When the 1980s popsters of Wang Chung take the stage on Saturday at Hollywood Casino Columbus, the venue will place bets that everyone will have fun that night. The concert is free, after all - and staged in the middle of the labyrinthine West Side complex. Patrons will have to stroll past slot machines, poker tables, beer carts and restaurants to catch a glimpse of the blast-from-the-past entertainment.
When the 1980s popsters of Wang Chung take the stage on Saturday at Hollywood Casino Columbus, the venue will place bets that everyone will have fun that night.
The concert is free, after all - and staged in the middle of the labyrinthine West Side complex.
Patrons will have to stroll past slot machines, poker tables, beer carts and restaurants to catch a glimpse of the blast-from-the-past entertainment.
For the casino, the pairing is strategic.
"It's a brand-new market," said general manager Ameet Patel, whose property opened on Oct. 8. "You need to create multiple reasons for people to come visit."
For the British new-wave band, whose Dance Hall Days and Don't Let Go singles both reached No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts almost three decades ago, it's another gig.
In fact, a third of the destinations on Wang Chung's latest North American tour are casinos.
"I kind of like it; you have a built-in audience," said singer-guitarist Jack Hues, 58. "We attract the older fans. And the venues are usually pretty nice."
Hollywood in Columbus often hosts live central Ohio and regional entertainment in its 1,000-capacity o.h. lounge. National acts are presented two to four times a month.
Like Wang Chung, which will share a bill with the Fixx (One Thing Leads to Another, a top-10 hit in 1983), other Hollywood guests are also, well, showing their age.
Among other recent throwback bookings: Eddie Money; the Ohio Players; Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam; All-4-One; and 1990s rockers Everclear, Tonic, Vertical Horizon and Ed Kowalczyk of the band Live.
Audiences might not be all that focused on the musicians.
Last month, Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz told the Las Vegas Sun: "I'm not always crazy about casino shows, because you're sort of there to keep people entertained while they gamble."
But the reception for some former stars has been strong at Hollywood in Columbus: Sheena Easton and Morris Day & the Time both drew capacity crowds. A Feb. 8 concert by En Vogue triggered traffic jams and overloaded parking lots in that area of the West Side.
That's a clear shift from years past, when regional casino acts were limited largely to no-name crooners and lounge lizards. (A scene in the 2011 film The Muppets depicts Fozzie Bear performing inside an empty Nevada casino with sketchy impersonators known as the Moopets.)
The stigma of playing such venues is gone, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert-industry publication Pollstar.
Casinos provide "an important booking stop for a lot of artists, especially ones who are not red-hot," Bongiovanni said. "And there are a lot of fairly well-established acts that have found those situations to be lucrative."
Some casinos situated outside major urban areas - such as Mohegan Sun in Montville, Conn., and Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif. - have constructed and sustained auditoriums large enough to host ticketed shows by a range of A-list acts, from Bob Dylan to Rihanna.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, has become not only a common tour stop but a live-music destination where artists such as Celine Dion and Elton John have scored multimillion-dollar deals for extended casino residencies.
Free shows, such as those offered at Hollywood in Columbus, involve less risk for promoters compared with concerts staged in a traditional theater or rock club that relies heavily on per-seat sales.
To score bigger names and, in some cases, save money, some acts are booked for multiple dates among Hollywood properties in Ohio and nearby states.
The free concerts can be subsidized by other income - in Hollywood's case, money taken in at, say, mini baccarat tables or the Epic Buffet.
Such a model, though, isn't necessarily a sure bet.
A 2013 study co-written by Sarah Tanford, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found that increased head count from casino concerts had no effect on profits from gambling tables but did boost slot-machine play and benefit on-site restaurants.
"The entertainment is another amenity in its own right," said Tanford, a former Harrah's Entertainment executive who teaches strategic management.
Casinos, she said, "can't assume any indirect revenue" from those efforts.
Patel confirmed that several concerts at Hollywood in Columbus have lost money, failing to draw the anticipated patron spillover to food, drink and gambling. En Vogue, though popular, didn't attract big-time gamblers.
The casino conducts surveys and focus groups with its loyalty-card customers to determine preferred genres and frequency of acts.
"The more names we have, the better handle we have on what they like and don't like," said Patel, who considers the first year "one huge test."
Last month, the casino abandoned ticketed concerts and comedy acts in an on-site event center, which can seat 600 to 800 - too few to cover booking costs, he said.
A different setup exists at the year-old Scioto Downs Racino (slot machines only), where touring acts appear only as paid shows on the adjacent racetrack and pavilion. Area bands perform in the bar with no cover charge.
An advance study showed that country and classic rock were the preferred interior "soundtrack." Thus, Travis Tritt was booked for Memorial Day weekend. Jamey Johnson (Saturday) and Gretchen Wilson (Aug.30) will follow.
Said spokeswoman Ashley Redmon: "We're looking at these concerts as a separate entity of bringing entertainment to the community. If they stay and play, awesome."
Redmon said ticket revenue (usually $20 to $40 a person) - and concession sales that include alcohol "pretty much cover" the overhead
A Scioto Downs concert accommodates 4,000 guests; seating might swell to 6,000 next year if the parking lot is expanded to handle overflow.
Patron Scott Snyder considers the live-music options at both area venues a bonus.
The Grove City resident, who attended a Gregg Allman concert at Scioto Downs on July 5, said he has seen several performers at Hollywood, too.
"I've been there for a lot of the shows, whether I stood in the crowd or watched from the slots," said Snyder, 45.
"I pretty much live at the casinos."