IMITATION MAY BE the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t tell that to Robin Brown and Steve Samuels who have this message for Hard Rock Cafe International: Get another name.
Five years ago, the Boston hotelier and developer turned the old Howard Johnson in Fenway into the music-inspired Verb hotel. The name comes from the audio term “reverb,” an effect that makes an instrument or vocal sound more spacious. Not only is the Verb popular among tourists but also among real musicians from U2’s the Edge to pop singer Meghan Trainor.
Now comes Hard Rock — yeah, the aging rock-star of a brand is still around — and it’s looking for a second act with a hotel chain called “Reverb by Hard Rock.” Two locations are slated to open next year — one in Atlanta and another in California’s Sonoma County. Hard Rock describes its new venture as setting “the stage as the next generation of music-centric hotels created for those who refuse to settle for the ordinary by providing a pipeline for their artistic inspiration and creativity to flourish.”
C’mon, it’s just a hotel, but this is how desperate Hard Rock is for clients under 60 years old.
Brown and Samuels, through their lawyer and investor group Fenway Enterprises, which owns the Verb, are challenging Hard Rock’s bid to trademark Reverb, calling on the chain to cease and desist because Reverb is “confusingly similar” to Verb. Fenway Enterprises holds the trademark to “Verb” for hotel services.
It’s bad enough that a company is trying to steal your idea. What’s worse for Brown and Samuels is that it’s Hard Rock.
“Their brand is not authentic. It’s not surprising, it’s not Instagrammable. It’s another one, it’s another chain,” Brown tells me.
“We’re really proud of the work we have done — and the story,” adds Samuels. “We don’t want it to be degraded . . . We are about local, and we are about authentic.”
Hard Rock — a global empire of cafes, hotels, and casinos that started with an Eric Clapton guitar — begs to differ. Reverb “is a hotel concept grounded in the Hard Rock tradition — intended to empower fans to create their own unlike-anything-else experiences,” according to a statement supplied to me.
The company went on to say that it is “confident the public will not and could not confuse the Reverb by Hard Rock brand with the ‘Verb Hotel’ located in Boston. Simply stated, Verb and Reverb are no more similar than Max and Remax, or Bound and Rebound.”
This is the not first time Reverb has been in legal hot water. In 2017, RLH Corp., which operates Red Lion and other hotel brands, sued Hard Rock alleging that Reverb copied its Hotel RL concept. That’s RLH’s play for millennials featuring a hotel with elements like a coffee bar with baristas and “Living Stage,” a place where local artists, musicians, and activists can gather. The suit has been settled.
Five years ago, I got a first look inside the Verb — and the unique pairing of Brown and Samuels on a project to make an old motel cool again. If anyone could pull it off, it would be this duo: Brown, the former general manager of the Four Seasons who also helped build Boston’s Mandarin Oriental, and Samuels, a developer who has a knack for transforming neighborhoods whether it’s Fenway or Dorchester’s South Bay.
The original plan was to raze the squat, mid-century HoJo and erect a hotel/apartment tower to match the other gleaming buildings Samuels had built in Fenway. But he had another idea. How about preserving a bit of the past and adding character to the neighborhood?
While most Bostonians think of the Fenway/Kenmore Square area as synonymous with baseball, Samuels considered the neighborhood as much about music. His Verb hotel could pay homage to the area’s raucous rock club scene of the ’70s and ’80s where joints, including the Boston Tea Party and The Rat, featured “emerging” bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, J. Geils Band, and the Police (before they got famous).
From the get-go, Samuels set out to ensure that the Verb stayed true to Fenway’s rock roots. He even reached out to a friend, the late Stephen Mindich and former publisher of the Boston Phoenix, which chronicled the local music scene, to help curate photos and memorabilia of Fenway’s music scene.
It might be hard to argue brand confusion if there’s only one Verb in Boston but here’s the thing: Brown and Samuels have been crisscrossing the country looking to bring the Verb concept to other cities that have their own music scenes to showcase.
The pair have looked at half a dozen cities in search of the right piece of real estate. Samuels in particular is intrigued by Cleveland, not only because he’s from Ohio, but because it’s the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Let’s face it: People want something nostalgic wrapped in modern comforts of free wi-fi, valet parking, and a heated pool. It has so far worked in Boston, vaulting a HoJo that was #74 on TripAdvisor to #8 as the Verb.
So what’s in a name? To Brown and Samuels, it’s about authenticity, and that’s worth fighting for.