Exclusive: HR Bristol President Allie Evangelista

"Hard Rock is 100% devoted to guest experience, that is the advantage we bring to Bristol and everywhere we operate"

Reading time 6:09 min

Hard Rock International is in a continuous process of expansion, especially in the U.S., where it has recently opened Hard Rock Casino Nothern Indiana in Gary, and is now planning a new casino in the Meadowlands racetrack in New Jersey, and it will be opening a new New York hotel near Times Square within the next weeks, also eying future downtown casino licenses there.

In the last week of February, the redevelopment project of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol in Virginia took another step forward with unanimous approval by the Bristol Virginia Planning Commission to acquire required land, and also Allie Evangelista was appointed as the new President of the property, set to open a temporary location by the summer. The opening date for the permanent venue, Virginia's first casino, is projected to be mid-2023 to early 2024.

"I've spent approximately three weeks traveling around different properties that we operate, just to learn a little bit more about our culture and who we are as a company and the product that we put out there. And I'm overwhelmingly excited about the projects here in Bristol," Evangelista tells Yogonet in an exclusive video interview, in which she also says the company is already planning the permanent because of supply chain challenges. She further explains how Hard Rock is partnering with the local community and businesses to leverage their databases and events, as the company gears up to launch the new Hard Rock global loyalty program called Unity. Also, via Hard Rock Digital, the Bristol casino will start offering mobile sports betting in Virginia "much sooner" than the gaming facility opens its doors.

Bristol is in the southwest of Virginia, where there is a tri-cities area that includes Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City in Tennessee as well, an area that is "really excited" about Hard Rock's project, according to its new President. The construction site used to be a shopping mall, the old Bristol Mall, and one of the department stores at the mall is being transformed into the temporary casino, slated to be up and running by summer. Once that is open, Hard Rock will start the construction work on the other side of the mall, where the permanent facility will be located. 

"I think the challenges are what everyone is experiencing all over the world right now. We are on a construction project, so the challenges that we're having are primarily in the supply chain. So even though we are still building the temporary, we are already planning the permanent because of supply chain challenges," Evangelista tells Yogonet.

In addition, Hard Rock Bristol is the first property in the state of Virginia to operate gaming. "So currently we're working with all of our vendors, all of the manufacturers to be able to license them with the state of Virginia. But typically, if you're the first one, you have to work on that. So the next company in opening a casino will have all of that done. And we're certainly working with the regulators to get our internal controls regulations ready to be able to open doors soon. It's the same thing with licensing, not just the project license, but employees, team members, leaders, licensing within the state. Everything is new, not just to us Hard Rock, but also to the state of Virginia."

For the long term, she notes educating people in Hard Rock products as a key goal. "I think that's easy. Hard Rock has a brand that is highly recognized all over the world. So people that have already visited Hard Rock know that the product that we put out is amazing. So from a gaming perspective, it will be a great product. But also we offer second-to-none offerings in food and beverage. Our hotel is first class, as you mentioned we're just opening a New York hotel that is going to be first-class in Manhattan. And with all of that kind of stuff, we'll be coming here to Bristol as well." This includes "concerts, which speaks very highly to this area, which is the birthplace of country music in the U.S."

When asked about target guests, Evangelista explains that Bristol attracts a lot of people every year for its nature alone, NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway, among other attractions for traditional families as well. "So I think that this is not only going to be great for the community and local, but I think that will give people a reason to stay longer and not just for the one or two day as they're passing through, but to really come as a destination to visit and stay with Hard Rock. Now, with that said, because of our location, we believe we're going to attract guests to our property from places like Knoxville which is about an hour and a half away, in Tennessee. There is also Asheville in North Carolina, which is a little bit more south, Roanoke is maybe about two hours. So there is an hour and a half to two-hour drive where there is no access to a gaming facility that we intend to be able to offer first class gaming to people in those areas," she says.

Furthermore, Hard Rock Bristol President explains the importance of a customer database for a new project, and how they are managing to build one. "We need to understand who our customers are so that we can meet their expectations. And the only way to do that is to build a database. The most important thing to do is when you get somewhere local is to understand the market, right? And every market is different, whether it's because of the community or the competitors that we have, but because we're new in Virginia, we don't have a database. We're actually working with Virginia Lottery to be able to start acquiring information from our potential customers just before we open doors, because it's really important to talk to people prior to actually being in operation."

In this sense, Hard Rock Bristol is going to open with the new Hard Rock loyalty program that is being launched all over the world in hotels, cafes and casinos, called Unity (see Yogonet's interview with Hard Rock AC President Joe Lupo). "So that's going to be a great advantage. But we're also partnering with the community and businesses that actually have databases, that have people who come from all over the country to visit them for vacation, for destinations, and we're partnering with them to be able to leverage their events. The Speedway has a race coming up now in April and we have already met with them. We want to be there so that we collect data, always pending the Virginia lottery approval."

Allie Evangelista joined the gaming industry in 2006 as an Assistant Slot Operations Manager in Missouri. She later became Director of Casino Operations and then Vice President of Casino Operations at an Iowa casino in 2014. Five years later, she would become the Vice President and General Manager of the Hollywood Gaming and Racetrack property in Ohio. Her most recent position was Vice President and General Manager of the Hollywood Casino Perryville in Maryland. "I've worked mostly or all of my time, 16 years prior to Hard Rock with publicly traded companies. And the focus on the business is very different than Hard Rock, we have shareholders when we're publicly traded, so we don't focus as much on the guest experience. Hard Rock is completely, 100% devoted to the experience of our guests, whether you are a gambler and you want to play slots and table games, or you just want to have either an amazing burger at Hard Rock Cafe, or you want a very comfortable and luxurious hotel room. All of that is part of what we do, so we don't just focus on gaming, we want to give people the best entertainment. We're going to put out really amazing concerts. And to me, that is the advantage that we bring not just to the area, but that Hard Rock has everywhere we operate," she tells Yogonet.

When it comes to sports betting, Virginia's online sportsbooks closed the year with a $3.2 billion annual handle, the eighth-most among U.S. states. Hard Rock Bristol already has initial plans to capitalize on this vertical. "We are working with Hard Rock Digital to have mobile sports betting here in Virginia soon, much sooner than actually opening the doors for our gaming facility. And we will have a sportsbook retail facility in both the temporary property and the permanent property," Evangelista anticipates.

Hard Rock Bristol has already started hiring local team members and training people. "This is a great opportunity for people to enter the industry, build careers just like mine and so many other successful people in the gaming industry. So I'm really excited not only for what we're going to offer our customers, but also for our community," she concludes.

Watch the full video interview with Allie Evangelista on our YouTube channel.

Juan Ignacio Grille
by Juan Ignacio Grille
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