The new MGM National Harbor resort and casino aims to attract customers by booking an A-list entertainment lineup, including Kings of Leon, Bruno Mars and Cher.
Jared and Amy Akman made their first trip to MGM National Harbor in Prince George's County last week for one reason — to see the multiplatinum rock band Kings of Leon kick off its U.S. tour.
Sure, the married couple from Lutherville was curious about the new resort's casino, the celebrity chef-driven restaurants and the high-end shopping. But without the concert, they would have stayed home.
With Baltimore's Horseshoe Casino and Hanover's Maryland Live Casino closer, "to drive an extra 45 minutes to get to [MGM National Harbor], I can say I wouldn't go back for the casino aspect of it," said Jared Akman, a 29-year-old attorney. "For me, it's more about the music."
This business model — lure new customers with recognizable, star-studded talent — isn't the MGM National Harbor's total strategy, but it's a significant aspect. Opened in early December, the $1.4 billion resort aims to attract fans of live entertainment by booking an A-list lineup for its 3,000-seat venue simply known as the Theater. So far, acts like Bruno Mars, Lionel Richie and comedian Jim Gaffigan have taken the stage, with Cher, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sting, Billy Crystal and others scheduled for later dates.
Sarah Moore, executive director of brand marketing and retail for MGM National Harbor, said the response to the Theater's schedule has been positive, as evidenced by Kings of Leon and Bruno Mars playing to sold-out audiences. One of the main ideas behind the Theater, she said, is to bring "large-scale arena-type acts to a small, intimate setting."
"We focused on bringing something to the market that wasn't here," Moore said.
That's what happened last week at Kings of Leon.
"We're supposed to go to Boston after this, but I don't want to leave here," said the band's singer, Caleb Followill, in the midst of a 20-plus-song set.
On the one hand, it was typical stage banter everyone in the room had likely heard before. On the other, it was easy to suspect the band was truly enjoying the intimacy of the relatively small show, especially with venues like New York's Madison Square Garden and Chicago's United Center — and their capacities of nearly 21,000 each — still to come on its tour.
In choosing to start its tour at the Theater, and not Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena or Washington's Verizon Center, Kings of Leon proved the Theater is another area venue capable of landing big-name acts. Live Nation, the live entertainment company, has an exclusive booking partnership with MGM National Harbor, making landing marquee acts easier due to existing relationships between management and the entertainment company.
Frank Remesch, general manager of Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, which also works with Live Nation, said he does not see his venue and MGM National Harbor's in direct competition. (Moore agreed.) He said there's enough distance between the two venues that he can still book artists who've played the casino — like Lionel Richie, who plays Royal Farms Arena on March 15, months after a headlining gig at the Theater. Remesch also said the difference in the venues sizes (the arena's capacity is 14,000) will affect which acts are pursued.
"I think it's a good thing for the area," Remesch said of gaining a new music venue. "If it affected me in any way, it might be in a positive way because it's promoting the area and getting tourists to come in this direction."
Casinos and resorts using A-list talent to appeal to customers is nothing new in a market like Las Vegas, but it's a more recent trend in states like Maryland and Pennsylvania, said David Fiorenza, who teaches the economics of the entertainment industry at Villanova University School of Business. (Casinos in the region like Horseshoe and Maryland Live typically book lesser-known acts like regional cover bands and tribute groups trading in nostalgia.)
"Today, the musical acts playing at casinos are established names that we've known for years," Fiorenza said. "Live music is another way to keep people at the casinos."
The business model, he said, is to give customers an initial reason to go — in this case, a concert — and then, once there, hope they spend money at restaurants, shops and on the casino floor.
Approaches similar to National Harbor's have not always led to success. Revel in New Jersey's Atlantic City, a $2.4 billion hotel and casino, opened in April 2012 with a music lineup that included Beyonce and Kanye West. Less than three years later, it closed amid bankruptcy filings.
MGM National Harbor's success remains to be seen, though the state's newest casino generated $41.9 million in revenue from slot machines and table games alone in just more than three weeks of operation in December, according to the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.
Horseshoe Casino and its live-music bar 14Forty will not change their approach to booking live acts because of MGM National Harbor's entry into the market, said Tom Yorke, Horseshoe's director of marketing. Horseshoe surveys customers regularly, he said, to determine the type of acts to schedule.
Mario Maesano, senior vice president of marketing for Maryland Live Casino, said in a statement that their music venue, Rams Head Center Stage, accommodates "a completely different market and customer base, so we are targeting completely different genres of music."
For its part, the Theater at the MGM National Harbor appeared to be a crowd-pleaser during the Kings of Leon show. Jared and Amy Akman agreed that the space's sound and sightlines of the stage were impressive. They also liked the first floor's open layout.
"Where we stood was not super close, but we could see and hear everything," said Amy Akman, 28. "I had a lot of room to dance and move around. We didn't feel squished or anything."
Their night, though, was not faultless. Their main complaint was how long it took to get drinks, despite multiple bars in the Theater's outside lobby areas and a couple of beer-and-wine stations inside the venue.
"The concession lines for everybody to get beers and drinks were absolutely horrendous," said Jared Akman, who said he waited at least 25 minutes to purchase drinks.
In response to the criticism, Moore said in an email message, "Our operational procedures and staffing levels are reviewed in advance of, and following, all of our events. ... I can assure you that the overall guest experience will be better at our events moving forward."
Despite those kinks, the Akmans will be back at the Theater soon, having already bought tickets for Sting on March 12. As regular concert attendees, the couple said the Theater is now vying for their attention in a market that includes Royal Farms Arena, M&T Bank Stadium, Rams Head Live and others.
Fiorenza said the recent trend of casinos' big-name music lineups has led to "a substitution effect" for other clubs and theaters.
"It takes away business from other venues in the area that were doing bookings of some of these musical groups," Fiorenza said. "There's only so much that can go around in terms of the number of venues, but the strong venues will survive. ...
"If there's more venues, that means all of the venues are going to try and sharpen their pencils to bring the best acts they can. We as consumers can now pick and choose all of the venues we want to go to. It's good for us."