Tom Cantone received the inaugural Executive of the Year Award from the G2E Global Gaming Conference in 2013. (Courtesy Mohegan Sun)
Mohegan Sun exec still helping redefine casino entertainment business
When Tom Cantone was recruited to Atlantic City’s Sands Casino Resort in the 1980s, casino entertainment consisted of faded stars and topless girls. Cantone wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to do better.
“I wanted to open the doors to pop culture and get the hottest, latest and greatest to play at the Sands,” Cantone recalled. “Every agent back then shied away from booking their contemporary acts to play a casino. I felt like an army of one out to convince all the agents and managers that there was money to make playing a casino venue who has the same demographic profile as the people who buy their clients’ records, go to their clients’ movies and see their clients’ shows.”
Convincing hesitant agents took time; it was an educational process. “I explained this was a new industry that has potentially millions of dollars to be made,” he said.
Cantone’s breakthrough came when Eddie Murphy, fresh off his star-making turn in “Beverly Hills Cop,” agreed to kick off his new national stand-up tour at the Sands in 1985.
“Eddie Murphy is the reason casino entertainment is what it is today,” Cantone said.
Other hot ’80s stars such as Linda Ronstadt, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal soon followed.
“Our strategy was to bring in younger, new, fresh talent that will pump new blood into the entertainment stages,” Cantone said.
The Las Vegas Sun noticed and wrote a headline that proclaimed Atlantic City the new entertainment capital of the world. It said that the acts Atlantic City was booking were innovative and trend-setting and that Vegas needed to pay attention instead of doing the same old thing.
Cantone’s graduating class at the Sands is a who’s who of the casino industries’ biggest players: Rob Goldstein, who now runs the Sands empire in Las Vegas; Bob DeSalvio, who is heading up the Encore property about to open in Boston; Bill Weidner and Brad Stone, who built the Sands’ Macau properties; and Hard Rock Hotel Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas.
Donald Trump poached Cantone in 1987 to program all three of Trump’s Atlantic City hotels: the 5,000-seat Trump Taj Mahal, the 1,200-seat Trump Plaza and the 1,200-seat Trump Marina.
Steve Martin, Elton John, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Don Henley and Dolly Parton all made their casino debuts at the Taj Mahal. Roseanne Barr taped her HBO special there.
Cantone stayed in Atlantic City for 15 years before he was lured away by Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut to be vice president of entertainment and program its Fox Theater. He stayed until 2007 when Mohegan Sun persuaded him to be its vice president of sports and entertainment and run its 10,000-capacity venue, the Mohegan Sun Arena.
It’s at Mohegan Sun that Cantone perfected his booking philosophy of getting the biggest stars touring — and some who were not — to play his casino venues.
Billy Joel’s first residency ever, and first stint at a casino venue, was at Mohegan Sun in 2008. “Billy did 10 sellouts, with a $10 million gross. It put our entertainment brand on the map,” Cantone recalled. “It took me 25 years to get him. The deal got done because I have a relationship with Dennis Arfa (Joel’s manager and agent). That’s where relationships matter.”
“I’m all about relationships,” said Cantone. “Relationships turn into friendships when trust is established. Relationships open doors.”
It’s through relationships that Cantone started booking artists to appear in a year in which the artist is not touring. Jennifer Lopez, Bruno Mars and Kevin Hart are just some of the big names who have played Mohegan Sun when they were supposed to be on hiatus.
“It’s really satisfying to create a date instead of booking one,” Cantone said. “It becomes a signature event for the property.”
Cantone’s relationship skills are present in every move he makes, from the way he handles negotiations to the way he treats the artists and his Mohegan Sun team.
“It’s a give-and-take when we make the deals,” he said. “In the beginning there was different pricing between a casino price and a non-casino price. But as I’ve gained trust with the agents, the promoters, the managers and the artists, I’ve gotten that mostly eliminated. If the ROI is not there, we will pass. We make good business decisions based on what we think the model will return. At the end of the day, the heat generated with a major name in the building can win the war if you book the right person at the right time.”
The way he handles the artists is no exception to his relationships-first rule. “Artists want a friendly face at the door when they arrive who will make them feel relaxed and among friends,” he said. “We want to make it matter that they play our venue instead of somewhere else.”
Cantone puts lavish praise on his team — Joe Soper, Greg Romeyn and Kevin Reilly and a support staff of about 400 — who are responsible for programming rooms in Connecticut, Washington, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and New Jersey. Soon to be added to the workload will be programming a new South Korean venue and two casinos in eastern Canada. “I’d be nowhere without all the people who work with me. They are a dedicated, tireless group,” he said.
Relationships popped up again when Cantone cited cancellations as his biggest challenge.
“Cancellations are the worst,” Cantone said. “Justin Timberlake canceled 12 days before his show, at the worst time of year around the holidays. I scrambled to fill the space. And here’s where relationships come into play again: I knew Michael Bolton; he lived here in Connecticut. I was able to get him to extend his tour by two days to play our venue. It mattered. We were full to capacity instead of being dark.”
Jim Koplik, president of Live Nation Connecticut, has been booking shows at Mohegan Sun since it opened.
Cantone “used to be my competitor,” Koplik said. “But I’ve grown to love the guy anyway. I’ve worked with tens of thousands of people and Tom ranks near the top. He’s a great person to work with. He goes the extra mile.”
“The old person who had Tom’s job would never give rooms to the artists. It was a huge pain to explain to the artists they would have to pay for their rooms, and we’d lose shows. The first thing Tom did when he got to Mohegan Sun was to put hotel rooms in every deal. It opened the floodgates,” Koplik recalled.
“Tom loves to be backstage and greeting the band,” he said. “He’s fashioned the venue as his venue. He bleeds Mohegan Sun.”
Koplik also admires Cantone’s never-give-up attitude. “Tom waited four hours to meet Bruce Springsteen and give him a tribal blanket in 2014,” Koplik said. “That’s dedication.”
Steve Levine, ICM’s co-head of concerts, is also a longtime friend. “I first started dealing with Tom in the early days of Atlantic City,” Levine said. “I’ve somehow worked with Tom in every job he’s had since then.
“Tom is not about himself. He’s about creating a positive experience and a great partnership. He’s been one of a small group of executives in the casino business who understand how to deal with an artist in a way that makes them want to come back again and again, and not just for the cash. He comes from a place of ‘yes,’ and a problem is just a temporary issue to be quickly resolved.”
Canton said he’d be nowhere without his family: wife Anissa; daughters Brooke and Tessa, and son Marc.
“I always say first and foremost a dad and husband— and then you can call me anything else. If you are not happy at home, you are not happy at work,” he said.
Cantone loves his job and he’s delighted that playing casino venues has become cool and hip. “In the past a hot young artist would never have thought to go to a casino because they thought it’s not where their fan base is, and it’s where older artists go perform out their final years.
“We changed that perception so much so that new artists today actually start their careers in a casino venue and many of the biggest tours in the world start in casinos. That never happened before. Now we are the first call for so many contemporary artists.”
“We don’t sell tickets; we sell memories for life,” Cantone added. “We produce fun. How cool is that?”
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