This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tom Cantone
There's nothing old school about Tom Cantone, the savvy VP of Sports and Entertainment at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.
He oversees sports and entertainment bookings at the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena, and the 350-seat Wolf Den. He works in conjunction with Mohegan Sun talent buyer Jim Koplik, chairman of Live Nation's Northeast Region.
Cantone, a three-decade veteran of the casino, entertainment, hotel and resort industry, pilots a well-funded marketing juggernaut that soaks up entertainment dollars via an unbeatable and rich offering of live music, restaurants, clubs, shopping and, of course, gaming.
He rarely, if ever, hears an agent or manager today say, "My act won’t ever play a casino.”
That’s because U.S. casino resorts--with the massive buying power of a $40 billion entertainment and gaming industry behind them--represent a powerful nationwide concert distribution network now attracting today's younger concert goers as well as a traditional baby boomer base which has discretionary money to spend on gaming.
Concerts have become a primary part of business for casino resorts in the U.S. As such, venues like Mohegan Sun have recruited industry-savvy staffers, and significantly increased their concert production capabilities in recent years.
Casinos have long been viable alternatives for touring acts, providing venues and paydays for artists to live out their twilight years. But casinos are increasingly being chosen as prime stops for contemporary touring acts.
At the same time, casinos are seeking out talent that will attract an audience for the next 20 years. So while country, adult contemporary and comedy remain popular for bookings, rock, R&B, and even hip-hop acts are on the upswing at these venues.
Rather than hosting acts past their commercial peak as has been the case in the past, casinos are increasingly competing with major market arenas in attracting shows. They are booking acts on their way up the charts.
Over three decades, Cantone has piloted more than 450 casino debuts, including: Norah Jones, the Dixie Chicks, Rihanna, LeAnn Rimes, Enrique Iglesias, Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Krall, Alicia Keys, Pink, Gloria Estefan, Eddie Murphy, Jon Stewart, India Arie, Sheryl Crow, Jeff Foxworthy, and Nas.
Jerry Seinfeld's first post-TV gaming-hall gig after the series finale of his hit sitcom, "Seinfeld" was an unprecedented “thank you” to Cantone, then VP of entertainment at the nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. Starting in the mid-'80s, Cantone would regularly have Seinfeld open shows for such musical acts as the 5th Dimension and Four Tops at the now-demolished Sands Hotel in Atlantic City.
Although Indian gaming has been around since the 1970s, it was only after the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, and the success of Foxwoods, which debuted in 1993, that tribes began replacing their simple structures with elaborate hotel casinos featuring theaters, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and professional crews.
The Mohegan Sun Arena opened in Nov., 2001 and quickly altered the entertainment landscape in New England. Major network and cable television broadcasting companies, including CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, ESPN and CNN have all produced events through this arena.
From Harrisburg, a graduate of Penn State University, Penn. Cantone, began his career at the Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company in the ‘80s. Numerous promotions led to him becoming dir. of corporate marketing, overseeing all of Hershey's 16 operating divisions, including its sports, entertainment, theme park and hotels.
Next, with no gaming experience, he was hired on as VP entertainment at the Sands Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
In 1987, developer Donald Trump brought Cantone aboard as VP of entertainment, promotions and advertising for Trump Castle Casino Resort. Trump subsequently promoted him to the top spot as corporate VP of entertainment for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Trump Plaza Hotel Casino. He stayed with Trump until 1991
In the mid-90s, Cantone worked for the Dallas-based Hollywood Casino Corporation. As VP. of studio and retail marketing, he developed a business strategy to guide the "Hollywood" brand name into new gaming jurisdictions near Chicago and Memphis. He also structured an unprecedented joint venture with Hollywood studios to open the first studio store of its kind at the Hollywood Casino properties.
In addition to his corporate role at Hollywood Casino Corp., Cantone also was named VP of entertainment at the Sands Hotel & Casino. The four years Cantone was again with the Sands, the company boasted the largest increase in operating income of any Atlantic City casino and set an industry record for slot revenues.
In 1998, Foxwoods Resort Casino recruited Cantone to join its senior management team as VP of Foxwoods Entertainment Group. For the next nine years, he directed the entertainment operations of the 1,400-seat Fox Theatre, the 4,000-seat Fox Arena, the B.B. King Nite Club, B.B. King Dance Club, as well as, two lounges.
Cantone also created the Foxwoods News Network (FNN), which won a Telly Award for excellence in employee communications; and launched WIN-TV to promote casino amenities to guests
Cantone joined Mohegan Sun in 2007.
Does the gaming world get into your blood?
Every day is like the first day on the job. I’ve never grown tired of what I do. I’m blessed getting up every day. I look forward to going to work. I don’t know what I would do (if I wasn’t doing this).
One of the benefits of what I do is that I get to meet people who influenced me. I am friends with people I listened to on the radio. Now we are friends for life. Sometimes, I’ll think to myself, “This is crazy. How come I am in this position?” And the friendships that you gain are something that are not talked about. You know who your friends are in life. You also know who the pretend friends are.
The casino business once seemed recession proof. Is that true today given the current economic climate?
Not any more. What happened is that we all woke up one morning to half of our money gone. All of our 401Ks (retirement plans) and our savings were out. People (previously) had comfort levels knowing that there was a nest egg. We are still crowded here but people aren’t spending as much. It is the same story everywhere else. People still want to go out. They are still having a good time. They are just not spending on the same levels as they used to.
[The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation that operates Mohegan Sun’s nearby rival the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., issued a statement this week acknowledging the effect of the recession and increased competition after Standard & Poors had downgraded the tribe’s credit rating to CCC from B+ and put it on a "credit watch"
The tribe said it had initiated discussions with its lenders "about potential debt structure options, including a range of refinancing and recapitalization alternatives."]
Does this recession force you to be more innovative with bookings and marketing?
No question. You have to really reinvent yourself. But I’ve always felt that this business was event-driven, even when the times were good, because there’s a sameness of the products in the casino world. Some (products) are newer; some are older. What turns the eye is the perception of a house being more hip to what is going on with the world. Anyone who taps into American pop culture enough to make their place come more alive wins the day and wins the weekend. It is where people will want to go. Events drive the personality of a property in addition to its physical plant.
Mohegan Sun has a great physical plant. It has great shops and cool restaurants. The environment here is very attractive. A lot of casinos try to do that (kind of physical plant) so they have some “wow” factors built in. But you have to create a reason, more often than not, to have people come today.
The word “casino” seems outdated. In most cases, what is there is an entertainment complex with a hotel, a casino, and a show room.
That is the theme that I have been pushing for decades. Steve Wynn, who is the leader of the pack when it comes to innovation in the (gaming) industry, dropped the name casino when he went to the Mirage Resort. The word “casino” is a misnomer. The modern day mega facilities have a casino in them but they are really entertainment complexes that have live venues, themed restaurants, special events, and the best of the best entertainment on any given night.
[The Mirage, which opened in Las Vegas 1989, set new standards for size and lavishness for casino/hotels. It featured an indoor forest and an outdoor volcano.]
But the primary business of the resort is the casino?
It is the cash cow. No question about it. It is the cash cow and the driver (of crowds). But, from a marketing perspective, you have to know how that fits and works with live entertainment. You just can’t book (acts) alone without understanding that piece.
The basis for everything we do is the casino. It may be veiled in our approach because with a casino you have to be careful in how you position it. Whether it is entertainment--a restaurant or special events or whatever it is--the casino is the basis of everything we do. All these, however, are under the entertainment umbrella we are in.
The business you are in is entertainment.
Entertainment is defined as a fun place to go to a restaurant; a fun party to attend; a fun club to go to; a fun activity. Even on the casino floor all of the games now, video poker and so on, are themed after fun as well as television and stars, everything from “The Sopranos” to “Star Wars.” It is all about entertainment.
Concerts do sell hotel rooms and fill restaurants and other things. You can’t gamble 24 hours a day.
Well, sometimes that is good and sometimes bad.
The demand in this market for players for a hotel room, especially on a weekend when they are pouring in from New York and Boston, is so high that we don’t have that as a challenge. If we know that we are going to have a high demand show coming in, we prepare for it, and we block for it. So we don’t really need (entertainment) as a room motivator. On occasion, we do.
In our venue, we are 99% occupancy all year round. We don’t have as many hotel rooms as they would in a Vegas property. We have 1,200 rooms. In Las Vegas, they have thousands of rooms. They have more availability. Here we sometimes block (book for shows) and it works fine; and, other times, the opportunity cost lost on those rooms versus the player that would have been in them is negative. That’s where you put your business hat on the show business side the value of that customer versus someone else in that hotel room. You have to really measure the effects of that.
It does spike our room rates when we have major event. To that end, the value of the rooms go up.
I know you have a strong data base with customer information. You now utilize Facebook and Twitter?
We are getting into social marketing. No question. Our database is substantial, and we use it constantly. We are refining it. We know what shows people will like. We have data base sales for everything from rock and roll to comedy to country. We also have the ethnic shows broken down. We do a great Asian business here. A lot of our Asian shows do really well. We will use (the data base) as a marketing tool for specific drivers of business but it is really more of a mass marketing tool. It does spin off into certain specific segments that we want to attract.
For years many headliners and their representatives wouldn’t consider a booking with a casino.
When I was starting out (in the ‘80s), the casino raised the red flag (with agents and managers) and a wall went up. Contemporary acts of the ‘80s viewed casinos as the last stop. Something that you did in the twilight of your career a la Vegas. Today, I rarely hear (from an agent or manager), “They will never play a casino.” Now, it is pretty much the starting gate.
If an act is selling out in most markets, what is the benefit of playing venues like this? What do you say to them?
It depends on what they are trying to achieve. A lot of it has to do with routing. A lot has to do with the guarantees. A lot has to do with the promoter. We have a partnership with Live Nation. We work with Jim Koplik (Chairman of Live Nation's Northeast Region). That helps us to get from point A to point B. And a lot has to do with our reputation. People have recognized that this is a thriving venue in the league of Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.
I can’t speak enough about the technical expertise that we have in this building. Acts coming here know that they are going to be getting top-notch and experienced help. It really is an A-list of technical help in addition to the act. A lot of these (crew) guys have been on world tours, and they know everyone.
The commercial power that a casino property brings to the table as an independent stand-alone venue is unmatched.
Yes. You have the automatic traffic flow of the age groups that (many entertainment companies) are going after, and there’s one-stop shopping there. That’s why the concert industry have embraced the casinos. There’s an automatic empire built around distribution that is already built in; and (the show is) built around marketing plans already done, and built around a data base that (an act) will never get until they play here. And, it’s all one stop shopping.
Do you mostly book one-nighters?
We do one or two night bookings. I don’t like to do more than that because the market is not big enough. We are in a smaller market that draws heavily from major markets. I’d rather sell out and have the problem of having no tickets left than having shows to fill.
In the Spring of 2008, Billy Joel performed 10 sold-out shows at Mohegan Sun, and set several attendance records.
On the entertainment side, the biggest thing in the casino business, for this property and for me, was Billy Joel. It was the biggest deal I have ever been involved in. Dennis Arfa (Joel's booking agent since 1976) and I go back years. I would always approach Dennis--from when I was in Atlantic City until I came up to New England—and ask, “How can I get Billy Joel to do a casino?” It never happened. One day, Dennis and I were having a friendly lunch and, of course, I brought the subject up again. The idea of breaking a (casino) record intrigued Billy and it intrigued us as well. We did 10 sold-out shows in a row. He sold out every show instantly. That, to me, is one of the great casino entertainment stories.
Agents and managers used to talk about casino bookings as “found money.” Are fees more competitive today?
Yeah, because the talent pool has shrunk in the past 10 years. It is a combination of a lot of reasons. The acts are getting older. Some are retiring. The influx of new fresh talent doesn’t always take up the slack that was removed. So the availability of major names that will do well at a big venue, there aren’t as many as there used to be.
What happens (with the limited talent pool) is that it sometimes forces you into repeat engagements that you normally wouldn’t want to do. My rule has always been a year (between bookings) in the market. But sometimes you have to fill dates, and you will replay an act. You can almost trend down (the audience). An act won’t do as well the second time and definitely not the third time.
You are renowned for booking acts early on in their careers, including Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Krall, Alicia Keys, and Pink. Recently, you booked Taylor Swift, as well as Chickenfoot You mix the old with the new?
You have to because you need to tee up the next generation and get them used to your facility, your brand, and your operation. You want them to become comfortable with where they are going and build a little bit of loyalty, although I think that is overplayed a lot of times. But there is a sense of comfort when you have been someplace, and it was a good experience and it is fun. All of those things combine.
The next generation, you can’t ignore, but you still have to know where your business slice of the pie is.
Yes. It is still very much skewed older with a lot of younger names that spice the pie up and, on occasion, that makes everybody feel young. The baby boomer generation will never be old. They were not raised that way. They will be 75 or 80 years old and will still think that they are young.
Gaming venues often say they now attract a 25+ audience, but it’s really a 55+ audience.
Well, on the gaming side that’s true. On concert nights, they are through that door like the demo that you want. The 25+ are going to come, and they are even younger even for Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers. The audience, of course, is older for Billy Joel. He is a perfect demo for a casino environment. But you have to mix (the bills) up. I have always found that if you spice up your line-up with what’s happening now it enhances your entertainment program. As opposed to the same names coming in and out of your rooms, the same time, the same place. You don’t want to do the same.
Having 19-year-old Taylor Swift in your venue is a sign that things have changed.
Her audience is 65% female, mostly young girls. We love the drop off crowd. We love the crowd that brings mom and dad. Britney Spears set that tone years ago. Our gaming numbers are very strong when we have those high-profile, younger nights. Dad is in the casino playing, and mom and the daughter are watching the show.
Given that yesterday's headbanger is today's 40+ fan, when you book Korn, Godsmack and Staind, does that mean dad is watching them while mom is in the casino?
No question. It makes sense to attract mom and dad when you don’t think it is a mom and dad crowd. The combinations are pretty good. (Gaming) does spike during those types of nights.
In Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the competition is intense. It is less competitive in the New England market?
I have always felt that you can upstage (others) whether you have 11 or 12 venues sitting outside your door or there’s two venues. You can upstage anybody any time if you have the right things. Like having personalities.
Over the years, you have spiced bookings up by bringing together the cast of “The Sopranos” having Super Bowl most valued players or members of the New York Yankees make personal appearances; and booking" Deal or No Deal" with Howie Mandel.
To me that is all entertainment. That is live entertainment.
The craziest thing I’ve ever done was when I got the Jets and the Giants to do a touch football game on the roof top of Trump Marina in Atlantic City when the NFL was on strike. I had (CBS Sports analyst) Phil Simms and there were all of these guys in their uniforms playing football. It was carried live on (local) radio. We did a party afterward. It was the talk of the town.
You got “The Sopranos” cast together at Foxwoods.
We were the first to do the entire cast. We did it at least four times. Every time I said that this is the last time it would be the biggest thing we’d ever done. (The first booking) was by accident. We just did it. I got to know (cast members), and they all got together one night, and we made it work. It was huge. It was bigger than any major concert that I’ve ever booked with the exception of Billy Joel. We had the biggest gaming nights of the year when they came.
What would “The Sopranos” night consist of?
It was a high profile meet-greet-party. I would get them all together—including James Gandolfini, and Michael Imperioli--and have a private event for the hundreds of people. The audience took pictures. They had dinner. We showed (film) clips. We did Q&As. Everybody would hang out. It was a touchy-eely thing. It wasn’t like you couldn’t talk to (the actors) or not approach them. it was a really unique thing.
You booked " Deal Or No Deal" at Foxwoods. You knew host Howie Mandel from booking him years before at The Sands Hotel?
In Atlantic City. He still has the jacket I gave him. He still talks about it. Howie’s great. It’s hard to put into words the value of relationships. People cynically will say (a booking) is about money. Yes, it is. But the deciding factor, more often than not when you get into a competitive bid, is the personal relationships that you are lucky enough to have over the years. That is an intangible that has the house advantage. When a guy like Howie Mandel knows you, and he’s someone who does get offers that are even, maybe, better—(having a relationship) is sometimes the difference why a person might stay or go.
Your relationship with Jerry Seinfeld led to him performing at Foxwoods immediately after he left his TV show.
It was the highest compliment I ever got. In Atlantic City, I booked Jerry frequently as an opening act. In his mind, I was giving him work. Of course, he went on to his big success at NBC, and stopped performing (at casinos and resorts). One day, I was in New York at a Bill Cosby function that Jerry was hosting. We ran into each other with his manager George Shapiro. Jerry and I gave each other a big hug and asked about each other. I said, “You should come up and play Foxwoods some time.” He said “Call George, and let him know.” I thought he was being polite. But I did call George. When George called back, he said that (the booking) was Jerry’s “thank you” for all of the years that I had booked him. It was his first (live) play following the TV show.
When B. B. King finished a show at Foxwoods in 2000, you asked him and his manager if they wanted to do an entertainment partnership. A year later, Foxwoods opened its first outside joint venture, the B.B. King Nite Club, and the B.B. King Dance Club.
At the time, we were going to be building some new venues. So I threw that (idea) out in a conversation with B.B. He’s the nicest guy in show business, so I had the comfort level to talk to him about these kinds of things. We were talking and the idea came up. He said he’d love to do it. We made it happen.
The night we opened, we had B.B. King and Clarence Clemons. It was Clarence’s birthday and, by luck, Bruce Springsteen showed up to celebrate it with him and B.B. So one night on a small stage in front of 300 people here’s Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and Clarence Clemons jamming for two hours. The president of the property was standing next to me, and said, “This is surreal, isn’t it?” It was one of the high marks in my career. You would have to pay Bruce Springsteen an unbelievable amount of money to show up and play.
Did you get a good grounding in the resort business working at the Hershey Entertainment & Resort Company?
Hershey was a great place to start. It baptized me into all of the worlds that I am doing now--from the theme park industry to the arena industry to the hotel/resort industry. I got my feet wet there fresh out of Penn State where I had a Liberal arts education. I was history major.
Did you book shows at Hershey?
Oh yeah. My first booking was Sonny & Cher. I greeted them off the jet that Hugh Hefner loaned them. Down the steps they came, and I presented them with a 10 pound Hershey bar. They were playing Hersheypark Arena (in Hershey, Pennsylvania).
How did you come to work at Hershey?
It was a complete accident. I wrote for a few small town papers while at college and I interviewed the GM of Hersheypark, Bruce McKinney (who later became president/CEO of Hershey Entertainment & Resort Co.) in the midst of the redevelopment of the complex from an amusement park to a theme park a la Disney. After it was printed, I sent him the article with a thank you note. Then I got a call to interview for a position there. That moment changed my life.
You started out as publicity and press relations manager at Hersheypark. And you were only 22.
I was put into this job and I had no experience. Bruce McKinney had belief in me. I was promoted frequently through the company for the next 9 years. I ended up as the dir. of corporate marketing for the entire company. Bruce believed in me; gave me the opportunities; and opened all of the doors. He’s the reason why I am where I am now. I made the most of every opportunity I could. Had I not been hired at Hershey I don’t know what I would be doing today.
Hershey didn’t have casinos.
Our casino, our cash cow, was Hersheypark. So I learned that was where to base all of the marketing efforts to cross-promote. (Hersheypark) was always the basis for everything that we did.
[Hershey Chocolate owner, Milton Hershey built Hersheypark for his workers and their families to relax. Opened in 1907, it included large picnic lawns, a band shell, and a stage for vaudeville productions. Attractions were gradually added over the years. The park was fully revamped during the ‘70s and was transformed from a small regional park to one of the most popular and innovative amusement parks in the United States.]
You concluded a booking for Elvis Presley to appear at the Hersheypark Arena the day he died?
I had negotiated a deal with Col. Tom Parker. I was young, and I didn’t know I couldn’t call Col. Tom Parker but I did. He was putting a secondary market tour together. We had a big meeting, and we sealed the deal. I’m driving home and I was so happy being a young guy who had just booked Elvis Presley. There was a song on the radio as I was driving. I sort of had a weird feeling because the station I was listening to didn’t play that kind of music. The announcer said, “That was the late and great Elvis Presley who died today.” (Aug. 16, 1977). I pulled to the side of the road and thought, “Oh my God, the biggest booking of my life just died.”
Do you miss the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City? For 20 years, it dominated the Atlantic City strip in entertainment. It was the first casino there to offer poker. It must be hard to drive by the site with it being torn down in 2007.
It is. The alumnae of that one property have made an impact all over the world in gaming. There are Sands’ alumnae now running some of the biggest casino operations in the world or have key spots. It was a cool group of people. The team had a chemistry. We knew that we weren’t the biggest. We didn’t have the most fire power but we outgunned everybody. It was a small joint that we made happen. We were trying to be innovative, trying to different.
You certainly were given considerable latitude in booking The Sands.
It was (from) the support that I had from the top (management). They liked what they saw in whatever I brought to the table, and they had the faith to let me run.
But you had no experience working in Atlantic City. You didn’t even know people there.
I was a walk-in in Atlantic City. I knew nobody. I wasn’t a friend (of a friend). Usually in the casino world, they hire people they are comfortable with to protect their back. I knew nobody. They recruited me. I walked in and I didn’t know anybody. I left there knowing everybody. Today, (Atlantic City) is my second home.
You worked with Donald Trump from 1987 to 1991. You eventually handled three Trump properties.
The Taj (Trump Taj Mahal Casino) was the venue at the time. It was bigger and I could do 5,700 people. We opened with Elton John and I had Sylvester Stallone backstage and I had his brother Frank playing in the lounge.
You worked with Trump when he was the center of a great deal of media attention.
I was with Donald when he was the focal point of just about everything that was going on in this country. It was a fun to be along for the ride. We had a great 4 1/2 years. It was a fun experience for me, especially running multiple properties. I was constantly on the go, moving from place to place. Wherever we went, people thought we were going to be buying them. There was a lot of excitement when we would make a move here and there. There were a lot of firsts there. We created a couple of really cool shows called “Tonight Live” that was a talk show and a lot of stars came on. Atlantic City was always fun for being able to create new opportunities for entertainment.
You left gaming for a short period. Were you burned out?
I wanted to own a little something, and start up something else. I had the opportunity to do that. But I fast realized that I was made to be in this industry so I went back to it fairly quickly.
While working at The Sands, you made the connection between casinos and Hollywood both being in the entertainment business. You opened the first studio store of its kind at the Hollywood Casino properties In 1992.
Today, I wonder how that was pulled off. When we rolled out the Hollywood Casino idea, I went to every Hollywood studio, and got them to form one partnership together. It was the first time that they all got together under one roof to do one thing. I had to do a lot of selling and convincing to get everybody to buy into this concept. We were a new outlet for them. It was the first time they’d ever sold videos in a casino. We were able to do a lot of (events) that the studios were able to help us with. In turn, we sold their video product very well.
[Participating studios included MGM/UA, Turner Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, MCA/Universal, Paramount, Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures, Disney, HBO, and Showtime]
Paul McCartney has put the brake on the rumor that he plans to embark on a final world tour next year. As a Beatles fan, you’d like to book him some day?
In the entertainment business, I measure everything—what I like or dislike—by how I grew up listening to the Beatles. I did get to meet Ringo (Starr) here for a 8 or 10 minute one-on-one.
Being a Beatles fan and a drummer, I have the Ludwig Beatles’ (classic oyster black pearl) drum set that my dad bought me when I was growing up.
He came out of his dressing room and very politely asked me in. I brought my book “The Beatles Anthology” and he signed it. He saw the picture of my daughter sitting at the drums. He said, “Look at that.” I said, Yeah I have your drum set. I asked him how he came to choose that drum set. That Black Oyster Pro was a new design, and (Ringo having it) really changed everything in the drum world. It became an iconic part of the Beatles’ history. He said, “It was the only one in the window. It could have been pink, and I would have bought it.”
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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