HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Big guitars, little guitars, guitars are everywhere. You gotta like guitars. Fender Stratocaster, Yamaha Electric, Ibanez.
And the music, it’s always on, blaring. In the lobby, in the poker room, in the restaurants, by the pool. Madonna, Mumford & Sons, DJ Steve Aoki. The music never stops, even if you really want it to, like when you finally make it to your hotel room. Peace and quiet? Not yet. The radio is left on, intentionally, to keep you in a partying mood.
OK, Hard Rock, I get it. So, Boston, are you ready for this?
Hard Rock International wants into the Massachusetts gaming market badly, and it’s hoping three times is the charm. The Orlando-based company, which has five casinos, 18 hotels, and 134 cafes, has been sizing us up for the past four years. Executives have crisscrossed the region scouting out sites and pursuing projects, only to be rebuffed in West Springfield and Holyoke. With Caesars suddenly out of the picture at Suffolk Downs, Hard Rock may catch the kind of lucky break it hopes nobody does in their casinos. The music-themed chain is now among several contenders for the most lucrative casino license of all.
Massachusetts “is one of the last great untapped gaming states in the country,” said Brad Buchanan, chief financial officer of Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment, which owns Hard Rock International. “It has been feeding Connecticut for the past 20 years. It has the highest grossing lottery in the country. It feeds Rhode Island.”
I, like many, thought we left Hard Rock and its shrunken T’s and guitar pins back in the ’80s, along with Molly Ringwald and Rick Springfield. But apparently the brand is bigger and better than ever, thanks to an unlikely business partner: the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The tribe has been a key player in Indian gaming after it sued to keep its high-stakes bingo hall open. The Seminoles’ suit was headed to the US Supreme Court when a similar case was decided. The landmark ruling declared that states could not enforce gaming prohibitions on Indian tribes. That decision paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, allowing tribes to open casinos.
The Seminoles developed the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on reservation land just outside of Fort Lauderdale in 2004, under a licensing agreement with the British company Rank Group. Around the same time, the tribe expanded its Tampa casino under the Hard Rock brand.
Buoyed by huge profits from those two casinos, the Seminoles bought the entire Hard Rock chain from Rank for $965 million in 2007. It was a big deal, the first time an Indian tribe had bought a major international company.
Since the acquisition, the Seminoles have opened three more Hard Rock casinos in Biloxi, Miss., the Dominican Republic, and Macau. One more will debut in Ohio in December, and another is planned in Hungary. (The tribe does not own the Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas, which was the setting of the notorious reality TV show “Rehab” that centered on the security staff’s attempts to prevent alcohol-fueled sexual assaults and other nasty stuff at the resort’s raucous pool parties.)
Neither Hard Rock nor the Seminoles would release revenue figures, but it is likely in the billions. The Seminoles also run five other casinos in Florida. In that state alone, Indian gaming generated about $2.2 billion in revenue in 2011, and the Seminoles operate seven of the eight Indian casinos in the state, according to Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report.
In the gaming business, the Seminoles are known for maintaining a strong balance sheet and operating high-class casinos. They also know how to rake it in. For example, the Hollywood Hard Rock generates net revenue of $600 to $1,200 per slot machine per day, on average — compared with the industry average of about $100, according to casino consultant and developer Gary Green.
Even on a Tuesday evening at the Hollywood Hard Rock, there were easily hundreds of gamblers playing the slots or crowding the card tables. There were regulars and tourists alike, old and young, even families pushing kids in strollers.
In many ways, it’s like hanging out in one giant Hard Rock Cafe. The walls of the casino complex are festooned with more than 700 pieces of memorabilia, ranging from a Carlos Santana guitar to a Bob Mackie outfit worn by Cher. This location has already earned a footnote in pop culture history. It’s where Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith in 2007 was found unresponsive in her luxury suite and later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
This Hard Rock gives a glimpse into what a resort casino would look like at Suffolk Downs. The casino and hotel sit on about 100 acres featuring 2,500 slot machines, about 100 table games, a 500-room hotel, and a spa. There’s also an outdoor retail-entertainment district featuring shops, restaurants, and clubs — including an Improv Comedy Club — and a 5,500-seat theater for live performances. About 4,000 employees work in the complex, about 15 minutes from the nearest airport and about 30 minutes from downtown Miami.
Richard Fields, Suffolk Downs’ largest shareholder, knows this Hard Rock casino and the Seminoles well. That’s because he helped develop the property. The Hard Rock brand seems like a natural for South Florida.
Could it work up North, too?
“If we decide to go with Hard Rock, it will be wonderful for the Boston community,” said Fields, adding that each Hard Rock casino is tailored to reflect the market.
“In order to be successful — no matter what the brand — you have to be part of the local experience.”
The Boston City Council’s president, Stephen Murphy, on a trip to Florida in May, stopped by the Hard Rock here. He was impressed.
“If they can pass the background check and they run a successful operation, that’s what Suffolk should be looking for,” Murphy said.
It’s been a hard luck story for Hard Rock in Massachusetts, but on its playlist is another ’80s favorite: “Don’t Stop Believin’. ”