“At Elliniko we want to develop an integrated tourism and entertainment complex that will be much more than just a box with slot machines and gaming tables,” explains Jim Allen, the president of Hard Rock International, which is pulling out all the stops in its bid for the license to develop and operate an integrated casino complex at Elliniko in southern Athens. “In our estimate, the whole investment will be significantly higher than 1 billion euros.”
The deadline for the submission of binding offers is the end of September, and Allen is very satisfied with the pace at which the new government and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis are moving ahead with the tender process for the development of the site which previously hosted Athens’ international airport.
Also expressing his satisfaction at the fact that the US Embassy is “always there” to assist American businesses, Allen explained that the very DNA of the American group he heads guarantees cooperation with local communities, agencies and stakeholders as regards the construction and operation of the complex. He added that it is the only entertainment and gaming company in the world that has a high investment grade rating from the three major agencies – Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – which means that Hard Rock International has its own capital as well as the access to capital markets required to fund a large project like the complex envisioned for Elliniko.
Since 2001, Allen has been responsible for all of the gaming, hospitality and entertainment operations of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, one of the most successful casino and resort companies in the world, with seven casino sites in Florida. He also handled the purchase of Hard Rock International by the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 2007, the first buyout of a major international company by a Native American tribe. Furthermore, he led the negotiations on the gaming agreement between the Seminole tribe, the state of Florida and the US Department of the Interior.
Why did you choose to invest in Greece – especially when you have another major project under way in Spain?
We believe that Athens, and Attica in general, is one of the top urban destinations globally. One of the most important cities in the world: a combination of one of the most important ancient civilizations, with an important history, a lot of sea and sunshine, and constantly growing international recognition. It is the maturing of everything we saw years ago, when we came here to open our first Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki – a business that we kept open throughout the crisis, while other international groups were leaving Greece. The Elliniko project has also been one of the largest urban developments in the world for some time now, and we share the vision of the Greek government and the concessionaire for a truly special project that will boost the economy and further promote the city. Regarding the integrated casino resort we are developing in Barcelona, suffice it to say that it’s not the only one, because we are in 75 countries around the world, “running” dozens of projects simultaneously.
Are you satisfied with the pace at which the tender is progressing?
Things have really sped up recently. I’m very satisfied with the pace at which the new government and Prime Minister Mitsotakis are moving ahead with the process for the overall development of the former airport, and I’m also very satisfied that the American Embassy is always there for us. We have been talking about the project and the tender with the Greek state and the gaming commission, as well as with the concessionaire, for a year and a half now, and we’ve also been talking to collaborators in the country, and we are now on the final stretch.
Do you think the regulatory framework and tax model that have been legislated for the operation of the casino are adequate?
We are familiar with dozens of different regulatory and tax frameworks, because we’re active in 74 countries. There is always room for improvement, and we are always open to talking to the authorities about these issues. But I should be clear that we are participating in the tender having thoroughly studied the regulatory aspect, so we have a positive take on this.
And how do you intend to fill such a big resort?
In 2018, we had 150 million visitors to our resorts worldwide, and I believe that through the Reward programs and offers for our customers, as well as through promotion of this particular destination we are developing with new customers, we will be able to bring several million travelers to Athens. In this way we will contribute to the tourism of a truly global capital, Athens, which is already a regional capital.
How do you plan to develop this project in particular?
Within the group, we have a department made up of 75 architects, and we also have very extensive experience with projects of this size. In our recent expansions and developments, we have innovated using advanced virtual reality (VR) programs to optimize our designs, and before the construction begins, we can see every detail of the spaces and optimize them based on our extensive international experience.
How has the cooperation been so far with the Greek groups and authorities involved?
It is an ongoing process that I think it is evolving excellently, with constant improvement in know-how. We are familiar with dialogue and we respect the unique characteristics and traditions of every country, so this has been one of our best experiences so far. We will remain, as always, willing to cooperate with all of the competent authorities and local communities.
What is your ultimate vision for the Elliniko casino complex?
At Elliniko, we want to develop an integrated tourism and entertainment complex that is much more than just a box with slot machines and gaming tables. Entertainment is at the heart of our philosophy, and entertainment means hospitality and music and events and unique experiences and much, much more. Last year, we held over 35,000 events throughout the world, and we will create events like these, with world-class, high-recognition artists – and much more – here as well. So it’s a good thing there is provision for the construction of spaces for events like these – spaces of 300,000 sq.m. at the complex. That’s the difference between us and other candidates and groups abroad: Our focus is more on entertainment than gaming. We are active in 74 countries, with 12 casinos and 27 hotels.
What’s the largest project, apart from that in Barcelona, that you are carrying out right now?
The expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, where, at the end of 2019, we will open the world’s first guitar-shaped hotel tower, as part of a $2.4 billion investment program. That’s one. We have also launched a major expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, one of the largest and most profitable casinos in the world. Growth and development is part of our day-to-day activities. Since its buyout of Hard Rock in 2017, the group has expanded its presence globally from 46 to 74 countries, increased the number of its cafes from 125 to 185, hotels from nine to 27, and casinos from four to 12, and during this time we constructed the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. At the same time, we have launched a major expansion of our international assets’ portfolio.
Can you support so many major investments simultaneously? If you win the Elliniko concession, will you need a partner to help with funding and other things?
We are the only entertainment and gaming company in the world that has an investment grade rating from the three major agencies – S&P, Moody’s and Fitch – which means that Hard Rock International has its own capital as well as the access to capital markets required to fund a large project like the complex envisioned for Elliniko and the rest of our investment programs. Normally, the financing scheme includes 40 percent equity and 60 percent borrowing, and that is about how we expect to move ahead in Athens. Loans will come from the usual sources, such as international banks, as well as from Greek banks if we reach an agreement, while we will probably be joined in the 40 percent equity participation by Greek groups, if that decision is reached. All around the world, wherever we have a presence, we collaborate with local groups. We want to share the added value with local companies and societies.
What markets do you see as most promising for attracting visitors to the casino and entertainment complex?
One area is Western Europe and the rest of the continent, while the Near and Middle East and the Persian Gulf are de facto neighboring markets from which we are sure we will be able to attract visitors to the Elliniko resort. Everyone knows Athens is a wonderful place to visit, and we will add one more very good reason for people to come.
What are the group’s main complexes and what are your plans for the future?
Our future plans for building hotels or hotel-casinos include Berlin, Budapest, Dublin, Madrid, Maldives, New York, Ottawa, Sacramento, Dalian and Haikou in China. Let me also remind you that HRI owns the global trademark for all Hard Rock brands, including the Hard Rock live performance venues. HRI also owns, operates and franchises Cafes in iconic cities including London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney and Dubai. HRI also owns, licenses and/or manages hotel/casino properties worldwide. Destinations include the company’s two most successful hotel and casino properties in Tampa and Hollywood, FL, both owned and operated by HRI parent entity the Seminole Tribe of Florida, as well as other exciting locations, including Atlantic City. Hard Rock Hotels also operate in other exciting locations, including Bali, Cancun, Daytona Beach, Desaru, Ibiza, London, Los Cabos, Orlando and Shenzhen. Upcoming new Hard Rock Cafe locations include Kathmandu, Nepal; Kyoto, Japan; Asuncion, Paraguay; Puerto Madero in Argentina and Chandigarh in India.
Is the tribal council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida – in other words, your main shareholder – up to date on your efforts in Athens? How important is this license to your group?
Those responsible are certainly up to date, and as soon as we heard about the opening of the tender process, we deemed that, under the right conditions, it is a unique investment opportunity, and we immediately expressed our interest.