HARD ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ALL NIGHT: KISS performs at Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena at Hard Rock International’s Atlantic City property. Hard Rock Live venues, which typically seat between 2,500 and 7,000 guests, host everything from developing artists to exclusive underplays for stadium-sized acts. (Getty Images)
Familiar Brand Continues Growth With ‘Big Events Business,’ Lionel Messi, F1 Miami GP
Just a few years ago, the words “Hard Rock” were likely most associated with an iconic logo — the Hard Rock Cafe insignia, the one created by British artist Alan Aldridge in the 1970s. It’s one of the most recognizable brands across the world and has appeared on everything from drink napkins to fanny packs.
Long known as a music-themed destination for its world-class memorabilia collection, entertainment offerings and a host of popular cafes and casinos bearing that famous logo, Hard Rock has not so suddenly stood out for doing big things.
Like hosting The Rolling Stones for an intimate indoor performance to close out their 2021 U.S. stadium tour. Big things like becoming a founding partner in the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix taking place at the home of NFL Miami Dolphins, to which Hard Rock holds naming rights. Hard Rock played host to concerts by major stars before and after the F1 festivities and erected its own man-made beach onsite for the occasion.
Big things like launching a new signature hamburger with soccer star Lionel Messi, among the world’s best-known athletes.
Times have changed and so has the Hard Rock brand, which has long been a household name in the hospitality business. The company has ramped up in recent years to become a worldwide force, with top-notch talent performing in state-of-the-art venues of all types, a dizzying pipeline of new projects, philanthropic efforts to match and brand ambassadors tied to some of the most famous people on the planet.
In its 50th year of operation after humble beginnings in London and staking its claim in 250-plus entertainment venues, casinos, cafes and hotels in 70 countries, it might sound easy to keep it business as usual. But it’s about more than that.
“In the grand scheme of things, if we don’t do what it takes to reinforce the new brand image of Hard Rock, then we’ll create all these great assets, but we won’t have enough fans to experience them,” says Hard Rock International Chairman Jim Allen. “So it’s about creating this flywheel where we put people into our ecosystem, we create great fans of the brand and then we have them out there as evangelists for our kind of reimagined Hard Rock.”
Then & Now: Humble Beginnings
Like many multinational corporations, the Hard Rock’s beginnings were humble.
Founded in London in 1971 by Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton — two Americans who took matters into their own hands when they couldn’t find a good burger overseas — Hard Rock Cafe became a hotspot for the city’s burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene. Rock royalty frequented the establishment and provided its first pieces of memorabilia, with Eric Clapton famously leaving a guitar at the diner “to mark his spot,” followed by The Who’s Pete Townshend leaving his axe at the venue, stating if the spot was good enough for Clapton it was good enough for him.
Hard Rock Cafe became an international force starting with the first U.S. location in Los Angeles in 1981; followed by Tokyo in 1983; a Hard Rock Live venue in Mexico in 1994; followed by its first casino property, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino off the Las Vegas Strip in 1995. Those brands continued to expand, with the first Hard Rock Live in the U.S. opening in 1999 in Orlando, near the city’s Hard Rock Cafe. The concert venue opened with a performance by Elton John.
The true potential of its vertically integrated business may have become apparent , however, when Hard Rock partnered with the Seminole Tribe of Florida — the entity that pioneered and shepherded tribal gaming venues in the U.S. — for Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino properties in Hollywood and Tampa, Florida. That soon led to a billion-dollar acquisition of Hard Rock International by the Indian nation (see Seminole Tribe of Florida sidebar on page 31). A $2 billion expansion in 2019 saw major revamps to both Florida properties, including a mammoth guitar-shaped hotel tower made of glass and indoor concert venues. As it stands now, Hard Rock’s growth continues with new hotel/casino projects in New York’s Times Square, a new Hard Rock Live venue in Sacramento, plus revamped partnerships and marketing efforts accelerating international expansion.
`Hard Rock Is Not A Casino Company’
The Seminole acquisition was followed by more gaming success at Hard Rock properties in Hollywood, Atlantic City and the acquisition of The Mirage Hotel in Vegas (the original Las Vegas Hard Rock was sold to Virgin and rebranded in 2020). While gaming is a cornerstone of the company’s overall business model, Hard Rock’s intention is to grow and evolve primarily as an entertainment destination.
“Hard Rock is not a casino company. We’re an entertainment company and entertainment is first,” says Keith Sheldon, president of entertainment for Hard Rock International and Seminole Gaming. “We’re a restaurant company, we’re a hotel company and we happen to have casinos as well. And so it’s important for us as an entertainment brand to make sure that we have rooms that reflect the highest end opportunities for the artist community.”
Sheldon joined Hard Rock in 2020 after a stint as executive vice president of programming and development at BSE Global, which included booking special events at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At Hard Rock, he oversees entertainment at regular touring stops including the 3-year-old, 6,500-capacity Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Florida, which apart from the Stones, has hosted A-listers like Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Paul McCartney.
“We’ve taken an aggressive approach as it relates to entertainment, whether it’s touring shows, one-off ticketed performances, or just working with managers to bring their baby bands onto some of our smaller stages for artists starting out in their careers,” Sheldon said. “We’re 50 years old; this isn’t about celebrating the last 50 years and looking back at all the artists that have graced our stages. This needs to be about what does the future hold and, and how do we advance the brand over the next 50 years?”
While content is always key, there’s more to it than just finding an open date and a willing artist.
“It’s about creating great relationships,” Sheldon says. “Just like our founders did, really, with how the memorabilia collection started. They had friendships with people like Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, and that’s why they stuck their guitars up on the wall. So, for us, it’s doing those same things. It’s about cultivating the relationships and figuring out what the long-term could look like together.”
Although Hard Rock Live venues are regular touring stops for headline acts, there’s a conscious effort to stand out with superior service to both fans and artists.
“The conversation always is about, look, if we just book someone for one night, that’s wonderful, but when we’re creating these relationships, the conversation is always about the philanthropic beliefs and charities. How can we help them and how can we create a relationship?” Allen said. He used the Stones as an example, noting that the Hard Rock’s successful businesses apart from live music made it possible. “I think people will see the story continue between the band and Hard Rock.”
The concept on the development side of Hard Rock Live venues is a comfortable, intimate environment with top-shelf amenities to host touring artists and emerging acts.
“The reality is we’re building these rooms for the highest quality,” Allen said. “We have the ability to step up and write the big check X times a year, but we also have the ability to have those great bands that are on the way up to success.”
The goal is to do so and stay current culturally for the younger generations.
“We’ll never forget Elvis and the Beatles and some of the great bands of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but it’s more important to make sure that we are current with today’s artists,” said Allen, who joined the Seminoles in 2001 and was instrumental in the Hard Rock acquisition.
“So if I can work with Roc Nation and raise, $6 million to $7 million in one night for the Shawn Carter Foundation to help the less fortunate, that’s the power of the brand, that’s the power of our customer base, and the power of celebrity between Jay-Z and Rihanna and Beyonce, and all the amazing artists that are part of the Roc Nation umbrella,” he said. “I assure you if it was the Jim Allen brand, people would not be interested.”
A New-New York State Of Mind
Much like Hard Rock has roots in a humble live music hotspot with its first London cafe, Hard Rock’s shiny new project in New York has deep roots in rock history. Located steps away from Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center and the Theater District, and on a block that was home to iconic music stores like Sam Ash, the new Hard Rock Hotel pushes the envelope and honors history.
The property features 460 rooms and a 350-capacity venue, appropriately titled The Venue on Music Row. Opening events at The Venue include a May 13 album release party for the Chainsmokers and May 10 Florence + The Machine release party.
“It’s a spectacular venue with a rooftop lounge, a high-end duplex penthouse suite that holds about 70 people with an outdoor terrace,” Sheldon said. “When we think about this new flagship hotel property in New York City, what’s the most critical thing to us? It’s not mirroring exactly what we have going on at Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. This is about reintroducing the brand in a different light and showing folks that Hard Rock is a culturally relevant brand.”
The Venue’s balcony features an LED video wall as a backdrop and an ornate ceiling imported from Italy. “The room is gorgeous,” Sheldon said. “We want to work with content providers to create unique moments not happening anywhere else in the world.”
Allen said the facility was designed with a boutique feel, where artists could hold their own parties and invite their closest friends.
“You have the ability to stay in a five-star hotel with world-class food, but you go 80 feet underground and you’re in the coolest venue in New York,” he said.
Much like the New York Hard Rock brings the brand current while still remaining true to its rock ‘n’ roll roots, the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant locations across the world are part of the equation in everything they do.
“We can never forget the Hard Rock Cafes,” Allen said. “That’s where it all started back in June of 1971. The cafes in many cases are where people (first experienced) Hard Rock. It’s about making sure we have the right locations and closing the ones that we should have never gone into to begin with. That’s the business model and we look at that as an extremely important one and a predictor of our success, and our success in not selecting one vertical or division over another.”
Although diner fare might not seem to be on the cutting edge of cool to most people, Allen says the level of service and quality are key.
“I just believe in the more we can expand the brand as a lifestyle and position it at the highest quality,” says Allen, “The hamburger is no longer a frozen patty, that’s what the previous owners served. Not me, OK? Our burgers are fresh. And when you look at our new restaurants, we’re grinding the beef right in front of the guests’ eye. That is a commitment to quality that we have, and we will continue to get better.”
Service and quality extends to the employee side as well.
“More important than anything about marketing is treating the employees the right way, the fair way; make sure we have the best benefits; be worried about how much they make per hour in tips, be worried about their schedule and child care,” Allen said. “Are they safe? Do they feel comfortable coming back to work during COVID — all those things to which we spend countless hours? I always joke that I don’t hunt. I don’t fish, I don’t golf. I don’t play sports anymore. We do one thing, we work. And we love it. We’re trying to figure out the best way we can make this environment the most proud to work for so that they then offer that same level of service and passion to the guests that come to our 260 locations in 70 countries around the world.”
The Big Events Business
Concerts are a key piece of the Hard Rock business model, and having multiple rooms of multiple sizes in multiple markets presents opportunity. However, Hard Rock International is looking to push the needle further.
“There’s nothing like those moments when all eyes are on you, whether it’s a live boxing match on ESPN, an awards show like the Miss Universe competition, which was the most watched global telecast that evening (May 16, 2021), or a mega concert like Paul McCartney or Elton John or Billy Joel,” Sheldon said. “Those are the moments that differentiate us from other organizations.”
Another big event in the big-events business is the F1 Miami Grand Prix, which took place May 6-8 in Miami Gardens. The company erected the “Hard Rock Beach” activation, featuring headliners Post Malone, Maluma, Tiesto, Zedd, The Chainsmokers and many others to go along with the high-end racing event that drew hundreds of thousands to the event site.
With Hard Rock not just a sponsor of the event but a founding partner in the Grand Prix, Hard Rock Beach included a giant stage, two freshwater pools and a man-made beach, with cabanas, viewing areas and premium food and beverages to go along with the entertainment.
As naming-rights holder for the NFL stadium, an 18-year agreement signed in 2016 and valued at $14 million annually, Sheldon said it would have been easy to just let the Grand Prix take place at Hard Rock Stadium and be done with it.
“Had we decided not to be a founding partner of this (race), it would have been fine,” he said. “We would have gotten good exposure and everyone would have said it’s at the Hard Rock Stadium campus, but we wanted to sort of double down on the opportunity because we know that they are doing some really great things there and F1 is a really hot commodity, one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.”
Sheldon said the most recent partnership was about telling the world that Hard Rock is about premium entertainment, which was broadcast globally.
Another ongoing agreement has Messi serving as brand ambassador for Hard Rock, leading up to the March release of the new Messi Burger at all Hard Rock Cafes as part of the “Live Greatness” campaign.
“Messi represents so much for us, a global figure in the most popular sport in the world,” Sheldon said.
The soccer star has nearly 595 million followers across social media, among the most of any other athlete. “A lot of his goals outside the game of soccer, philanthropic or otherwise, are aligned with our brand ethos as well. The partnership with Messi is about more than selling cheeseburgers, it’s a proper representation of the brand to a wider and global audience,” Sheldon said.
Another example was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which partnered with Hard Rock for its 2021 edition after needing a location to shoot safely for the famous yearly magazine feature. The locations ended up being at Hard Rock properties, with photo ops provided by the Guitar Hotel and other locations, and with Megan Thee Stallion on the cover. The Houston rapper performed at Hard Rock Live coinciding with the issue launch, which included an exclusive VIP after party. The partnership continued with Hard Rock Hollywood hosting the Sports Illustrated Awards.
Hard Rock also sponsors the yearly British Summer Time festival at London’s historic Hyde Park, where this year it will erect a pop-up Hard Rock Cafe at the festival site.
The successful brand evolution seems well in hand, but Sheldon says it’s no time let up.
“The transformation is certainly underway but it’s imperative to not take the foot off the gas,” Sheldon says. “It’s not just about having success, but success as a foundation and continuing to build from there.”