Lack Of Indoor Dining Is ‘A Deterrent,’ But Hard Rock AC President Remains Upbeat

Written By Bill Gelman on July 13, 2020 - Last Updated on July 10, 2020

Since arriving on the scene a little more than two years ago, Hard Rock Atlantic City has been a brand synonymous with live entertainment.

The Atlantic City casino promised to host live performances 365 days a year inside the multiple on-property venues.

Unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, Hard Rock Live! Etess Arena will remain closed for the foreseeable future. And who knows when indoor dining, along with drinking and smoking on the casino floor, will resume.

But the Hard Rock AC team is making the most of extremely challenging times, most notably putting Safe + Sound protocols in place for employees and guests.

The property reopened on July 2 after being shuttered for 100-plus days.

Play NJ spoke exclusively with Hard Rock Atlantic City president Joe Lupo. The topics ranged from opening weekend feedback to the future of the Atlantic City casino business.

Recapping Atlantic City reopening weekend

Play NJ: What was the mood like last week following the July 2 reopening?

Lupo: It was really positive, much more positive than I could’ve ever hoped for. The employees are ecstatic. People are happy to be back to work.

You know, this is a business where you see a lot of repeat customers, here in Atlantic City, anyway. So after coming here over and over, customers get to know the employees. And this is a real entertainment venue. We get a lot of great feedback about number one, giving customers an opportunity to walk in the door and play and enjoy some of the amenities that we can offer. 

Then, probably most importantly, they gave great feedback on Safe + Sound protocols. Frankly, I received comments like we appear [to be] the cleanest and safest in town. So comments like that, I just can’t be more happy about when I hear that from our customer base. hard rock casino atlantic city

Play NJ: What were the hotel occupancy rate numbers like for the Fourth of July weekend?

Lupo: We have 2,000 hotel rooms. We did not book all of the rooms, purposely. I wanted to understand the volume levels, most importantly for dining. And knowing that we would have a lot of walk-in traffic because it was a holiday weekend, I wanted to ensure that we could provide dining and a good experience for the customers that we had in the house.

So we kept it to 1,400–1,500 over the weekend. And we hit those numbers. We are continuing to book rooms throughout the summer. We have availability due to the fact that we were closed for so long, and there wasn’t that base that was built up over the last three months. So it’s great to be selling rooms now when we would normally be sold out. 

Play NJ: This is the prime season for Atlantic City. What is the employee ratio now compared to what it would be during a typical summer?

Lupo: We brought back 2,200 employees. During the summer, we have 3,500 [people] employed. So we brought back over 60% of the employee base. That includes all classifications: full-time, part-time, on-call. When we have big shows, we have a lot more resources here for the weekend. 

Hard Rock forced to adjust indoor dining plans

Play NJ: Indoor dining was scheduled to resume July 2 at 25% capacity. Gov. Phil Murphy decided to delay those plans just days before AC casinos were scheduled to reopen. Take us through the immediate reaction to the no indoor dining news and how you adjusted your plans.

Lupo: We literally had a staff meeting within an hour of that mandate. I have a great food and beverage team, and we had to make changes.

There was really a lot of quick decisions made to get tents, clean [the two outdoor decks] up. We bought 50 picnic tables and benches, umbrellas, did some cleaning, power washing, painting, hanging up lights, cleaning up bathrooms outside. There was literally 24 hours of work that went into action from Monday evening to Thursday afternoon or Friday afternoon.

The team did a great job. I think that we planned well, and we executed well. We were able to provide, in the end, the buffet, which can obviously put out a lot of food. … [This helped facilitate] the culinary side of things for the outdoor dining on our outdoor balcony. We have two balconies from the second floor that overlook the ocean. You get a nice breeze, overlook the ocean, and we got a lot of nice compliments that people enjoyed it.

We extended seating on the boardwalk for the [Hard Rock] Cafe so we could have more seating adjacent to the building. Very thankful for the city for their help through that process. It was a lot of work, but we didn’t have a choice. We are making the best of it.

Play NJ: Talk about the impact of no smoking or drinking on the casino floor.

Lupo: Number one, it’s definitely a deterrent to our business. And it is not a positive aspect, and it will negatively impact volume.

I think what was important from our standpoint was to be transparent to our customers so they have the right expectation. We put quite a bit of messaging out there to let them know not only about no indoor dining but about no smoking and no alcohol on the floor. So those aspects were not difficult to execute upon; simply put, we just couldn’t do it. 

I think it was more about communication, so the customer had a good understanding of what they were in for. 

Hard Rock’s Safe + Sound approach

Play NJ: Take us through the whole process of all the work that went on behind the scenes to get the Safe + Sound protocols in place. 

Lupo: It was an extremely thorough process. One is we had support from Hard Rock International and the properties that opened prior to us down in Hollywood and Tampa [Florida].

I actually took a visit to Tampa. … I wanted to see and experience what our sister property was doing. I got a lot of good feedback from management down there, the employees, so that was very helpful. 

Second, working collectively with CANJ [Casino Association of New Jersey] as well as AtlantiCare, there was a lot of great information, especially that AtlantiCare was able to provide locally here. [This gave] us a good sense of confidence in what we were doing was appropriate. 

So those two combinations then fell on our staff here. We put together a committee. They meet weekly. There are departmental trainers represented from every department. 

We run casinos; we are not health care officials. We wanted to ensure we received the right guidance. Therefore, we were able to communicate that properly to our employees and guests.

We have gone through extensive training with our employees, and we set up great communication processes, so our employee and guest feedback, in turn, could be presented to this committee so we could make changes or enhancements to what people felt comfortable with.

There was also, very importantly, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on PPE, as well as the thermal imaging that we have here.

There is sanitizer everywhere. We have over 200 sanitizing units. So I think it’s really important to build the trust of the customer. And the only way to do that is for them to see it in action.   

So with our clean team, with our thermal imaging, with our sanitizers, with our plexiglass — I think we have more plexiglas at our tables than every other property as well. We really presented a thorough and safe environment that I am very comfortable is hospital-grade practices. [And] I feel we are the most responsible in Atlantic City when compared to our competitors. 

Hard Rock online casino business is booming

Play NJ: Online casinos took off during the closure. How has that performance reverberated at Hard Rock online casino?

Lupo: The numbers are evidence that all online saw big increases. We had the largest increase of any other online casino last month [256.6%].

There are some properties that are making big, big gains — Golden Nugget, Borgata — so it will be interesting to see what happens now that the properties are reopened. We are going into the summer, when online gaming typically trends down a little bit. …

I think it’s obvious what was going to happen. It was an opportunity for us to grow that database. But in the end, it was at a much greater cost. But you do what you can, and you try and make the best of an opportunity, and I think our online team did that. 

Atlantic City and the road to recovery

Play NJ: There is the possibility that you may not have live entertainment until 2021 at the earliest. How are you adjusting to not being able to offer live entertainment?

Lupo: We are simply not adjusting right now. It’s nonexistent. I would hope that we have some entertainment in our bars and lounges when things open up inside for inside mandates, depending on occupancy and things like that.

One of the great things about the property is the energy that the entertainment provided in our lounges. So that is obviously disappointing not to have. So that being said, it’s important to comply with the rules.

We aren’t going to see increases if we don’t follow the rules. I think we need to ensure that we build that trust with the governor, and provide confidence to the governor and our guests so that we have people start to come back and feel safer once they know everything that we are doing. 

But it’s disappointing not to have entertainment, and it is a big piece of our brand.

The one aspect that we have is the largest indoor venue [Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena]. It seats over 5,000 people. So at 25%, as an example, rate or occupancy level, we could have a show for about 1,000 people. When that’s possible, we will look to do that. 

Play NJ: Atlantic City casinos have this giant mountain to climb. What do you think about Atlantic City’s future and its road to recovery?

I think the industry needs to work together, follow the protocols and build that trust [with] the governor most importantly. If that doesn’t happen, I see some real difficulties for properties operating at 25%, no smoking, no alcohol, no indoor dining.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think [it’s] on us to do our job. And if we don’t, it could be a real tough outcome for some.

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Bill Gelman

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and now NJ sports betting and online gambling.

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