ROLL OUT: Ludacris was one of the headliners for a Labor Day hip-hop 50th anniversary celebration at Gila River Resort and Casino in Arizona. (HUB 111)

CHANDLER, ARIZONA — Gila River Resort and Casino’s 50th anniversary of hip-hop celebration featured rap royalty including Rick Ross, Offset, DaBaby, Ludacris, Fat Joe and Lil Jon. That kind of talent could surely have filled a larger venue but, here, content was king and the guests treated like royalty.  

“One of the things that I think sets us apart from other venues — not just in the Phoenix/Chandler area, but anywhere — is our incredible content capture team,” said Anastasia “A.P.” Palmer Johnson, corporate director of entertainment. “With that, we have this red-carpet camera that’s a robot camera and it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. Thinking about the guest experience, they go from just being able to come to a concert to being a part of it. You’re going to walk the red carpet. You get to be part of that experience from the second you arrive to when the event is over.” 

The Labor Day weekend event saw Rick Ross, Offset and DaBaby on Sept. 2, and Ludacris, Fat Joe and Lil Jon on Sept. 3. 

All 1,385 seats sold out the day of the show for each night, which took place at the casino’s Wild Horse Pass location. 

“Because we’ve elevated the experience and changed up how we do the scaling, it opens up the guest count,” Palmer Johnson said. “We definitely sold out the day of the show. We went on sale later than we usually do so we saw way more walkup for the show than usual.”

The intimate venue boasts all seats within 75 feet from the stage, which also elevates the guest experience, she said. The artists are not left out, either.

“My mission is taking that big venue experience that I would have provided when I was with Live Nation, the Coliseum or the Staples Center and bring it to a smaller venue,” she said. “I think it’s really starting to show. Artists want to come back because they remember the venue, the general manager, the CEO or president coming in to say hello.”

Johnson started with Gila River Casinos in September 2022 with the mission of bringing “more interesting and mainstream content — non-casino content — to the venues. 

Fat Joe pictured with Anastasia “A.P.” Palmer Johnson, corporate director of entertainment at Gila River Resorts & Casinos. (HUB 111)

Owned by the Gila River Indian Community, Gila River Casinos also includes Vee Quiva in Laveen Village, Arizona; and Lone Butte and Santan Mountain, which are also in Chandler, Arizona.

“Standard casino entertainment just doesn’t fly anymore,” she said.

“With that old casino model, you book anything to fill the room. I think, in this stage, you really have to look to be relevant and the casino demographic is changing. With that, you have to change how you’re approaching your casino program. It needs to be an all-encompassing venue — something for everybody.”

Recently, Wild Horse Pass was the only U.S. venue to host Echo & the Bunnymen outside of the Goldenvoice-produced Cruel World Festival in Pasadena.

“We have a bunch of other shows like that in 2024,” she said. “We just had Gipsy Kings, which sold out; Beach Boys sold out; and we have Smokey Robinson with a string orchestra in November. That’s going to be an incredible show.

“The Church is not your standard casino act. We also have the Struts in December. It’s not what you expect. It’s not because I love ’80s and glam. We have country, hip-hop and standards. Even with standard casino entertainment, I still want to make sure it’s hip and relevant.”

Coming up, too, is comedian Mike Epps, who will film a Netflix special at Wild Horse Pass. This move is new for the Chandler, Arizona, venue.

“That’s something they hadn’t done before,” she said. “In LA, we do it all the time, location shoots. This is two-fold. We have two Mike Epps shows, so the benefits are two-fold. Guests can see Mike Epps and then they can walk the red carpet and possibly see themselves on TV.”

Transitioning from a standard casino to a hard-ticket venue is “tough,” Johnson said. Challenges include changing the casino narrative with artists, some of whom have a “I don’t play casinos rule in their contracts,” she added.

“We are not the standard tribal gaming casino,” she said. “We are different. We are a nonsmoking venue and that makes a big different for a lot of folks.

“That comfort for guests and artists is very, very important — huge. I think that’s what you’ve been able to see in that transition.”