Hard Rock turns up the volume in Florida

NEW YORK—In 2007, Jim Allen, chairman, Hard Rock International, and CEO, Seminole Gaming, toyed with the idea of taking the Hard Rock logo to new heights. A guitar—the signature mark of the Hard Rock’s global brand—wouldn’t just be a symbol of recognition for gaming and entertainment guests, but now, a 400-ft.-tall landmark in Hollywood, FL.

Allen presented the idea of a guitar-shaped building to Steve Peck, associate principal, Klai Juba Wald Architecture + Interiors, who immediately questioned the project’s feasibility.

“We talked about the concept of potentially building a hotel that is shaped in a scaled version of a guitar,” Allen said at a media event at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square here. “At the time, everyone thought we were a little bit crazy—that’s not the first time we’ve been accused of that.”

Peck had a different idea. “The original rendering was just a rectangle with a piece of glass on the outside. I said, ‘No, no, that’s not what we’re talking about,’” Allen said.

Adamant about his vision, Allen got more and more leaders to come on board, including the late Vince DeSimone, founder/chairman of DeSimone Consulting Engineers, also a skeptic at first.

“Vince was never shy about using colorful conversation [regarding the build],” Allen recalled. However, DeSimone ultimately hopped on the guitar bandwagon.

Twelve years and $1.5 billion later, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood has expanded with a guitar-shaped building to house 638 guestrooms and, once completed this fall, will bring the hotel’s total room count to 1,274. The property is scheduled to reopen on Oct. 24.

“It’s truly exceeded our expectations,” Allen told Hotel Business. “I knew it was unique, but what’s funny is when you fly into South Florida, into Ft. Lauderdale airport, it’s so visible. I’ll hear people talk about it and hear, ‘OMG, look at that building.’ It’s really created an amazing amount of excitement.”

The guitar structure has been in the works for some time, also with the help of James Carry, principal/regional managing director, Americas, Wilson Associates, who joined the team in 2014, but whose relationship with Allen extends back 20 years.

“There was no reluctance, but it was completely wild,” Carry said. “I looked at this thing and thought, ‘Who would build a building shaped like a guitar?’ But in real life, it actually looks amazing from the highway… It turned out fabulous.”

Working with a curved structure isn’t cheap—it’s actually quite expensive and comes with a host of design difficulties—but Carry and the team turned those into opportunities, especially with the guestrooms.

Carry assembled a PowerPoint presentation for his client called “Curve Appeal,” in which he detailed the advantages and charm of curved glass.

“We had to create some unique things that you just don’t see [in other hotels],” Carry said. The curved structure allowed for some creativity like more glass in the guestroom, allowing for a more expansive view with much more natural light. “Everyone likes a room with a view,” he added.

Although appealing, Carry has to study drapery in order to control the light. “It created an incredible amount of work on our part because curves are all different shapes, slight and steep curves; it was very challenging from a layout standpoint,” he said.

One design specification was clear from the start—and that had everything to do with the Hard Rock brand.

“When you think of Hard Rock, you associate it with cafés and historic memorabilia. The tendency in the past was that the rooms became characterized by the Hard Rock brand. We tried very hard to create a guestroom that was universally appealing to travelers and as nice as any guestroom found in the world,” Carry said.

The team used millwork and light-colored wood, incorporated modern, crisp and clean-looking decor and opened up the bathroom with sliding panels. “There are only subtle references to Hard Rock,” he said.

In addition to the Hard Rock Hollywood’s expansion, the Hard Rock in Tampa has made $750 million worth of additions of its own, which Allen explained were necessary, specifically in this location.

“With 21 million people—we always acknowledge that it’s good to be in Florida,” Allen said. “Overall, you’ve got seven months a year with great weather. Also, we have a [deal]with the state of Florida that gives us certain rights to offer these types of products that create a semi-monopoly type of situation, specifically in Tampa.”

Hard Rock’s long-term relationship with the Seminole Tribe has made these expansions possible, Allen said, especially given the brand’s current situation at both properties.

“We’ve run 98% occupancy since the day these opened back in 2004,” Allen said. “You didn’t see a lot of our advertising or promoting the businesses because, candidly, we just didn’t have any rooms to sell.”

In addition to the guitar-shaped hotel, the Hollywood property will also have what Allen calls a Bora Bora experience: over-water bungalow rooms on a man-made lake with butler service and private plunge pools, a feature typically found at international hotels. There will also be a 10-acre lagoon-style pool, and the lobby will have Oculus, a water entertainment feature mimicking the Bellagio’s fountains in Las Vegas, designed by the Rockwell Group.

Allen also noted the importance of updating the 7,000-seat Hard Rock Live, the brand’s on-site entertainment venue. “Many times, people forget about the importance of non-gaming revenue,” he said. The Hollywood property will kick off its music offerings with a performance by Maroon 5 the day after the hotel reopens.

“Last year, Hard Rock did 30,000-plus live music shows and, frankly, prior to the Seminole tribe buying Hard Rock, they were not doing live music,” Allen said. “The reality is when we opened the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood in 2004, our first year, we did more than 100 shows. We were committed to music from day one.”

Aside from concerts, the property will have an “entertainment experience,” Allen said, with not just music but theater offerings at Hard Rock Live, and also a nightclub and day pool on-site.

Hard Rock Tampa will reopen on Oct. 3 and will total 798 guestrooms. The hotel will have a gold-plated piano once owned by Elvis Presley, a 30,000-sq-ft. event center and expanded pool.

“You would think we’re a little crazy trying to open two major destination resorts within a few weeks of each other,” Allen said. And, according to him, Hard Rock also plans to officially open its London hotel by the end July/early August and has 31 additional properties slated to open by 2022.

Although the focus will be on international properties for the brand, Allen said, Hard Rock will also open a new hotel in Sacramento, CA, on Oct. 30, just after the Florida openings. “Come see us in November when we’ll be on life support,” he joked.

These expansions in Florida mark the Hard Rock’s long-standing relationship with the Seminole tribe and undeniable presence in the Sunshine State, but the brand does hope to continue the rapid growth, despite Allen’s joke.

“That was the most important thing: We wanted to build not just here in the United States, not just in Florida, but globally and let people know that we have a long-term relationship with the Seminoles in Florida and with the state,” Allen said. “We really wanted to build something special.” HB