Tim Allen plays Michigan’s FireKeepers’ 2,170-capacity venue, the Event Center. (Courtesy FireKeepers)

Venue keeps that Midwestern flavor

FireKeepers Casino Hotel
City:  Battle Creek, Mich.
Venue: The Event Center
Capacity: 2,170

The FireKeepers casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Mich., is less than two hours from Detroit and less than three from Chicago, two huge live music markets. 

“Tours will play here even if they’ve played one of the big cities,” said Jim Wise, vice president of marketing at FireKeepers. “We mostly draw from a 50-mile radius, so it’s everywhere from here to northern Indiana and western Ohio.

Business is good at the Event Center, FireKeepers’ 2,170-capacity live event venue.

Hard ticket sales account for 65 percent of the inventory, and most shows sell out.

“The facility stands on its own as a cash-ticket venue,” Wise said. “It’s the same thing happening in tribal casinos in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Jackson and Ann Arbor, all of which have become regional entertainment providers for the cash ticket-buying public.”

Phase one of the FireKeepers compound, a casino, opened in August 2009. Phase two, adding a hotel and event center, followed in 2012. 

Rascal Flatts opened the venue; the second show, a performance by Detroit soul diva Aretha Franklin, turned out to be a trial-by-fire booking experience for the new Event Center team.

“Aretha Franklin was a perfectionist and incredibly challenging at every stage,” recalled George Jenkot, vice president of entertainment. “Every single element of that day needed special attention. She had a very high degree of specificity up to and including the temperature of the venue. 

“At one point she stopped the show to address the temperature. She wanted no air conditioning, no air movement. The audience went along with it but were clearly uncomfortable.”

Jenkot and his team learned their first lesson in dealing with talent: You never know what you’re going to get. 

“Most of the artists are lovely and just want to put on a good show for their fans,” Jenkot said. “Others require a lot of attention. We always strive to give artists what they need, and beyond, but you can’t please everybody.”

Jenkot sees the compound as a full entertainment property. “Many of the Event Center guests come, enjoy a dinner and a show, do not game, and I’m absolutely fine with that,” he said. “The shows help us get fresh faces to visit us. A customer who comes to see a show, eat and drink with us, is a successful customer. We’re attracting that entertainment budget to our property,” he said.

Hard ticket sales, paying attention to the gaming customers, and attracting new customers are three things always on Jenkot’s radar when booking the venue.

“First, we look at whether the act will be able to sell 2/3 of the space,” Jenkot said. “Jim knows the gaming customers and knows what they want to see, so we work hand in hand to keep them satisfied. We also keep in mind tomorrow’s gamer who wants more than just a few slot machines to get them to the property.”

FireKeepers does well with country, which accounts for 35 percent of its programming.

“Everything else is a terrific mix,” said event manager Rebecca Fletcher. 

Big & Rich, Goo Goo Dolls, Toby Keith, Dane Cook, Tim Allen and Billy Idol have played at FireKeepers. Smokey Robinson, Rob Thomas, Lee Brice, Reba McEntire and Brad Paisley are coming. Tickets range from $55 to $75.

“The challenge is when you get into super-specific genres,” Jenkot said. “Newer stuff doesn’t really work for us. Classic acts work best, of course. The comfort zone for us is anything ’80s or early ’90s, name country acts and classic rock. Comedians always work, except for the newest, most cutting-edge comedians, who often do not work.” 

There’s a real Midwestern flavor to what sells here, Fletcher said. 

“Our demographics change dramatically based on the act we have in the building, but generally our demographic mirrors the geographic demographic,” she said.

Jenkot sees the meet and greet issue as something that boils down to communication.

“When we have a problem it’s generally the expectation for the meet and greet,” Jenkot said. “Oftentimes the offer says something that’s dramatically different from what’s happening, and it’s a problem then because the guests blame us; we’re stuck in the middle.”

Jenkot said he often considers whether the Event Center could sustain a larger capacity.

“A bigger place would allow us to move onto a new level,” he said. “We have one major venue here that serves a variety of casino functions, regional business meetings, conventions, gala banquets and concerts. We do really well and sell out a substantial number of our shows. Sure, Reba sells out the day she goes on sale and you’d like to have more seats, but I wonder if we get too much bigger and you can’t pare down your room, whether a Fab Four Beatles tribute might not fill.”

Jenkot and Wise said the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the tribe that owns FireKeepers, is interested in keeping its venue fresh and to that end has just installed new state-of-the art 4K screens and a new JBL VTX A12 sound system.

“Technology improvements are important,” Jenkot said. “4K is designed for the back of the room. The new sound system is crystal clear. It was all pretty expensive, but we believe putting money into the building for better sight and sound will come back to us.” 

Fletcher’s best day at FireKeepers was a Rascal Flatts return visit in 2016. “The band so was so fun and cool,” she recalled. “They (put on) these rubber lips and took pictures; no one would believe they’d do it.”

Jenkot said he feels as if in the last five years he’s seeing a movement. “Artists are coming back, larger-scale artists are looking to play here and the respect level has improved dramatically,” he said. “There’s still this prevailing theory that a casino will pay anything, and that’s our biggest challenge.”

 

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