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace will return at the end of January. But Rod Stewart brings his show to the same locale starting this September 18. At least as it stands now.

“We are seeing active interest from many entertainers who want to return as soon as possible,” says Jason Gastwirth, president of entertainment at Caesars Entertainment.

Billups says his clients are cautiously anxious to get back to work.

“Anxious because entertainers entertain, that’s who they are. And cautious not only for their safety, but the safety of their audiences.”

Reduced Capacity

For Keith Sheldon, incoming president of entertainment for Hard Rock International and Seminole Gaming, the protocols for live performances are an extension of those for the rest of the casino hotel environment.

“We’ve already reopened with strict social distancing and mask requirements for guests and team members, plus Plexiglas partitions, alternating slot machines, clean team crews and body temperature screening of guests and team members, all part of our Safe + Sound program,” Sheldon says. “The live entertainment venues will be no different… with respect to guests, artists, crews, and team members.”

Subject to government directives, Caesars is planning for a selection of lower to mid-size shows to either operate at reduced capacity for the time being or be moved into larger venues to allow the show to proceed while complying with appropriate social distancing. “This will serve as a solid bridge to the time when we can return operating shows at their prior seating configurations,” Gastwirth says.

With reduced capacity, solo performers, duos, even trios might still be able to make a buck, Billups says. “But shows with larger casts will either have to scale back or stay dark until capacity restrictions are economically feasible.”

The Four Winds Casinos in Michigan and Indiana will include social distancing at their theaters, which cuts down on the seating, and could make staging some shows financially problematic.

“A normal entertainment situation could include reduced seating, but more shows to accommodate guests,” says Frank Freedman, chief operating officer of the casinos. “New information continues to come out daily, and we are actively working with artists on their preferences should limited seating be required.”

When the green light does come, the experience will likely differ, at least in the initial stages, Billups says. No merchandise tables. No on-stage audience participation. No meet-and-greets.

There will probably be changes when it comes to managing entertainment operations in terms of queuing, seat spacing, ushers, ticket sales, concessions and other routine activities. “These are the elements we are working on defining with health experts,” Birtha says.

Caesars will practice social distancing, Gastwirth says. Entrance queues at the theaters will be marked to identify the appropriate distance between guests, with modified seating in the showrooms to allow appropriate space between parties and structured egress after the show. Health and safety signage as well as hand sanitizer stands will be positioned at entrances and throughout the venues.

“Team members will strongly encourage guests to sanitize their hands prior to entering venues and at key locations such as concession stands, as well as to wear face coverings,” he says.

The large assembly piece is the last phase of the overall easing of restrictions for Birtha’s casino.

“We are working closely with our local county health department to ensure we have the appropriate protocols in place to deliver the best experience possible,” he says. “We are collaborating on how best to bring the entertainment experience back to our integrated destination resort as soon as possible.”

Getting Creative

While safety is a top priority, Sheldon and his staff must take into account the artist community and content providers. In that respect, he expects to think creatively, think outside-of-the-box. “That includes maintaining a willingness to explore new concepts and intermediary steps before a full-blown return to packed venues,” he says. “If we do these things, we should find ourselves at the forefront of the live entertainment industry’s comeback, and set up for both short- and long-term success.”

Most of the Mohegan concerts at all levels remain at full capacity. But that doesn’t take into account what a post-virus world will look like, Cantone says.

“So I added a new clause in our deals for all our properties nationwide, that protects our guarantees in the event ticket sales are impacted or result in refunds caused again by another crisis,” he says.

Artist fees would be reflected to the level of the gross potential, he says. “I’m hoping to test a few of those in a smaller setup model. To keep production and crews limited, comedy or acoustic shows would be a good place to start.”

But truth be told, success depends as much if not more on ticket buyers than performers. “Will the public return, or won’t they? That is the question. It’s a question that has prompted a lot of opinions, but lacks historical data for any accurate forecasting,” Billups says.

Cantone has little doubt based on ticket refunds to this point.

“In Connecticut, over 81 percent of people retain their concert tickets waiting for that day to come back,” he says. “That puts Mohegan Sun close to the Ticketmaster average of 87 percent. That is a key indicator to me that people will be coming back and can’t wait to see their favorite artists perform again.”

Billups cited the pandemic of a century ago as perhaps an anecdotal reminder. The disease killed millions, but eventually died out. With its demise came the Roaring Twenties, a time of celebrity culture, palatial cinemas, sophisticated supper clubs, sports stadiums and vaudeville.

“So while right now, there may be ‘no business IN show business,’ show people know in their hearts that the show always goes on. Even the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages didn’t do away with court jesters!” he says.

Cantone agrees. “Know this—the return of the live entertainment industry will signal the final cure that ends this pandemic.”

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Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.

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