Jeff Hook, EVP and CMO for Hard Rock International

Hard Rock: "Getting through the compact and launching new games in Florida is a historic feat for the Seminole tribe"

Jeff Hook, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer for Hard Rock International
Reading time 5:36 min

In a year in which innovation and market expansion dominated the gambling industry, Hard Rock, the Seminole Tribe's gaming and hospitality brand, remained at the forefront of both accounts by launching new products, embracing technological change and extending its operations to new markets.

However, one 2023 milestone in particular stands out for the casino and entertainment giant: the launch earlier this month of what Hard Rock calls "a new era in Florida gaming", with the debut of craps, roulette, and sports betting across the tribe's properties in its home state.

As 2023 draws to an end, Yogonet spoke with Jeff Hook, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer for Hard Rock International, to take stock of a year full of opportunities and milestones for the brand.

2023 was an exciting year for Hard Rock, specifically the month of December, with the Seminole tribe launching new gambling options in its home market of Florida. What can you tell us about this milestone?

It's been a long time coming. We've been working on this compact for years and years. Immediately after we finally got the agreement signed off by the governor, Ron DeSantis, and Chairman Marcellus Osceola, from the tribe, some folks wanted to stop the deal; there were some lawsuits out there.

We've prevailed thus far. There are still a couple of hangers out there. The opponents were trying to stay the action of the compact at the US Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court. But the good news is the compact is now enforced.

The tribe is paying the state and has launched the full complement of games from the compact, which added craps, live craps, live roulette, sports betting and mobile sports betting. We couldn't be happier about it. We held a magnificent launch here earlier this month and we saw volumes that I don't think many casinos have seen on the Eastern Seaboard. There's pent-up demand out there for the games that we're offering

Hard Rock expanded its gaming options in Florida this month

What possibilities does this open to the tribe and the state as a gaming destination?

We're excited so far about what the compact can do for the tribe, and it also is a historic milestone that immediately puts Florida in the same league as the world's great gaming destinations.

Roulette is an international game. As we think about the folks who fly through Miami from Latin America to get to Las Vegas, there's an opportunity for us to service them here. In some countries like Argentina, roulette is over 70% of the table games revenue; also in some places in Europe.

What the compact does is expand the horizon for the Seminole tribe. For Florida, which participates in the revenue share, there is the chance to go more global. What we set in motion a few months ago was a global marketing team to tap into those markets that we've seen that historically go to Las Vegas. 

How would you describe 2023 for Hard Rock and the Seminole tribe? Which were the key highlights of the year?

Obviously, the biggest highlight for us was getting through the compact and launching the new games; it's a historic feat for the Seminole tribe. It shows once again that the tribe is unconquered. There always are roadblocks and the tribe just consistently breaks them down. I'm excited to have worked for the tribe now for 15 years.

Late last year, we announced that we are spending more than $100 million a year across Hard Rock and Seminole Gaming to take our front-line wages for non-tipped employees to a minimum of $18 an hour. Some went to 21, and in some cases, there was a 50% increase in take-home pay. They were making $12 an hour and they went to 18. That decision has really paid dividends this year.

A couple of major things happened. One is that our 2023 team member engagement is at an all-time high and our turnover is down substantially. We have happier employees making more money and servicing customers. And as we service customers better, those customers will tend to play with us and stay with us more frequently.

We've always been an employer of choice, but the other thing this decision did is that we set a record for the number of awards that we won through Forbes on this front. We won eight different "Best of" awards for Forbes: Employer of Choice, World's Best Employers to America's Best Large Employers, Best Employers for Women, Best Employers for Diversity, Best Employers for New Grad... I can keep keep going.

It's amazing what we're seeing from our team members and the recognition that we're getting from outsiders.

What are your expectations for 2024?

The expansions in Tampa and Hollywood, which included The Guitar Hotel, were completed just a few months before Covid, late in 2019. And then in 2020, the pandemic hit. Two steps forward, three steps back in some ways. Then in 2021, the tribe signed the compact with the state that would later be challenged and put on hold. The good news is we're past that. We view 2024 as the year when it all comes together.

Perhaps one of the more important things is that over the past three years, the company has stepped up with a major investment in technology. This includes its new worldwide loyalty program called Unity which, when complete in about a month, will connect all 250-plus Hard Rock and Seminole properties in Florida and across 70 countries.

In early 2024, we'll have our world-class destinations in Florida with a full complement of games serviced by employees who are engaged and happy, and all connected to the rest of the world via Unity by Hard Rock.

We saw many technologies and trends gain momentum in the United States this year, such as the use of AI. How prepared is Hard Rock to adapt to these changes taking place in the industry?

The tribe has always been a pioneer in technology. With Class II games, which is what many Native American casinos play on, the tribe was back in the 1990s a pioneer in making what was a bingo game look like a slot machine. That was challenged in court, and the tribe won at the Supreme Court level.

We were the first ones to put in downloadable jackpots about ten years ago, and right now, we're looking forward to the new technologies. We have also won recognitions such as Best Data Warehouse from Computer World magazine, from the Data Warehouse Institute – and this was before a lot of folks were talking about a robust data warehouse.

The tribe has always been a pioneer, and we're now working to be on the cutting edge once again. We're hearing these terms everywhere, and stocks are going up everywhere when you use the word AI. We've certainly jumped into the AI arena with things like chatbot AI and empowered analytics. The other side is being able to use large language models for communication with our best customers, where the solution listens to your conversations with them and can write a relevant response.

Any other trend you see gaining momentum?

The second buzzword that everyone's talking about is omnichannel. We were the first to launch an omnichannel strategy in Atlantic City, which is the second-largest gaming market in the United States. We launched a digital project where you can bet online for sports and gaming, and when customers signed up for an online account, they immediately got a brick-and-mortar account and vice versa.

We were the first ones to do that there, and that paid off in dividends, because now we see customers going back and forth from our online experience to our destination gaming experience. We are now partnered with the brightest consultants in the world to help us take that omnichannel to the next level with Hard Rock Bet, but also all of our Hard Rock venues.

Think about betting on a Kansas City Chiefs game and, at the same time, having something pop up on your experience that offers you a Messi chicken sandwich delivered from your closest Hard Rock cafe. Those are the things that we're working on. We've invested heavily in that, and we're looking for that to pay off over the next two or three years.

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