Jim Allen, chairman and CEO of Hard Rock International, unveiled plans for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City during a press conference in April 2017. — Courtesy: Hard Rock International
By Joshua Burd
The new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City will open its doors on June 28 — backed by the power of a brand with a global reach in music and entertainment.
That reach was on display in mid-April as the hotel unveiled the lineup for its first several months.
“Ticketmaster told us that they don’t know of any other time that one organization put 60 shows on sale at one time,” said Jim Allen, chairman and CEO of Hard Rock International. “And when you look at the diversity of the acts — from Broadway shows to classic rock, to country to R&B, to jazz to the right mix of hip hop — it’s a very, very eclectic music offering.
“And we’re very excited to re-present the Hard Rock brand in Atlantic City.”
True, the company has long had a presence in the resort town, having operated a Hard Rock Café inside the Trump Taj Mahal since 1996. But its new footprint will be exponentially larger and more impactful: The reborn hotel and casino will be a state-of-the-art, 4 million-square-foot property that Allen hopes will set a new standard in Atlantic City.
For one thing, the new Hard Rock will have an added emphasis on entertainment, leveraging its own vast network of performers to help program the venue. The operator has plans to offer more than 200 nights of music and other acts in its first year, starting with the likes of Carrie Underwood and Pitbull. That lineup also includes midweek offerings, which Allen expects will support other nongaming revenue streams such as meeting business and hotel stays.
But there’s at least one other way in which it aims to be different from past generations of New Jersey casinos: Hard Rock and its local partners, Jack Morris and Joe Jingoli, have made community outreach a central part of their efforts in recent months. Look no further than the residents’ forums that they’ve hosted this year at venues such as the New Shiloh Baptist Church on Atlantic Avenue.
Allen, an Atlantic County native, says that outreach will continue well past the grand opening.
“I stated initially — and we’ve certainly lived up to our commitment — that we think the only way Atlantic City succeeds long-term is a respect from the casinos to the residents and the residents back to the casinos,” Allen said. “I think that separation that was established many decades ago is something that hurt the progress and the image of the town.”
Hard Rock International and the Morris and Jingoli families announced in March 2017 that they would acquire the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal from investor Carl Icahn. A month later, the partnership detailed its plans to virtually dismantle and transform the once-iconic Boardwalk property to create the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
Construction quickly ramped up for what was a reported $500 million gut renovation, as the new owners sought to open this summer. As Allen noted, it’s one of more than 30 hotel projects that Hard Rock is working on around the globe, “so we’re always in the business of building or renovating something.” But he said the Atlantic City property was distinctive because of its scale — with 4 million square feet and 2,000 guest rooms — and the fact that so much of the building “was so heavily themed by the previous Taj name.”
“I think we really took the approach that everything needs to be redone,” said Allen, who reiterated his praise of the original building design. “But being so heavily themed Taj Mahal, literally, we had to go through the whole building, top to bottom, and start over.”
The finished product is slated to include a 120,000-square-foot casino floor, 150,000 square feet of meeting space and 20 restaurants and bars. There will also be a renovated Etess Arena that has been expanded from about 5,000 to 7,000 seats, which Allen said will anchor Hard Rock’s entertainment-centric business model.
He said it was important for the operator to remain humble about the fact that “we’re a new player in town.” But if all goes according to plan, the property should see higher percentages of nongaming revenue than the typical Atlantic City casino.
Those plans hinge on being able to “attract some new excitement” to the South Jersey destination and offering something that goes above and beyond the city’s traditional bus customer, he said. While Atlantic City has suffered from oversaturation in recent years, experts agree that Hard Rock’s brand and focus on entertainment could in fact tap into a new market segment.
“They have a following globally from a specific kind of customer that enjoys an experience with music and that particular type of stay in their properties,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University. “So it’s that kind of customer that may not have had that particular offering available to them in Atlantic City previously.
“I think those are the people that they will be attracting. And they have a very strong loyalty program, so those that have been going to their properties elsewhere will now have an opportunity to come visit Atlantic City and continue building upon their loyalty program.”
Asked if that model could risk alienating any one segment of customers, Allen noted that the Hard Rock brand is in 75 countries and has a 45-year history of serving different ethnic backgrounds, age groups and other demographic sets, adding that “we certainly look forward to having something for everyone.”
One other highly touted difference is the deep ties between the leadership team and the state of New Jersey. Morris and Jingoli are both longtime, successful real estate and construction executives in the state, both with years of experience in South Jersey. Allen, who still maintains a home in nearby Linwood, grew up in the area and started his career in the Atlantic City casino industry.
Hard Rock’s interest in Atlantic City, which goes back nearly a decade, is well-documented. Five casinos closed between 2014 and 2016, as gaming revenue was cut in half from a 2006 peak of $5.2 billion, but the market has seemingly right-sized and casino winnings have ticked upward in recent months.
As Allen notes, “We still think it’s a market that has a lot of opportunity,” but he said “there still needs to be a major focus on beautification of the city — specifically, Atlantic and Pacific avenues.”
One key to long-term success is building the ties between local residents and casino owners, he said. Atlantic City has lacked that type of partnership in the past, which he believes was a major detriment that was exposed when the market began its precipitous decline.
But Allen said he believes community meetings, such as the ones Hard Rock hosted in February and in late May, are a step in the right direction. And the company has committed to quarterly meetings with residents even after the casino opens.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we are committed to continue to listen and also try to help improve, when possible, the overall neighborhood’s reputation of what Atlantic City has to offer,” Allen said, “because keep in mind that when you have four casinos that closed and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that just virtually disappears overnight, that creates tremendous harm for the residents of Atlantic City, whether it be through property taxes, the ability to keep their neighborhoods clean or schools.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Atlantic City was very, very close to a potential bankruptcy. So I also think there is a little bit more appreciation from the town itself that the casinos contributed a tremendous amount of dollars to the overall economic stability of Atlantic City. And it’s important that everyone coexist together with respect and hopefully the ability to grow the image of the town on a long-term basis so that it’s not solely reliant on gaming.”
The new Hard Rock in Atlantic City will open with nearly 4,000 employees, a workforce that was selected from more than 50,000 inquiries or applicants. Allen said the property used a rigorous interview process in order to find individuals who “had the right personality before we got to whether they had the skillset.”
But Hard Rock was ultimately able to check both boxes because of the region’s veteran casino industry workforce.
“Atlantic City certainly has had its challenges, but it’s still the secondlargest gaming market in the United States,” Allen said. “It still is the leader in the world when it comes to a state regulatory environment. I think in all aspects of that part of our business, Atlantic City does as well as any jurisdiction in the world, so there’s certainly an amazing amount of talent there and we’re very, very happy with the employees we were able to attract to the facility.”
Some of the city’s workforce will end up just a few blocks away at the Ocean Resort Casino, the new name for the failed Revel Casino Hotel. The facility is also slated to open June 28 under an ownership group led by Denver-based Integrated Properties, which is also banking on a plan to revive a shuttered property and expand the market.
Allen welcomed the additional competition, casting it as another sign of the momentum in Atlantic City.
“I think we like the fact that there’s another 1,400 rooms right next door, that those rooms are of good quality and that will create that much more energy on our side of the Boardwalk,” he said. “We’re hopeful that they’re prepared and ready and, frankly, that they have a successful opening, because if they don’t, then obviously that’s a negative on Atlantic City and we don’t want to see that happen.”
Hard Rock hopes to add to its own momentum by focusing on the midweek meeting business, which Allen sees as a missed opportunity in Atlantic City until very recently. He pointed to the success of Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center since late 2015, adding that Hard Rock aims to grow the business at its own property with its 150,000 square feet of meeting space.
Its focus on entertainment could play a key role, Allen said. Among themore than 300 acts that Hard Rock plans to have each year, many of those will take place during midweek. That could be an additional draw for drawing conferences to the city.
“If you go to a meeting, group or convention in New York City, Chicago, Orlando or Las Vegas, there are things to do if you are a meeting person, whether it be going to a show or whatever it may be,” Allen said. “So we’re now of the mindset that Atlantic City can compete in those categories and obviously our entertainment lineup demonstrates that very clearly.”
A winning bet
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino will debut in Atlantic City just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for a potential windfall, striking down a federal law that prevented state governments from allowing sports betting.
Jim Allen said Hard Rock was preparing for the possibility, but he declined to comment further in late May out of respect to state and federal lawmakers who were still crafting the new regulations at the time. But he was clear in his praise of former Gov. Chris Christie and other leaders in the state for their six-year quest to overturn the federal ban on sports wagering.
“You had every naysayer there was stating, ‘It’ll never happen, New Jersey will never prevail,’ ” Allen said. “So a compliment to Gov. Christie and his team for, frankly, continuing to fight the fight. So I think that’s number one.
“Number two, we all know that there’s a minimum of $5 billion to $10 billion being wagered on sports bets in the United States. It’s not legally tracked, it’s not regulated and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to create another revenue source for all of the different states.”