The state of Virginia took the first step to embrace the casino industry on July 8, when “Bristol Casino - Future Home of Hard Rock” opened its doors to the public in a temporary venue, while Hard Rock builds the permanent complex targeting a May 2024 opening at the old Bristol Mall location.
The temporary site has 30,000 square feet of casino space featuring 870 slots, 21 tables, and a sportsbook, all open to the public 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The space includes a main casino floor as well as non-smoking and high-limit gaming areas. It also offers restaurants such as Lucky’s, Brick’d, and sports bar and lounge Bristol Bar.
In an exclusive video interview with Yogonet conducted late last week, Allie Evangelista, Hard Rock Bristol's President, explains this is an area where people had to travel far to get to a casino, and current volumes are in line with an opening there, catering to customers who live within approximately a 90-minute drive, who have been the most regular guests so far. However, the new property has already seen customers from 45 different states within the United States, based on a database of nearly 20,000 people.
"So results are great, while too soon to tell, everything that is open people come to checkout. So we're just waiting for more time to see how business normalizes. What we are seeing is a huge influx of people from out of town on the weekends. So Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, much busier than we would expect Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which is normal in local markets. And probably what we will see long term is a much busier place to hang out on the weekends than it would be during the week," she anticipates.
When further asked about the profile of that customer database, besides Virginia, Hard Rock Bristol is also seeing most people coming from North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. "Also, we've seen a huge number of database guests that were actually within our database already prior to the opening of the property, because they have visited one of our properties across the country, primarily in Florida," she adds.
Furthermore, Evangelista describes some of the key strategies that the Hard Rock venue successfully took advantage of in the first nearly two weeks. One of them is the tier match program, which allows guests to bring the loyalty card from a competitor, any of the properties of Harrah's, MGM or Penn National, and Hard Rock Bristol has been matching them, "because we do know that they will likely visit us more often." Another initiative is Hard Rock's Bounce Back offer, which sees every player in their database get offers to return.
"So we didn't do anything right away to just get people to the door because you have to understand what the audience is and what the demand is. But what we've seen right now, the volumes are aligned with what we would like to see, and we're seeing people return. So what we are doing is already working," she says.
The Bristol property's President also underlines Hard Rock's loyalty program called Unity, which is launching all over the world: "It's very attractive for guests. They actually get to use our points and the rewards that they receive by playing with us anywhere in the world including cafes, hotels and any other casino within Hard Rock. So this is definitely a plus that people are seeing and they are excited about getting into the loyalty program. So we haven't had to do a lot to capture that database."
A differential feature in Bristol and the area in general is the rich offering of live entertainment and strong interest in artists and local music. So Hard Rock Bristol has been featuring local acts on its stage, located in the sports bar, mostly on Fridays and Saturdays right now and extending the calendar now as they meet more people in the area. "The intent is to have live entertainment every day here on property, but that is just who we are as Hard Rock. So when it comes to long term opportunities, we will have a Hard Rock Live on property where we'll be able to book ticketed events in a much larger audience, approximately 2200 to 2500 seats. That doesn't come in until we open the permanent Hard Rock Bristol in 2024," she explains.
The timeline for that opening is May 2024, though this is "a floating date," subject to construction, logistics and other challenges the company will be facing. "I think what is really great about Hard Rock is we're a very fast growing company, so we've been doing construction and projects all over the world, now growing even faster. What we are learning is the more projects we do, the better we get. So the fact that we even opened the temporary facility the way we did when we did is unheard of, just because of the challenges that are out there. So we're still facing them. But we are making decisions for the permanent facility today because we don't want to have those issues." In that sense, she says Hard Rock is securing material and supplies now in order not to have the same problem in the future. "More to come when we talk, but I know we will be open within our timeline and the goal is to do it sooner," she adds.
The temporary location opened a property a little less than 600 team members, and nearly 90% of them have never been in a casino, according to Evangelista. "Hiring has been, and still is a challenge. But it's less of a challenge working for Hard Rock. The brand is attractive by itself. People want to work for us. So when we do a hiring event, which we just had one last week, we have another one coming on Monday (July 25), people just show up and that is great," she notes.
"The one thing I would say is most of our population are local, so we graduated and have most of our table games dealers out of 12 weeks of training, dealing for the first time in a live game on July 8 with live money and real chips and real people. And that can be overwhelming, especially when it's a grand opening that feels like New Year's Eve on steroids. It's busy, it's crowded, and people are excited. And the fact that my team members did that and then came back on July 9th and 10th and every day after that, they are better and better," she describes.
Hard Rock Bristol now has 81 graduated, local dealers, and it also had "a couple of dozens" team members come in from other properties, who were transferred and moved to the area to contribute as an experienced workforce. And a new dealer school started on Monday as well. "We hope to get another couple of dozens of team members just to be able to supply opportunities for vacation and potentially more tables and things like that. So that is usually the biggest challenge for gaming because you can't just hire a dealer who can start next week, it takes a long time to learn, but also it takes a long time with real practice to get really good."
When asked about the gaming floor offerings, Hard Rock Bristol President replies: "Everything that's approved in Virginia that is played everywhere else, we have it. Guests are really happy with the product." But the space is limited because it is temporary. "We intend to, now that we are open, be able to arrange things around to add maybe a handful more tables by the end of the year," she adds.
"From a technology perspective, we do have what you would expect in any property, whether temporary or permanent, we have the jackpot kiosk so we can pay our guests very quickly. But something that is new to me working in this industry for so many years is that we offer our guests a self-pay jackpot opportunity. So if you win a jackpot and you have enrolled in that process where we have your information, we can download all your credits directly to your machine and it doesn't require a hand pay."
She also highlights Hard Rock's Player Boutique, which they intend to offer at the temporary casino: "If you qualify for a gift or something that we're doing a giveaway, you can actually select that at your game at the time you qualify within your play, and it gets shipped straight to your house. You don't have to be carrying a toaster or an air fryer on the casino floor all day long."
Moreover, one of the usual concerns that arise when a large-scale entertainment property arrives in a city is the impact on traffic. To smooth down the potential impacts of the full-scale Hard Rock Casino & Resort project in Bristol, the company hired an independent traffic analysis firm to study Gate City Highway and its surrounding routes and create a new Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) of the area, expected to be complete in the fall.
"We made some adjustments on traffic lights and turning into the property. We are on a construction site for the next few years, so we only have access to a portion of our land here where the mall used to be. So the good news is when the mall was here, there was a lot of traffic already because that was the place to be. So that is already developed. The only thing is we need to manage the construction that goes around where we're operating because we continue to build the facility while we're still having fun in this temporary location. So we have been working with local PD. They have been providing assistance with the traffic on the main road and the study has shown that we are able to support that once we're fully open with no problems based on the volumes that we had before," she explains.
But the other challenge to overcome is the need for more parking. "Our guests have been very patient. We have a shuttle going around on weekends because we do have limited parking and we're having to park a little bit further to the entrance. So we're kind of evaluating and adjusting as much as possible. We move our team members on the weekends so that they can park in a different location and give more parking for our guests. But so far so good, I can't complain. Volumes are there, traffic is not bad. A little bit of a challenge with parking and a lot of support from the community," she concludes.