Northern Quest Casino entertainment coordinator Mary Lien recommends anyone interested in her job start by earning a college degree, then working in every branch of the performance industry.
“Start at the bottom,” she says, “even as an usher, and work through all the different departments, so you get the big picture.”
In other words, do everything Lien didn’t.
“That’s true,” she admits with a laugh. “That’s why I can say that.”
Lien fell into her coveted job 11 years ago.
“I just happened to be in the right department at the right time,” she explained. “No one at the casino had experience booking acts.”
Since then, Lien has cajoled, corralled and catered to some of the same bands she grew up worshipping.
During a recent interview, she discussed her job’s challenges and rewards.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Lien: In Ione (Pend Oreille County), a town of 500 if you’re lucky.
S-R: What were your interests?
Lien: Reading. And getting out of Ione.
S-R: Did you attend live performances back then?
Lien: Oh, yeah. My first concert was Jimi Hendrix at the old Spokane Coliseum. I’ve always loved music.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Lien: I wanted to be a social worker, and I majored in that at an all-girls Catholic college in Oregon until I became enamored with someone and dropped out.
S-R: Then what?
Lien: I worked in the hotel industry, and later switched to tourism marketing for Kootenai County.
S-R: What brought you to Northern Quest Casino?
Lien: I became familiar with the (Kalispel) tribe growing up. My family would take Sunday drives through the reservation, which was nearby, and my dad – an attorney – would remark how some people’s lives were more difficult than ours. So I came to the casino job fair in 2000 thinking I could help the tribe – which I have. But I’m also having a lot of fun.
S-R: What was your first casino job?
Lien: I was in charge of tour-bus visits. I started coordinating entertainment in 2003.
S-R: How are acts chosen?
Lien: At first, management relied on consultants to help us with bookings. Now our own team picks the performers, and that’s worked out better.
S-R: Who was your first booking?
Lien: Mickey Rooney and his wife Jan (Chamberlin) – kind of a cabaret performance.
S-R: Having had no firsthand experience dealing with celebrities, were you star-struck?
Lien: I was. But pretty soon I realized they’re just people – even the groups I grew up loving, like Journey and Foreigner. Now I go into it like, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. What do you need from us?” More than anything, they want their privacy.
S-R: Many entertainers who perform here have seen better days. Are they still demanding?
Lien: Some are. I think they got used to being treated like they were on a pedestal. But most are pleasant – especially the country music folks. They are so polite and sweet, all “Yes, ma’am, Miss Mary.”
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Lien: The end product – when the audiences stand up and scream, and I know my customers are truly satisfied.
S-R: What do you like least?
Lien: The paperwork – the daily routine.
S-R: How much do tickets cost?
Lien: Anywhere from $35 to $150. We also offer package deals.
S-R: Do most of the shows sell out?
Lien: About half.
S-R: Any complete flops?
Lien: We had a magician during Christmas once who was so horrible the audience booed. And he had two shows. It was embarrassing. We booked him on the advice of a consultant, and there had to be something behind that recommendation.
S-R: How would you characterize Spokane audiences?
Lien: They tend to wait until the last minute to buy tickets. Tour managers get nervous, but I tell them to just be patient.
S-R: Did the recession hurt sales?
Lien: Not at all. People always love to be entertained, and find ways to fit it into their budget.
S-R: How has technology affected your business?
Lien: We have access to much more information about acts. And on the ticketing side, most people used to stop by the box office, and now 65 percent of our sales are online.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Lien: Summer, because our outdoor venue is almost four times as big as the indoor pavilion.
S-R: What’s your work schedule?
Lien: I spend nonentertainment days in the office from 8 to 5. Show days – oh, Lord – I’m here in the morning and don’t leave until I’ve got the act back in their hotel room or with their tour manager. Those can be 14-hour days.
S-R: When people learn what you do, what do they ask?
Lien: “Can I come work for you? You have such a fun job.” And I say, “I’m glad we make it look like so much fun.”
S-R: Do you watch shows from the audience or backstage?
Lien: I hardly get to see shows, because I’m too busy. If there’s a song they’re famous for, I try to catch that.
S-R: Do people call you asking for free tickets?
Lien: All the time.
S-R: How does someone get on your A list?
Lien: Most of the folks who get free tickets are business people we’ve dealt with, (casino) players or tribal members.
S-R: How do big-name bands make money playing your relatively small venue?
Lien: Typically they’ve already played Seattle and are heading to Montana. They have to stop somewhere. This way, they get paid and we get a good rate.
S-R: Do some acts realize they have a layover and ask you to book them at the last minute?
Lien: Yes, but we can’t. We need at least 60 days to promote a show. We prefer 90 days.
S-R: Would you book Paul McCartney on just 15 days notice?
Lien: For him I’d make an exception – but only if he gave us a big discount on his fee.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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