New live-entertainment venues energize casinos and their patrons

The Event Center accommodates 2,200 to 3,500 people, depending on whether an event is a seated or standing-room-only affair.
The Event Center accommodates 2,200 to 3,500 people, depending on whether an event is a seated or standing-room-only affair.
Posted: May 31, 2012

THE MORALITY and ethics of legal casinos may be legitimate topics of debate, but there’s no argument when the subject is how gambling halls have enhanced the region’s live-entertainment options.

The latest proof is the recent opening of two major performance spaces — the Event Center at Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, and Ovation Hall, a key part of the $2.4 billion Revel megaresort that on Friday began its grand-opening weekend festivities.

The men who run each of the properties acknowledged that such facilities are crucial to luring customers who will gamble, eat in restaurants and sleep in hotel rooms. According to Sands president Robert DeSalvio, the Event Center’s recent opening-night concert by modern-rock outfit Incubus exceeded retail expectations in all corners of the sprawling complex on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Works.

Beyond that, continued DeSalvio, a former marketing executive at the now-demolished Sands Casino-Hotel in Atlantic City, the opening of the multipurpose venue "completes the integrated destination resort [corporate parent] Las Vegas Sands wanted when we came to Bethlehem. It really completes the resort picture." In the year before the Event Center’s debut, the casino opened a 300-room hotel and a bi-level outlet mall.

The Event Center, exclusively booked by the Philly office of national concert-promotion behemoth Live Nation, accommodates 2,200 to 3,500 people, depending on whether an event is a seated or standing-room-only affair.

The room is clean and functional, configured for floor seating with two sections separated by a wide walkway. At May 17’s Beach Boys concert, the sound was extremely crisp. The acoustic engineering was done by Manheim, Pa.-based Claire Bros., which has been in the concert-audio business for four decades.

Sight lines are fine, although the chairs are not tiered, so those sitting toward the back can have a problem if someone exceptionally big sits in front of them. But with the farthest point from the stage 137 feet away, there is an intimacy not usually associated with "big-box" layouts like this.

What sets the reported $12 million Event Center apart from the standard casino multiuse space is its lobby. The area that serves as the theater’s foyer is a two-story, state-of-the-art nightclub called Vision Bar. The idea, said DeSalvio, is to start the party preshow and keep it going long after the concert notes have faded.

The Event Center seemed to be a crowd-pleaser at the Beach Boys’ show. Shon Weldon, of Doylestown, proclaimed both the sound and sight lines "very good," and said he and his wife, Diane, would add the hall to their list of regularly visited venues that include the smallish Keswick Theatre in Glenside and the even-cozier Sellersville Theater in that Bucks County hamlet.

"It has good acoustics and good vision," offered Bill Smith, who watched the Beach Boys from a seat on the 20th row at the Event Center. Smith, who lives in nearby Allentown, was also pleased from a geographical standpoint. "It’s great that they have this here," he said. "Otherwise, I’d have to go to Philly or New York or the Keswick."

Revel’s sweet spot

About 120 miles to the southeast, Revel’s Ovation Hall had its long-awaited debut — a performance by pop-rockers Maroon 5 — May 18.

As much as any other part of the massive Boardwalk pleasure dome, O-Hall — which on Friday raised the curtain on the first of Beyonce’s four postnatal gigs at the complex — is seen as crucial to Revel’s success. "Entertainment is one of the cornerstones of what we’re doing," explained Revel president and CEO Kevin DeSanctis. "If you want to be a place people think of as an entertainment [capital], you have to have an appropriate venue."

DeSanctis sounded a little like Goldilocks when he spoke of the theater’s 5,050-person capacity. "If you go large, you can’t sell it," he reasoned. "If you go small, you can’t [afford] the acts you want to play. I think we hit the sweet spot."

According to DeSanctis, although his design team looked at a variety of existing venues while planning O-Hall, the layout is primarily based on the Colosseum Theater, the 4,000-seater at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that was built for Celine Dion’s long-running residency there.

It’s difficult to compare this venue to the Sands’, as O-Hall is significantly larger and laid out differently.

The first thing you notice when you enter the auditorium is its expanse. It is significantly wider than the Sands’ space — one Maroon 5 concertgoer thought it resembled the seated portion of Fairmount Park’s Mann Music Center. Ovation Hall likewise has considerably more height and depth than its counterpart in Bethlehem.

But both are multiuse spaces (boxing, martial-arts events, trade shows, etc.) that offer temporary floor seating (or standing, as in the case for Maroon 5).

Although it’s a casino big-box (the template in this region is the Event Center at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa), Ovation Hall feels more like grand concert hall, thanks to the permanent bleacher seats — boasting exceptional legroom — that fill the upper decks. Sound and vision are excellent around the room, even in what would be considered the "worst" seats in the house. Sound quality drops off a bit in the room’s farthest reaches. If you are fortunate enough to be seated in the lower balcony dead center, you are in for a perfect concert experience.

The main lobby isn’t quite as impressive as Vision Bar. As a matter of fact, it is surprisingly spare and almost antiseptic, with brown-paneled walls and a white tiled floor.

Escalators take ticketholders to the upper levels, each of which has its own bar and restrooms. In his phillymag.com blog, Victor Fiorillo wrote of a less-than-satisfactory experience at the M5 show, citing a ridiculously long wait (20-plus minutes) at an O-Hall bar. However, we saw no signs of such frustration at any of the bars, and the public’s reviews were favorable.

Despite its size, Marisa Everett, of Blackwood, N.J., described Ovation Hall as "a nice, intimate space. The sound is good and the staff is nice."

Her friend Mary Babbett, of Bellmawr, N.J., spoke of perhaps the most important amenity any venue can contain. "It’s nice," she said, "that there’s a bar on every floor." n

For more on the Event Center at Sands Casino Resort, go to pasands.com. For more on Ovation Hall at Revel, go to revelresorts.com.

Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or darrowc@phillynews.com. Read his CasiNotes casino blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/casinotes/ and follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow.

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