This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tom Cantone, Sr. Corporate Vice President Sports & Entertainment, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.
America’s casino, entertainment, hotel, and resort industry, a $240 billion entertainment and gaming colossus—now represents a powerful global concert distribution network
At its forefront is Tom Cantone, Sr. Corporate Vice President, Sports & Entertainment for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment (MGE) who has been responsible for over 10,000 entertainment events during his colorful three-decade career.
In his current role, Cantone oversees all aspects of entertainment and sport events at all MGE properties–booking over 600 shows in 2018–including at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut; Mohegan Sun Pocono in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey; the MoIiani Casino Resort in Marksville, Louisiana; and now at Fallsview Casino, and Casino Niagara, both in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Cantone works in conjunction with Mohegan Sun talent buyer Jim Koplik, president of Live Nation Connecticut, and Upstate New York.
Cantone is set to assume similar responsibilities at all future properties acquired or managed by MGE which is currently developing a resort in Incheon, South Korea. The company also plans to compete for licenses in Greece, and Japan.
From 2007 to 2013, Cantone served as Vice President of Sports & Entertainment of the Mohegan’s 1,600-room flagship resort located on the banks of the Thames River on a forested 240-acre reservation in rural Uncasville, Connecticut.
The 12,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena at the resort is home to the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Connecticut Sun basketball team, one of four teams currently in the WNBA playoffs.
From Harrisburg, and a graduate of Penn State University, Cantone, began his career at the Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company in the ‘80s. Numerous promotions led to him becoming dir. of corporate marketing, overseeing all of Hershey’s 16 operating divisions, including its sports, entertainment, theme park, and hotels.
Next, he was hired on as VP entertainment at The Sands Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
In 1987, Donald Trump brought Cantone in as VP of entertainment, promotions, and advertising for Trump Castle Casino Resort. He was subsequently promoted to corporate VP of entertainment for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Trump Plaza Hotel Casino. He stayed with the Trump organization for four years.
In the mid-90s, Cantone worked as VP of studio and retail marketing for the Dallas-based Hollywood Casino Corporation. In addition, Cantone also was named VP of entertainment at The Sands Hotel & Casino.
In 1998, Foxwoods Resort Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation on their reservation in Ledyard, Connecticut, recruited Cantone to join its senior management team.
For the next 9 years, as VP of Foxwoods Entertainment Group, he directed the entertainment operations of the 1,400-seat Fox Theatre, the 4,000-seat Fox Arena, the B.B. King Nite Club, and the B.B. King Dance Club, as well as two lounges.
In 2014, Cantone published his 255-page book, “Book ‘Em: From The Man Who Revolutionized Casino Entertainment.”
In 2017, Cantone received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from Ellis Island Honors, a New York City organization that embodies the spirit of America’s ideals, diversity, and tolerance. Seven U.S. Presidents have received the Medal of Honor as well as such entertainment figures as Frank Sinatra, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, and many others.
In addition to its casinos in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington, Atlantic City, and Niagara Falls, Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment (MGE) is currently developing a $5 billion integrated resort in Incheon, South Korea.
As well, MGE will bid for the right to develop and operate a casino resort at Hellinikon in Athens, Greece; and is prepared to develop a casino resort in Tomakomai on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
So there’s a lot going on at MGE.
Yes, MGE continues to monitor Japan’s interest in the development of an integrated entertainment resort including gaming on Hokkaido. As well, MGE is expecting to officially tender a bid to develop an integrated entertainment resort in Athens. We believe this development has the potential to become the premier business and entertainment destination in southern Europe.
In essence. MGE has taken a local brand based in Uncasville, Connecticut, and made it into a regional brand, and now is in the process of making it into a global brand while retaining its personalized characteristics. So local to regional to global?
Yes, because it will start and always, no matter how big we get over the next 5 years, and there is a master plan, that it is all about our culture. That separates us from all of the other corporations in the casino business and puts us into a family-run business which really, in essence, is what this is. The Mohegan Tribe is a family business and, first and foremost, the health and the growth of its members, and its generations of generations, as they like to say 13 generations from now, it is first and foremost why we are here. So the businesses that we choose to be in supports that. It is a government here as well. So again different from all of the other U.S.-based gaming companies. We have a government here that regulates and runs our culture and our business. It is a unique model that seems to be working in the face of stiff competition, in the face of dramatic saturation of the market, especially in the North East, and we continue to grow.
(The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority is an instrument of the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut.)
Meanwhile, MGE’s corporate entertainment team has pinpointed further potential business locations in Washington State, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey for expansion. Obviously, they believe there are further opportunities out there.
We did over 600 shows at all of our properties in one year under our umbrella. We will add another 300 shows when we further add Canada fully. And then in a few years, when South Korea comes online, we could be doing well over 1,000 to 2,000 live shows. And we will become, if we are not there already, the biggest producer of live entertainment in the industry. And it all started in a town called Uncasville.
Now rated as one of the top entertainment markets in the Americas. The top three arena markets in the world are listed as New York City, Mexico City, and Uncasville. The Mohegan Sun Arena is widely recognized as the #1 casino venue in the world.
Well, there are a lot of different rankings. One is that we range from #1 in the market in the arena business for our size–always in the Top 3–to the #1 casino venue in the world, and to being the #1 social media venue.
Mohegan Sun Arena has seemingly jumped into the lead as the #1 social media venue in the world today, a unique accomplishment given the intense competition of over 3,500 casinos seeking our attention. When we first talked a decade ago for an In The Hot Seat profile, you were just exploring social media. Nowadays, your social media immediately blows up with the announcement of a major event.
The minute that I book something, Larry, the minute that I book something, it blows up. And, it is usually our content. What we are programming, and it’s usually the start of a tour. Like with Miranda Lambert who was recently here starting her tour. We have about 30 tours that have started here. So that creates a little bit of a buzz or the opposite effect like when U2 ended their 2018 North American (eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE) tour here. You can’t see them after this. So the buzz on that was, “You have to got to be there. You won’t be able to see them ever again (on this tour).”
Bon Jovi not only starts their tours at the Mohegan Sun Arena but holds rehearsals there as well.
Always rehearses here. Jon told me personally that he’d only rehearse here, and it’s a compliment. I can’t stress this enough. It’s a compliment to the men and women who run this venue because they are here full-time. They are not a pick-up team. They are a starting line-up of the best technical experts in the business. So when these tours arrive here, acts and their crews have told me that when they see Mohegan Sun Arena on the tour schedule, they circle it, and celebrate the fact that they can relax. That they know that things are going to be done right and, if there’s a problem, it is fixed. And they also feel like families because I have made it (family) pretty much our culture here. That when the tours arrive–forget the artist, we take good care of the artists–but it is the crews, the people who do a lot of the hard work, we treat them like family. So we say, “Welcome home.”
Is the casino entertainment business recession-proof?
I wouldn’t say that it is recession-proof. I think that it is a first-choice when money is tight to go out, and you go to a place that you are comfortable to be going to. Even if you are just walking around, and spending a little bit less than what you did. I know this. We have been surrounded this past year with major competition with MGM in Springfield (Massachusetts), and Encore Boston Harbor in Boston and, while we felt the effects of that—and I know that this is competition, and not a recession—we more than held our own. So I am thinking that if there is a recession, and so far the economy is great, people will still come to us when there is a competitive choice.
Give people a great experience with good acts in a safe and clean environment, and they will come and spend money whatever the economy because they want a night out.
People want to go out.
What do you offer?
I just think that we offer an escape. That people are tired of watching the news. They are so disgusted with the negativity, the daily 24/7 media bombardment of what is wrong; that they can’t wait to have fun, and they can’t wait to celebrate with their friends. I always say, and I coined this a long time ago, and now I see it in magazines, we don’t sell tickets, we make memories. There is no price tag for that. It’s priceless. When you come out to a concert—I watch it, and it amazes me—people arrive here with the expectation of the escape, of the experience. Getting away from their mundane jobs, and the negativity in the world today. They can’t wait to get here. And man when they do, Larry, you should see their faces. They are excited. They can’t wait to get in. They run to their seats in the arena when the doors open. And when the lights go down, they jump up with excitement, and they don’t sit for the entire two or three hours, whatever it is. And when the show is over you should see the (facial) expressions of people. They are taking selfies. They are leaving happy. For a few hours out of their lives, they got away from what is wrong and got into what is right. To me, that is what we sell. Our product is fun.
You really are running entertainment complexes that include hotels, a casino, clubs, and a show room.
We changed our name (to Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment), and put “entertainment” in it. To me, entertainment doesn’t necessarily mean a show. Entertainment means a great night out. That could be a great restaurant. That could be enjoying anything. A lounge or a nightclub or even a convention, whatever. It’s just all non-gaming now. It means entertainment. Of course, in the raw sense of it, the name means going to see a live show, and that is the business that we chose to be in.
Casino magnate Steve Wynn created some of Las Vegas’ most notable landmarks, including The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, and Wynn Las Vegas. He was the first in the industry to drop the word “casino” when he went to The Mirage Resort which opened in Las Vegas in 1989, He made it the Mirage Entertainment Centre, and set new standards for size and lavishness for casino/hotels.
Yes. He was the first to take casino out of the name and I always thought that was brilliant. While everybody else was saying “Resort, hotel, and casino.”
In many ways, casino/hotels/arena complexes have replaced amusement parks of the early part of the last century in American culture, Like Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland which operated at Coney Island. Opened in 1897, Steeplechase Park had a 1,100-foot steel track where patrons could race one another on mechanical horses. There was also a Ferris wheel, a space-inspired “Trip to the Moon” ride, and a miniature railroad.
An American family’s night out for decades was an amusement park. Nowadays, it is visiting a casino/hotels/arena complex and, In many ways, the attractions are similar.
And the way that I view our programming of entertainment is that it’s a new ride every night. It’s funny that you brought that up because I have always thought that. Every time I book a major act, it’s our new CapEX (a Capital expenditure). So I don’t have to spend on a capital improvement that is never going to change. It is always going to be there. It’s going to be expensive. People will see it, “Okay thanks,” and after the repeat of seeing it, it doesn’t hold the value anymore. Not true with a major name. When you get a major name in here, it’s our new ride. It’s our new thrill ride every night. That’s what keeps people coming back.
What’s somewhat overlooked is the impact of shows on hospitality and accommodation spends elsewhere in the region. So much focus is spent on your own gate and hotel receipts, and what happens regionally is not reported. Still, bring in 20,000 to 30,000 people to your casino and show room on a night, and local hotel rack rates are going to spike for miles around. Local hotels just won a jackpot thanks to you.
It is something that I have been preaching for many years now. I call it the “entertainment commerce” that is generated by one show is into the millions of dollars. You can’t get a hotel room, forget it, here, even though we have two hotel towers, and you can’t get a hotel room in the area because of us. We also send business to our competitors. Yes, other hotels in the area set their rate cards around our arenas.
Your own hotel rack rate climbs with the caliber of your bookings.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars that is spent in one night because of one little room in merchandise, and food and beverage alone in the hotel is off the chart. It can be record-setting, depending on who it is. But, even on an average night, some of our restaurants tell me that on a Wednesday night, on a Wednesday night, they do New Year’s Eve numbers because of what is in the arena.
A component of your success is having mixed packages like the Hot Summer Fun series.
Our hotel concert package incremental revenue has skyrocketed, especially when we have a very unique concert night. Somebody really special. Rooms are a premium. People buy the packages because they want to be sure that they have a room. We have now tied in VIP reserve parking because of those concert nights. Everybody benefits. Like I said the entertainment commerce that is generated goes way beyond just selling a ticket. Actually, that is a very small part of it. It is important that we meet the guarantees, of course, and sell the tickets, but at the end of the day, the advantage that we have over many other venues is that we have so much more potential opportunities to spend money here than you do than the venue that just has the one arena.
You have been quite savvy at developing selective programming including the Momentum Rewards shows. You do about 25 of those shows annually?
Yeah, we do private shows to our (Momentum Rewards regular members) database, and we do about 24 or 25 of them a year. Invite only. And the great thing about that is it is not a show that I would normally book to fill an arena. If I had a theatre. it’s a little bit of a different story because the capacity is smaller. To fill 8,000 to 10,000 seats, I don’t have to worry about selling tickets because we invite people and, for the most part, that room looks full when we have these shows. It is an added value to see a major name for free in the arena. It has become really a key part of our marketing plan.
Decades ago when Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Wayne Newton played Las Vegas all of Vegas was impacted. Today, no artist can move the needle like that anymore. Vegas impacts itself because there is just so much going on. In your case, booking a major act at the Mohegan Sun Arena is like throwing a big rock into a still pond where you see the wave reverberations.
Because it’s a destination. There is so much going on here. It is not a singular sensation that brings you here. There are other things happening. We take a lot of pride in the personality of our property. I have been a marketing guy and a marketing head at a lot of casinos, and I have always used entertainment as the personality of the property because—no disrespect to anybody out there who has a casino–we all have the same product. We all have the same slot machines. We all have the same table games. We all have the same restaurants. We all have the same things to do. What’s different is on that particular night who has the best name in town? Who has the biggest attraction in town? Who has the biggest pop culture star? Who has the one and only show of the year? That is a game-changer and that sets you apart. On any given night you don’t have to be the biggest buy you can win. You can win, and you can win over your biggest competition if you have the right programming. I have always believed in that, and part of the strategy wherever I’ve gone is to make sure that entertainment has a presence, and an important one that drives the marketing plan in terms of making it stronger at certain times; when you need it most, but more importantly, just to have something exciting to do. And because of that the Connecticut market because of the Mohegan Sun Arena is the #2 pop concert market next to Vegas. Right here.
One of the key ingredients to a casino’s success is location, location, location. Not just the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino, and the Mohegan Sun Arena being in Uncasville, Connecticut; but also Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania; the MoIiani Casino Resort in Marksville, Louisiana; and now Fallsview Casino, and Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ontario. All those are very interesting markets to be in.
Niagara Falls, our venues there are going to be a game-changer. We operate two casinos there now – we took over on June 11th (2019) – Casino Niagara, and Fallsview, which is Canada’s largest gaming facility.
The Mohegan Sun Arena opened in November 2001 and quickly altered the entertainment landscape in New England.
They tell me that when the casino was first conceived and developed, they thought that they would probably do, at the most, 8 to 10 shows at the Mohegan Sun Arena. So to see that blossom from what would have been a minimal impact, if any, to a significant game changer and that went from an unranked venue to now one of the top elite venues in the world is quite a success story for a market that’s not a major market.
There have been numerous changes over the years in your world. Traditionally, in the gaming industry, you wouldn’t present shows aimed at a young audience. While people today don’t usually gamble after a show–they usually gamble before a show, and after a show they leave to go home. Book a young act, and their parents will stay, hit the tables, and pick their kids up two hours later.
It is the biggest change since I started. Years ago I never would have booked an Ariana Grande or Shawn Mendes or some of the youngest talent out there. We were always conditioned to think about the gaming person, and rightfully so. They did back then, and they still do today, they pay the bills.
And yet, I recall you more than a decade ago, booking the Jonas Brothers and chasing Taylor Swift for years to play your smaller venue, Wolf Den. You finally were able to book her at the Mohegan Sun Arena in 2009, her casino debut, when she was just 19.
Let me finish the sentence because you are right. I decided way back then that it was time to go after a younger market when I saw the lay of the land at The Sands. And that was a walk-on, Larry. I wasn’t anyone’s pick. I was recruited like everybody else. A recruiter called me and I interviewed for The Sands job. I got the job, and when I saw what everybody was booking in Atlantic City, and what everybody was booking in Vegas—those were the only two markets at the time—it dawned on me that we had to go to another direction because it was all the same old stuff. I started to debut the hottest pop-cultural names of the day to make their casino debuts, and it broke open a tidal wave of new casino bookings. People first thought I was crazy and, “How dare you do that.” I got some criticism, but we broke the mold, and (Atlantic City) became the entertainment capital at the time. But now today, I call it “the drop off crowd.” We just had one here recently with Shawn Mendes. He did two nights here, and it was “a drop-off crowd.” Mom and dads had nothing to do, but to go into the casino or to go to a restaurant.
While knowing that their kids would be safe.
Safe and secure. And you should see the scene. Parents pretty much know when the show is going to be over. Thousands of parents waiting outside. Thousands. It is like they are waiting for their kids to arrive at camp or something; that they haven’t seen for weeks.
That’s far away from rushing out to the suburbs of a big city to pick your kid up from an arena show. “It’s 11 P.M. Are they going to be okay?”
And those venues have nowhere to go. Most of the time there aren’t restaurants nearby. Most of them don’t have concessions. Here it’s like a giant mall. It is a comfort level of safety with all of these things to do. So it really is a great model. Some of the biggest gaming profit nights are on the youngest shows. That is the biggest change since I have started.
Do you normally book one to two nights shows for your venues? I can recall you being quite successful with Billy Joel in 2008 with 10 sold-out shows at Mohegan Sun that set attendance records.
Yeah. We are a repeat market. We are not like Vegas where they have new people coming in every night. In our market, it’s the same people. So you can’t sit anything longer than a very short run at best. With Billy…
Two years earlier, Billy did an unprecedented 12 sold-out concerts over several months at Madison Square Garden, breaking a previous record set by Bruce Springsteen, who had played 10 sold-out shows at the same arena. Billy went on to multiple successful Madison Square Garden runs since. But a casino run at Mohegan Sun back then wouldn’t seem possible
We were the first to do Billy Joel’s (casino) residencies. I take some pride in that because it took me 25 years for him to come into a casino venue. I don’t look at our venue as a casino venue; we are in the arena business that happens to have a casino and a restaurant, spas, and nightclubs…
Billy Joel and many other acts back then resisted playing venues associated with casinos’
Ten years ago, when I first started, a lot of contemporary artists didn’t want to play (casinos) because they thought the first row would be all these older “bus people.” So one time at lunch, Dennis Arfa (Joel’s booking agent since 1976) and I were talking. and I said, “What’s it going to take Dennis? I want to get Billy in here.” He thought for a minute, and he said, “I want to set a record.” I asked, “What’s a record?” He said, “I want to do 10 in a row.” I said, “Done deal” not knowing what I was getting into. I just wanted to do it. Of course, I got the support to do it and all of that. But it was Dennis’ genius idea to never let the public know that we were going to do 10 (shows). So that way they just would have bought the best tickets they wanted to buy not thinking that they could always buy later.
You wanted them buying tickets believing it would be the absolute last chance to see Billy there.
Yeah. Two or three (announced shows) at first, and they blew out. Then we waited awhile. So we covered 10 shows that summer. I’m putting on my marketing hat. The cool thing was that our competitor at Foxwoods was opening their MGM building. They did a partnership with MGM, and they built this MGM Tower. I laid out all 10 shows over their opening. It was a marketing coup by luck, but it happened. So were really beating the drums on their opening with MGM, and everybody was coming here to see Billy Joel.
Mohegan Sun Arena is tied in with a lot of sporting events include MMA, basketball, wrestling, and even lacrosse.
Well, we own a WNBA franchise (the Connecticut Sun team that competes in the Eastern Conference of the Women’s National Basketball Assn.).
The Connecticut Sun are having a red-letter year. Winning 23 games, securing the #2 seed, and getting the chance to host at least one playoff series.
Right now, they are playoff-bound. So it’s great programming for me. They are going to be in the playoffs. Had they not been they would have been empty arena dates and it would have been too late to book a concert. Sports and entertainment is part of our operation.
How did you get associated with MMA events? That was a growing sport, but restricted to a core following, when you arrived at Mohegan.
I have been around MMA now for a long time now. Boxing has sort of taken a backseat. When I first started, boxing was it. I’ve been to a lot of championship fights with (Mike) Tyson and so on. It was a big deal. That was an A-list major concert event, but today boxing isn’t as important anymore, but MMA is. It brings in the young guys as well.
MMA goes into the upper bowl now. We do Bellator MMA. We are going to induct Bellator into our Arena Walk of Fame next month. To be inducted you would have to have been here multiple times, multiple sell-outs. Bellator is great. I love the Paramount TV connection that broadcasts all over the world.
(The next Bellator event takes place on Friday, October 25 from the Mohegan Sun Arena with Frank Mir and Roy Nelson headlining. It is being followed the next night with Rory MacDonald versus. Douglas Lima.)
You also do wrestling.
Yep, I do WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) here. They come here all of the time, and they fill the place.
Then there smaller venues within Mohegan like the new Comix Road House with country music, and a full Southern food menu.
Yeah, well the Comix Road House, our small venue, is a great story. They wanted to expand so we gave them the opportunity to take the area right next to them which was the slots. I wanted to do a fun “Coyote Ugly” cowboy restaurant that had country music entertainment because country is big up here. The reason why I do so much country. We won our 8th ACM award recently. I’ve done about 110 country shows at all of our properties this year. The country music market loves us.
(The Mohegan Sun Arena was once again named Casino of the Year for large capacity venues by the Academy of Country (ACM) Music Awards held April 7, 2019, MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. This is the 8th time Mohegan Sun Arena has been awarded an ACM award in the last 12 years.)
We’ve broken the careers of many country acts. Keith Urban, Brown, Rascal Flatts, and Eric Church started here. When Eric Church opened in our Wolf Den space for the very first time there were 40 people. Fast-forward to him doing two sold-out arena shows. That is what can happen when we have sort of a minor league system here that I don’t think a lot of venues have the advantage. They just have their venue and that is it. We really have a cool system and an advantage to get to know management, to get to know their people, and the artist themselves at an early part of their career. It really does help us later on in their careers as well.
Still, larger promoters usually operate a major concert hall or small venue in their market, a theatre or a club.
But the team is different. The team here is the same as when they started here. So when they come back, they see the friendly faces that they grew up with. It’s just a really cool set-up that we’ve got that we take advantage of. And we book an artist that is an up-and-comer that has, maybe, one hit on the charts. Nobody knows them except a little core group and their fan club. Fast forward later, and they are big.
When artists come back here, they can’t wait to go to the Wolf Den where they started, and say hello to the crew there. That goes back to our family roots when we welcomed everybody when they were a no-name and we paid attention to them.
The backstage of Mohegan Sun Arena is unique.
We’ve made it into a tourist attraction. We are going to give tours. We do a lot of tours now on the international side with our global presence. So when groups come in from overseas, Korea, Japan, Greece and all over or from here domestically, Virginia and Vegas people, the first thing that they want to see is the arena. One of the crew guys asked if we could start having the wall backstage autographed with some famous people. I said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” I didn’t think anything would come of it. We now have a gigantic wall that has probably 1,000 famous names. and logos on it. KISS, Justin Timberlake and so on. Then down further we took the catering area and turned it into a diner. The facade is famous people looking through the window. It is just beautiful. Also with all of our 16 national awards. Instead of putting them in the office where nobody sees them we created a Monument Park like at Yankee Stadium. All of the walls, instead of being cinder blocks, they are marble, and there’s a red carpet like you are walking the red carpet. There are industry lights shining down on all of the awards. People like Keith Urban are taking pictures of it all. The reason I did all this was because some of the most important and powerful people in the live entertainment industry congregate back there for hours.
All weekend and all nights. Instead of looking at empty walls, they are now looking at a special place
Today, there’s a significant Chinese presence in North American gaming venues. I noticed for last year’s Thanksgiving, Mohegan Sun Arena featured Big Four, the all-male Hong Kong musical group formed by Dicky Cheung, Andy Hui, William So and Edmond Leung. A growing market for you?
Yeah. I don’t know how many we do now, probably 6 to 8 Asian concerts a year. We did shows last year with Jacky Cheung (Feb. 2-4th, 2018) who is the biggest star on the planet. We had three nights here before he played Vegas. It took us a week to set up the arena because the entire floor was basically a stage (the show included a 31-piece orchestra, 30 dancers and acrobats, a 360-degree viewable stage, and world-class production). He made his (U.S. casino) debut here. It was incredible. The hydraulics, and everything. People came from all over. That was a big deal for us. The biggest name in Asian entertainment around the world. He rarely comes to America.
(C-Pop actor/singer superstar Jacky Cheung, 57, began his themed “A Classic Tour” in October 2016 in Beijing, and wrapped up at the Hong Kong Coliseum on Jan. 29th, 2019. He performed 233 shows in 97 locations, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, the U.S., the UK, France, Australia, Taiwan and his hometown of Hong Kong.
After the final show, Cheung told Billboard Radio China. “I’ve had more than 800 live concerts in my entire life. I am so happy to see my fans here to witness my 35-year music journey.”
Cheung’s music career started in 1984. With more than 25 million records sold as of 2003, he is regarded as one of the Cantopop’s “Four Heavenly Kings,” along with Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau and Leon Lai.)
According to the Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office, some 2.9 million Chinese travelers visited the U.S. in 2018. The visitors spent an average of $6,700 during their stays — 50% more than other international visitors—resulting in $36.2 billion in annual tourism receipts.
I’m not surprised.
Be forewarned that statistics from the National Travel and Tourism Office also show a sharp decline in the number of tourists from China last year, and the trend continues this year due to concerns over China/America trade tariffs. While 2.9 million Chinese travelers visited in 2018, that’s down from 3.2 million in 2017. Chinese travel had previously increased at an annual average growth rate of 23%. The drop-off, the first in 15 years, is likely affecting airlines, hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and casinos.
Yeah. But the casinos that thrive on the locals and repeat business, like in the North East with existing dense populations of Asian residents, won’t be as affected as the transient markets like Vegas who rely and thrive on the destination influx from Asia.
Given the limited talent pool available in entertainment booking today is a matter of timing, luck, and relationships in the business.
I have built a career on timing. That is the marketing side of making these things work. When you can create a date instead of booking one, that is a big deal.
A relationship alone will not absolutely secure a booking, but they are essential.
It really is more than 50% of getting things done. There is a tremendous value in knowing the right people who control 95% of live entertainment. When they direct things your way, and they don’t have to. I am always aware that they don’t have to play our building. And I need them, and I don’t control content. So if content comes my way, or if I’m trying to tap into some unique things, they can make it happen. They’ve made it happen for me so many times in my career that I can’t thank them enough. Some of the people have been in the business with me for a long time, and there some personal friends of mine that stayed with me forever.
What you refer to as your FFL club.
Friends For Life club. A special club.
Being in entertainment is like being in a family?
Yes. Exactly. Some of the relationships are FFLs. Tony (Orlando) is one of them. He’s just had a (medical) procedure done. I worried about him for a minute, but he’s fine now. As we get up there in life, at our age, I worry about health, and I worry about my friends. I’m starting to see some of my friends not here anymore. We have to remember why we are here. If you live your life the way you want to be remembered then you have found the secret of life. The problem is that people think that they are going to live forever, and so they do things that aren’t very nice. They will say things and they will make enemies along the way. What if it was your last day? How would you really be? You would be nice. There’s a book called “The Power of Nice” by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. We are introducing that into our culture here because of the power of nice. It’s not a weakness.
It’s a strength.
Yes. And when you are nice, and you have the confidence to back up nice, it’s way more powerful and convincing than trying to be this anger type of person that people don’t respect you, but they fear you.
Two decades ago the entertainment industry was characterized by screamers, one-on-one arguments, and people abruptly hanging up the telephone in the midst of booking negotiations or trying to settle shows.
I get it still today. The minute something goes wrong, they blow up. I’ll go, “It’s not the end of the world. How important do you think you are to talk like that? There are no problems; just solutions. We can work this out together.” I can’t tell you how many times where you are only good as your last time at bat to some of these people.
Still, with growing venues under you, and with more pending, you have now considerable negotiating power because you are able to bring multiple dates to the table, and say, “Let’s talk.”
It’s true. We are now leveraging some of that already where they can play multiple dates. When we took over Canada my phone rang off the hook.
Why? The Canadian dollar has weakened to its lowest level in years. As well, there’s the hassle of crossing the border, and Canada’s federal government’s withholding tax of 15% that has to be worked out.
Well, it’s a 5,000 seat venue but the names still apply except for the mega tours. You still have to program it, and they still want to play the market, and they do. There’s nothing there right now that is going to compete with us. So it is really helping to build our reputation in Canada. We are exporting what we do here in Connecticut there, and people are following us. In fact, a couple of major tours want to re-route to play our venue there because of our relationship.
Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment and Live Nation have been partners in securing talent for the Mohegan Sun Arena since 2001. Now the two are partnering again at the multi-phased, integrated entertainment resort Inspire Super Arena at the Incheon International Airport. The $5 billion-dollar entertainment destination resort will feature a remarkable three-tower luxury hotel, shopping, gaming and entertainment amenities including a 15,000-seat indoor arena and outdoor performance space.
Live Nation has the exclusive rights for live music there, and Jimmy Koplik (president of Live Nation Connecticut, and Upstate New York) is my partner and my brother. We are very close and have a great relationship. I have been to Canada talking with Emmanuel Patterson (dir. of festivals) at Live Nation there. We are kicking the tire with them there right now to see what we want to do and how we are going to structure our relationship. But we aren’t there yet but here in Connecticut and we are also official in South Korea with Live Nation Asia.
Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment is also partnered with Paramount Pictures for the South Korean resort.
Yeah, they are going to build our theme park.
When is the opening?
It’s still in progress. It is going to be a 15,000-seat major arena (the largest in Northeast Asia) just outside of Seoul, next to the Incheon International Airport (which has 100 million annual passengers).
(According to the World Casino Directory, there are 23 casinos in South Korea. There’s only one — the Kangwon Land Casino & Hotel roughly 55 miles from Pyeongchang — in which South Korean citizens are allowed to gamble. South Koreans can gamble on an array of games including a lottery, horse racing, boat racing, and cycling, but casino gambling is illegal to them.)
The world you grew up in Atlantic City with The Sands Hotel, The Trump Castle, Trump Taj Mahal, The Plaza, and Hollywood Casino has largely gone now. A bit of sadness to you? The Sands was so special. It was a hell of a team that was there then. For 20 years, The Sands dominated the Atlantic City strip. It must be hard to drive by the site with it being torn down in 2007.
It was the best management team that I was ever part of. Nothing has come close, even though I have been on some great teams, and still am. But that team was special, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, it graduated into the gaming world some of the best talent the gaming world has ever seen. Every one of those guys landed big or went on to bigger things.
Look at what that team did working in the smallest casino in town.
We took on the entire market, and the gaming industry, and we turned the entire industry around. We were young. We were innovative. We were risk-takers. We were excited to do things. There was never the same day twice. They gave me the empowerment to rock and roll. It gave me the ability to create this phenomenal extension of my career to the point of where it is today. It started back at The Sands. My sadness is that I don’t have a high school to go back to because the physical building was torn down.
The Trump properties– Trump Castle, The Plaza, and Trump Taj Mahal—are still there physically.
They are. The Taj is now the Hard Rock, and The Castle is now the Golden Nugget, and I don’t know what The Plaza is. It’s something else. But remember at the time, I was doing all three properties
How was Donald Trump to work for?
If he liked you….well. And we really got along. I got along with Ivana too. They were really good to me. I have nothing but good things to say about them. They lived up to all of their promises. I had a great run there. I did not join him right away. He had tried to recruit me away from The Sands for a few years. I was so happy at The Sands. I did not want to leave. But then Trump became so big at the time, and Trump was IT. He controlled a third of the gaming market there. Big man in town; He wrote the book blah blah blah.
Larry King once said, “One of Donald Trump’s great moves getting Tom.”
For me and my family, it was the right thing to do. It was the right time. I had been lucky. Even back with the theme park industry, I got involved with that when Hershey developed from an amusement park to a theme park à la Disney. I sort of caught the wave of industry trend at the beginning phases and it gave me a chance to ride it out into a new era that was never done before. I like being part of something that was never done before and making it bigger and better. It was good that I didn’t have someone there to teach me because I created some really cool ideas as we went. Not everything worked, but for the most part, Atlantic City became our canvas.
Trump left you alone?
All of the time.
You eventually left the Trump organization.
I went back to The Sands, which took the Hollywood Casino brand. So Bill Weidner (president and chief operating officer at the Pratt Hotel Corporation, parent company of the Atlantic City Sands, Brad Stone (president of The Sands), Rob Goldstein (VP Marketing, and now President of Sands Las Vegas) and Bob DeSalvio (current president of Encore in Boston), and everybody wanted me back to really run that part of it. So we opened in Aurora, Illinois. We started the Hollywood Casino as you can see it today. We were the first.
How did Trump react to you leaving his organization?
Well, I never thought I’d be on a first-name basis with the president of the United States. I ran into him years later backstage at a Friar’s Club Roast in New York, and we got caught up. It was like anything else. It was a good time for me there. But I think at the time the market was changing…
But how did he take your leaving?
I don’t think that it mattered (to him).
You started out as publicity and press relations manager at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, You were only 22. Bruce McKinney, the general manager of Hersheypark, was a big part of your life.
The reason that I am here. For some reason, he saw something in me from day one. I was fresh out of Penn State where I majored in American studies. I was like most of the kids at the time. Penn State was big deal and where I lived and I am a big Penn State fan now. I went there and graduated.
(Hershey Chocolate owner Milton Hershey built Hersheypark for his workers and their families to relax. Opened in 1907, it included large picnic lawns, a bandshell, and a stage for vaudeville productions. Attractions were gradually added over the years. The park was fully revamped during the ‘70s and was transformed from a small regional park to one of the most popular and innovative amusement parks in the United States.
Under Bruce McKinney’s leadership, Hersheypark added buzzed-about features like the Super Dooper Looper and Zoo America, and hosted concerts by such artists as James Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Liberace, the Carpenters, and Alice Cooper. McKinney’s “15 minutes of fame” came when MTV reported he’d banned Guns N’ Roses from returning to play in Hershey. The band had arrived late, then played its outdoor concert well past Hershey’s noise curfew, broadcasting amplified obscenities out into the night air for all residents to hear.)
After graduating from Penn State you were writing articles for local magazines.
I fashioned myself like you. On the side, I would write these articles for the local rags that would take anybody’s work. So I wrote an article (about Hersheypark). I heard about Hersheypark wanting to do a 5-year development in the theme park business. They were creating this master plan. So I asked for an interview with the GM at the time of the park, and it was Bruce McKinney. I went in, did the interview, and we hit it off. A great guy. But that was it. The article was published in a weekly that nobody read, but I got the front page with a photo of him, and that gave me a press kit with R. Duell & Associates’ architecture drawings.
(The late American architect and motion picture art director Randall Duell designed Magic Mountain theme park in Santa Clarita, California, the original Universal Studio Tours in California, Six Flags Over Texas, Marriott’s Great America theme parks, as well as Opryland in Nashville.)
So I sent it (the article) to him. I folded it up. and I included a little thank you note to him for the interview. And wouldn’t you know it, timing, I get a call from Hershey to come in, and interview for a publicity and public relations manager spot. I had no experience. I went in for the interview and interviewed pretty well. I knew they liked me, but I had no experience. It was between me and this other person. I know they wanted me, but they wanted experience.
They offered the job to the other person?
Yes, but he turned it down. I was their second choice. From there, every door opened, but it was my chance to meet this person who taught me a lot about putting people first. It is what I’ve taught here and used for the rest of my career. It is what I teach all of the time. They all repeat it in all of their meetings. If you put people first great things happen. Product and profit will always follow. They promoted me 6 times in 9 years. They then said they had to tether me because I was moving too fast. The company was very provincial and older. All of the executives were older. They were a very conservative group.
The Hershey Foods Corporation was then the 2nd biggest producer of pasta in the United States.
When I worked at Hershey they also bought Friendly’s ice cream, and San Giorgio Pasta because they were both recession-proof products. People can always afford ice cream, and they can always afford pasta and ice cream. It taught me a lesson. People only knew them for the chocolate empire which I always thought was ironic. Friendly’s was a smart move to diversify their portfolio. I learned a few marketing lessons from what they did. That if you don’t offer a new attraction each year, you lose volume, and whoever generates volume wins. So I used big name entertainment when I got in the casino industry, like a new thrill ride attraction. It worked every time.
(The Hershey Company (formerly Hershey Foods Corporation) was known for both chocolate and pasta. Beginning in 1966, Hershey Pasta Group operated as a division of Hershey Foods. The pasta division held a sizable market share in dried pasta manufacturing that was developed through the acquisition of small, regional pasta companies. In 1999, Hershey Foods Corporation sold its pasta division to the New World Pasta Group for $450 million in cash and retained a minority interest in the business. The transaction included 6 manufacturing plants and the American Beauty, Ideal by San Giorgio, Light ‘n Fluffy, P&R, Mrs. Weiss, Ronzoni, San Giorgio, and Skinner pasta brand
As you know as a fan, the Penn State Nittany Lions in ’94 went 12-0 but still lost its chance for a national title.
We got robbed of two national titles. When we went undefeated and gave it away. (Quarterback) Kerry Collins, and (back) Ki-Jana Carter. It was an awesome team (in 1994). It was just an unbeatable team. The game-changer of the season was we were behind 21-0 and they came back and blew them away.
(The Nittany Lions put Iowa away in the first quarter when they scored 21 points in about two minutes. After backup tailback Mike Archie’s second score made it 14-0, linebacker Phil Yeboah-Kodie recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a 21-0 lead.)
Joe Paterno was the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions then. He was coach from 1966 to 2011.
And I knew Joe. He was a greet guy and he treated me and my parents—because my parents always wanted to see a game—we got 50 yard line seats (at home games in Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania). Preferential parking because my parents were older. He really treated me well and what happened to him was inexcusable. I will never understand how the school did that to him. They fired him on the phone. He was not Jerry Sandusky (who was arrested on 52 counts of child sexual abuse occurring between 1994 and 2009). Joe did do the right things (in informing college officials), but he could have done more. His generation….well you know. What he did for the kids and the school. The highest graduation rate next to Notre Dame.
(The Pennsylvania Superior Court this week upheld the conviction of Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, but they ruled the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences was illegal. The case is being remanded back to Centre County Court for re-sentencing.)
Before the Board of Trustees voted to terminate Joe Paterno’s coaching contract hundreds of students gathered in front of his home in support.
They tore his statue down (on campus) like Saddam Hussein’s. I couldn’t for the life of me get my hands around it. I spoke out. My friends here were like, “He was wrong.” I was like, “Okay, you are going to judge a whole lifetime by one page in the book where he explained it away?” It is what we do today. We rush to judge without getting all of the facts. It was definitely a problem but talk about it. That’s my criticism today. They put you on trial in the media, and the media tries and convict you. Well wait a minute. Take time out. This guy needs a minute to explain. Instead, Joe died a broken heart.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.