Neelma Patel never misses a concert by South Asian performers when they come to Atlantic City’s casinos or Boardwalk Hall.
Last month, Patel with her husband, Dr. Samir Patel, and her sister, Poonam Balani, of Moores-town, Burlington County, sat near the front inside Ovation Hall at Revel Casino-Hotel to see the only appearance in the state of Pakistani pop singer Atif Aslam with opening act Shalmali Kholgade from India.
"I loved it. I knew the songs from the movies," said Patel, a Pakistani native, who watches TV from India on satellite and travels to Burlington County to see Bollywood movies.
Ethnic and cultural shows are important to Atlantic City casinos. They bring in large crowds that other methods of casino marketing might not otherwise reach.
But frequently, casinos have little to do with bringing these shows to town. That’s the function of a small group of independent promoters who are in touch with a particular community and know just which ethnic entertainers will draw crowds to a casino showroom.
The Atlantic City casinos and Boardwalk Hall hosted at least two dozen ethnic shows last year. For instance, Caesars Atlantic City brought in Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram last fall.
"We provide a myriad of different shows, which appeal to clientele from all over the globe. Our monthly calendar changes to feature Vietnamese, Chinese and Middle Eastern entertainment with that strategy set to continue in the future," said Jason Spencer, vice president of entertainment, nightlife and lifestyle marketing for Caesars Entertainment.
Paveen Vig, vice president of Atlantic City-based Nanking Entertainment, is one of the promoters who brings South Asia performers to Atlantic City.
Vig has been working in Atlantic City for seven years. He got his start in town as co-president of Nanking Restaurant inside Bally’s Atlantic City. He’s promoted concerts at Caesars Atlantic City, the Taj and the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel.
The promoter makes it a point to keep on top of the South Asian entertainment scene.
While many Atlantic City casino execs might not ever have heard of Aslam, Vig knew the singer’s career, how he had recorded a string of hits four years ago and used that as a springboard to furthering his popularity by appearing in seven Bollywood films.
Kholgade, 26, also is famous among Bollywood film fans, although she’s only actually appeared in one film. As a playback singer, Kholgade records songs that are then lip-synced by actors in the movie. Kholgade has topped the charts in India and won numerous awards.
Vig marketed his show to South Asian communities in New York and New Jersey. By the time Aslam hit the stage, 2,700 of the 3,100 available tickets had been sold for prices ranging from $39 to $149.
As he watched the show, Vig knew his production was a hit.
"I’m getting very good reviews (from guests). Everybody enjoyed it. Everyone had a ball," said Vig who added people came from as far away as Canada to see the show that ended after midnight.
Vig said promoting in the casinos wasn’t that difficult initially for him because the casinos were trying to attract the Asian gamblers who attend the Bollywood shows.
A national promotion team exists in India that contacts the artists and their teams and puts together a package of performers for a tour. The national promotion team in India will contact Vig and asked if he wants to do a show in this state. Sometimes, Vig just says yes. Other times, Vig has to outbid other promoters, or he passes on doing the show.
Just because casino execs might not know what a performer is singing about, it doesn’t mean they give show promoters carte blanche.
Casinos will check out the other properties a promoter has worked with to verify they are reputable promoter, Vig said.
Promoters have to prove the caliber of the performers to be featured, with casino executives asking for videos they can view before deciding to approve a show.
Brad Schutz, Revel’s executive director of entertainment, said casinos are approached by a variety of different international and ethnic show promoters. Besides Aslam, Revel hosted a Greek concert on March 22 and brings one of reggaeton music’s most popular artists, Puerto Rican-born singer-songwriter Don Omar to Ovation Hall on Saturday.
For Schutz, as for other casino entertainment executives, the primary question when approached about booking a show is the promoter’s credibility.
"The first question is, ‘What have you done in town?’" Schutz said.
Prior to working at Revel, Schutz worked at Caesars and was familiar with the concerts Vig and his company did at the Taj, where more than 4,000 people would show up for a performance. Schutz also knew Vig’s association with Nanking Restaurant and that he was a community leader.
The Greek show, starring Nikos Oikonomopoulos, appealed to Schutz because the entertainer had never performed in Atlantic City before.
Globe Entertainment Promotions, Inc., of Queens, N.Y., brought the Greek show to Revel and has one of the longest relationships with the casinos here through doing ethnic shows for at least the past 20 years. Greek shows have been done by Globe mostly at Taj, Resorts Casino Hotel and Tropicana Casino and Resort, but the company is discussing an exclusive relationship with Revel.
Dimitris Kantzoglou, Globe’s managing director, comes here when one of his artists does a show.
"When we bring some artists, some artists barely speak English, and they happen to be in an environment like a casino. They sit down to gamble or something. Then suddenly, we have people talking to them. They are trying to converse without understanding, or the dealer says something, and they are trying to find someone Greek who can translate," said Kantzoglou.
Contract riders – a set of requests entertainers ask for in association with their performances – are not that much different between Greek and American performers, Kantzoglou said.
"Usually, artists want to have some type of alcohol in their dressing room to have a couple of drinks and relax. They ask for types of alcohol that are not popular here. This particular artist wanted a specific gin, and that gin wasn’t available anywhere in Atlantic City, so he had to accept whatever gin the casino had to give him," Kantzoglou said.
Kantzoglou could have brought the Greek gin with him from New York City, but casinos don’t allow outside alcohol to be brought onto their properties, he said.
Even though these international acts are well known to the people in their ethnic or cultural group, they can usually walk around casino floors unmolested.
Soraida Batista, the owner of Latin Era Productions in Atlantic City, has been around the Latino superstars she has brought to the casinos during the past 10 years, including Gilberto Santa Rosa, Victor Manuelle and Wisin Y Yandel. If a fan spots one of the performers in a casino or at a restaurant they will often freak out and ask for autographs and pictures. It’s a scene that brings amused looks from other patrons: most of the people who happen to be around the Latin stars in a casino setting have no idea who they are.
"People will ask me, ‘Who’s that?’ Ninety percent of the time, the somebody asking is someone who is not Spanish," Batista said.