Area casinos look to draw younger crowd
FARGO -- For the area's two major casinos, the last weekend in January represents an industry intersection of sorts.
Sixty miles to the south of Fargo, at the Dakota Magic Casino in Hankinson, N.D., Kenny "The Gambler" Rogers performs his classic country nuggets. Seventy-one miles to the northeast, celebrity party girl Paris Hilton hosts the "Brrriffic Beach Bash."
On the one hand, casinos are doing what they've been doing for years: bringing in classic entertainers to appease the older-than-50 crowd.
On the other hand, in an effort to broaden their base, casinos are now dealing out show bills targeting younger audiences.
"Shooting Star Casino is a 17-year-old property. You have to reinvent yourself every once in a while. There's heavy competition out there," said Romyn Hanks, the facility's marketing director. "It's about expanding. It's about getting new customers to your property."
Shooting Star isn't the only casino stacking the deck with younger acts such as the rock band Staind or new country group Lady Antebellum.
"The majority of our income is from the older generation, and they're settled in to what they enjoy ... but eventually we're going to have to branch out," said Danny White, Shooting Star's general manager. "We have to try to make Dakota Magic be the place (younger crowds) want to visit, too."
While these two casinos compete for F-M residents, they are united in one thought: Bringing in younger visitors today means keeping them as clients as they get older.
What's happening at Shooting Star and Dakota Magic is not unique.
"It's not something you're just seeing up in North Dakota," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief for the touring industry magazine Pollstar.
"You can't just book the Tony Bennetts of the world and expect to ... bring in the younger, more rock-oriented fans who are no longer in their teens, but 20s and 30s who may be interested in gambling as well," Bongiovanni said from his Fresno, Calif., office. "Which is ultimately what they're all about, getting people to gamble, using entertainment as the hook."
The problem is, as Hanks and White will tell you, visitors under 50 years old aren't as likely to gamble as those over 50.
"The older crowd, like with Kenny Rogers, they'll come and buy a ticket for a show and go and get something to eat and they'll play some machines," said White, noting that, "Casinos' bread and butter are slot machines."
"A lot of time that younger crowd, if we don't attach something to that ticket, they'll come to the show, have a couple of beers and head out," White said.
Casinos have long catered to the older demographic with what Hanks calls "heritage acts" such as country music legends George Jones and Merle Haggard. Both played each area casino in the past 15 months.
These heritage acts still draw crowds; the Jan. 29 Rogers concert is already sold out. But as their patrons get older, casino executives know they need to cultivate new crowds.
"The younger demographic is harder to get in because we have the stigma of being a casino," Hanks said, noting that the challenge is getting younger audiences to start thinking of a casino not as a place that features lounge singers, but a place that is more of an entertainment destination.
"For a casino that thrives off of people gambling, we were sort of afraid to gamble ourselves," he said. "Hence Paris Hilton. Hence the new country acts."
Similar gambles have already paid off. Shooting Star had a packed house on Halloween when celebrity Carmen Electra hosted a costume party. Hanks hopes Hilton draws 2,000 party-goers on Saturday. And to help achieve that, the casino will offer shuttle buses from the Fargodome that night.
Since he started at the casino in the middle of 2008, Hanks brought in rising country acts Dierks Bentley, Kellie Pickler and Lady Antebellum in November. A week after the trio performed in Mahnomen, Lady Antebellum beat veteran acts like the Eagles and Rascal Flatts for Country Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year.
While Shooting Star has leaned a little more toward new country, Dakota Magic has hit pay dirt with rock acts Staind, Sugar Ray and Smashmouth. Bret Michaels was such a hit, White is looking to bring the Poison frontman back.
New country acts have also been a hit in Hankinson. Gretchen Wilson and Jason Aldean both were successful, and White hopes to soon finalize a date with Darrius Rucker, former frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish.
"A lot of artists are starting to change their approach and outlook on casinos and realize it's not Vegas from the '60s and '70s and '80s," said Steve Seiden of the Los Angeles-based Resort Entertainment, which helps book acts with Dakota Magic and other clients across the country, including a number of casinos. "Casinos aren't a place where artists go when they don't have the market anymore."
He points to Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., the second-largest casino in America. A recent weekend featured a mix of "young" and "old" entertainment with Rascal Flatts, Charo, Jimmy Sturr, Bowzer from Sha-na-na, and current pop songstress Lady Gaga. February has shows by Kid Rock, John Mayer and, yes, Tony Bennett - on Valentine's Day.
"It is a challenge to get artists to think of Mahnomen, Minn., instead of Minneapolis-St. Paul or even Fargo-Moorhead, for that matter," Hanks said. "But it's not terribly impossible."
Bongiovanni said one effect of casinos branching out with their talent buying is that it creates some competition for independent promoters. In Fargo-Moorhead's case, he referred to Jade Presents.
The Fargo-based promoter was forced to move a show in early July at The Venue featuring 2008's "American Idol" winner David Cook when the singer scheduled a show eight days later for Shooting Star. When the rescheduled Fargo show went down in late August it did fine, but the buzz had already died down some, said Jade Nielsen, president of Jade Presents.
"The reality is that 99 percent of what they do isn't what we'd pursue, and vice versa," Nielsen said. He added that he had an offer in for rock band Collective Soul, but now that Dakota Magic has the group booked for February, he's less inclined to bring it in to Fargo.
Nielsen knows firsthand the casinos' desire to attract the younger crowd. While booking bands for Prairie Knights Casino, 45 miles south of Mandan, N.D., he brought in acts like the Goo Goo Dolls in addition to George Jones.
"The more of those shows we have, the more we see success on the draw from our floor," White said, referring to acts aimed at younger crowds.
"Casinos don't live or die off the ticket," Bongiovanni said. "If they get people in to gamble, that makes up for it."
If you go
What: Kenny Rogers
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Dakota Magic Casino, near Hankinson, N.D.
Info: The show is sold out.
What: Brrriffic Beach Bash with Paris Hilton
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Shooting Star Casino, outside Mahnomen, Minn.
Tickets: $10 admission, purchase wristbands at the door. Shuttle buses to the casino will leave from the Fargodome. Go to www.starcasino.com for more information.