Promoters roll dice on concert acts

Casino floors aren't the only places in northern Nevada where gambling occurs; concert promoters roll the dice every time they book a show.

And with casino entertainment directors' changing tastes and fickle consumer spending, making a buck on a performance has gotten more difficult, promoters say.

Concert promoters' costs are many: performance guarantees, renting a venue, paying for labor to set up and dismantle the show, hotel rooms for the band, and promotional materials. They hope to recover heavy upfront expenditures through ticket sales, but the challenging economic climate the past few years has made booking shows even more of a game of chance, says Billy Drewitz, owner of Late-Nite Productions in South Lake Tahoe.

"It is definitely a gamble but that is kind of part of the allure of it," Drewitz says.

Late-Nite Productions regularly books shows in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Reno and Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Drewitz primarily works with underground hip-hop artists, but he books shows in all genres. The past few years, Drewitz says, he's focused on fewer shows but boosted marketing and promotional efforts to draw larger crowds.

"It has forced me to put a lot more thought into my decision-making," he says. "In the past, if a band was on tour and they needed to play in Reno to get to Utah I was more apt to help them out."

Regional promoters say one of the greatest challenges they face is the hesitancy of consumers in Greater Reno Tahoe to make plans in advance. Pre-show ticket sales often used by promoters and acts as a benchmark to determine how well a show will be attended typically lag at the area's smaller venues and casinos, Drewitz says. But strong walk-up ticket sales have kept many regional promoters from sleepless nights.

'It is a tricky market," Drewitz says. "I have been working in this business for 15 years, and I still don't have it figured out. It is always changing."

Robbie Polomsky, president of Renegade Productions in Tahoe City, doesn't even look at pre-sale numbers because so many people wait until the last minute to make their plans. Every show counts, he says, and a string of poorly attended concerts can spell financial ruin.

"It is easier to lose big than win big," Polomsky says. "It's a very stressful business."

Anticipating the changing tastes of casino operators also causes headaches, Polomsky says.

Casinos currently lean toward booking younger acts to attract a younger clientele, and older acts aren't as popular in Reno or Lake Tahoe casino showrooms. Renegade Productions books shows throughout the Lake Tahoe basin, northern California and northern Nevada and specializes in reggae, hip-hop and jam bands such as Widespread Panic, which recently played at the Grand Sierra Resort.

Drewitz says casinos always are changing their target demographic, especially in Lake Tahoe, and the economy of the past few years has changed the face of audiences that attend shows in destinations such as Tahoe.

Although Greater Reno Tahoe typically doesn't book the big-name acts that play in larger venues on the west side of the Sierra Nevada, the region's entertainment offerings play a crucial role in driving visitors to casino properties and bringing in visitors from out of state, casino executives and tourism officials say.

Joe Kelley, vice president of facilities for Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor's Authority, which operates the Reno Events Center, says artists ranging from country to pop to classic rock play in RSCVA venues.

And choosing which acts do perform in Reno whether it's at the events center, or a casino concert hall such as the Rose Ballroom or Celebrity Showroom in the Nugget, or Silver Legacy Exposition Hall is really a simple process, Kelley says.

Factors include:

* Size of the venue

* Demand in the market

* Popularity of the artist

Combined, these factors determine ticket prices.

"Agents and promoters are familiar with Reno and know what will work here," Kelley says. "If they want a million dollars for Justin Timberlake, we don't have the seats and can't charge a premium on tickets. But to do Elton John or the Eagles that is not out of the question."

Oftentimes artists book shows on weeknights in Reno following weekend performances in larger venues in California, but many popular country performers Carrie Underwood for one desire to play markets of all size.

"Country acts, we are a good market for them, and they tend to do well when they are here," says Ellen Oppenheim, CEO of the RSCVA. While the RSCVA does not profit from the box office take, it generates revenue from rental fees on its facilities, as well as food, beverage and parking.

For casino properties in Reno and Sparks, cost and revenue aren't the overriding factors that determine entertainment offerings. Concerts and shows are used primarily to attract guests to the property, says Beth Cooney, executive director of marketing at John Ascuaga's Nugget.

The Nugget has been booking acts in its 700-seat Celebrity Showroom since the 1950s. The Nugget uses its 2,000-seat Rose Ballroom for acts that draw larger crowds.

"Entertainment is one of the key marketing tools we use," Cooney says. "We want to associate the Nugget with top-name entertainment it gives the casino a certain attraction panache."

There's an art to balancing the cost of booking and marketing an act with its appeal to the local demographic in establishing ticket prices, says Glenn Carano, director of marketing for the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.

"Entertainment does a lot for northern Nevada," Carano says. "It helps us market northern Nevada and Reno as a destination that has a lot going on, and that gives us a chance to draw more people and gives locals the opportunity to have a great night out."


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