May 18, 2022 Sports Betting, Casino

Land-based dreams

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Gaming America sat down with Allie Evangelista, President of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol. The Virginia property is aiming to become a premier destination in the Southeast.

Can you tell us about your professional life up to this point? How did you arrive in the position you are in now?

I like to say that I am blessed. I have been blessed with the right people in my career and the right opportunities at the right time. I was born in Brazil, grew up there and attended college before moving to the US as an adult. I started in the hotel business in Florida. My first job here was as a hotel housekeeper. I cleaned rooms hoping I could make it to the front desk; that was my goal. That happened eventually and I went on to work in the hospitality business, and worked with some great people and leaders. At some point, I got the opportunity to enter the gaming industry; this was in 2006 in the state of Missouri. My first role was in the slot department. So I have been in gaming now for 16 years and, seven states later, I am now in Virginia as the President of Hard Rock Bristol.

Given your history in hospitality,  I wanted to ask which side is more prominent for you, the gaming or the hospitality?

The hospitality industry really opened the door for me to enter gaming. I like to say that when I joined gaming, casinos were really starting to realize that every property had good slots and good table games; and thus began to see the importance of taking care of customers. This is how I got my opportunity to bring my experience in hospitality to the casino. I do not know if one is more important than the other, because you can’t do gaming without hospitality, not successfully, not well and not how Hard Rock wants to do it. Both sides are challenging and both sides are rewarding, I spend most of my time within the gaming operations, as this is the core of the business I have been working in for the past 16 years. This property, though, will give me an opportunity to work in all aspects of the industry.

When do you expect the property to be complete? What features does it have that make it unique?

The property is under construction at what used to be a shopping mall. I am speaking to you right now from the dressing room of a department store. We are super excited for what we are building here. The first stage is to open a temporary facility we hope will launch this summer, and this will focus mainly on the gaming space; 900 slot machines, 21 table games, a sportsbook and a number of restaurants. All of this will be part of the temporary facility while we continue to develop the permanent property. The final location will feature a Hard Rock Cafe and two hotels, a live event space and an even larger gaming facility. This will take around two years to complete. The permanent facility will start at the mall, while the hotel towers will be a new construction.

What do you think the outstanding draw to people in the region will be for your property?

Gaming will be the initial draw. People will come for the gaming aspect but, once we are done with the project, people will stay for the live entertainment, food and other offerings. Hard Rock has a slightly different following to other operators, because we offer live shows and well-known restaurants, among other things. Once all is said and done, people will come first for the gaming but then return for our other showings. Bristol, Virginia, where the casino is located, is literally on the border between Virginia and Tennessee. We are one town in two states. You can have dinner in one state and then pick up your dry cleaning across the street in another. Knoxville is only an hour away from the casino and, as a whole, I think there will be a real following coming to the casino from three different states. This will be the first new casino in Virginia in quite some time, so there is that draw too.

In terms of building the casino, I do not think there was much resistance at all. This has been one of the most welcoming places I have ever lived, with 70% of the population stating that they wanted the casino to be built. It is a community that is excited to welcome new people from lots of different backgrounds.

Do you think the Southeast is lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of gaming?
What could it do to catch up?

I think gaming in general has really expanded in this region in recent years, especially in terms of sports betting. Virginia is just now launching casinos and we are so excited to be part of this. It is true that the Southeast does not currently have as many offerings as other parts of the country, but I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing. As long as things are changing and progressing, there is more to come for this great industry for sure.

Does mobile betting pose a threat to land-based casinos, or will it be integrated?

It will be integrated for sure. I believe in omnichannel. I believe people want different ways of interacting with gaming. Mobile is a new way for the industry to innovate; not everyone wants to drive to a property. However, I do believe this all complements what we offer. Ultimately, it gives our players more options and more access to our offerings.

Lastly, what are your hopes for the property in 18 months' time?

18 months from now I hope we are really getting ready for the permanent property to come. For me it is less about the property, less about our offering, because I know it will succeed. It is more about the community, for when we get into a location where there has not been much economic investment, a casino like ours can really change peoples' lives. From the money that will come in, the jobs or the tax benefits, I can see that this community is going to change from these additions. This is already a beautiful area and I am so excited for the community. 

Watch the full interview below. 

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