Steve Bonner became president of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in November, right as the property was staring down the stretch of its biggest expansion in history.
“I walked in the door,” he said with a laugh, “and I was behind by six months.”
It has been a sprint to the finish line, with construction expected to continue right up to the grand opening, but it’s almost all there. This weekend, the Hard Rock will cut the ribbon — or, per company tradition, smash the guitar — on a $720 million expansion aimed at transforming its image in Tampa Bay and beyond. That’s more than seven times what it cost to open the place in 2003. But it’s not hard to see where that money went.
The 562 rooms in the Hard Rock’s new hotel tower more than triple its overnight capacity. It features several new restaurants, a sprawling spa, a pool deck the size of a football field, a concert venue targeting A-list performers, and what might be the single most expensive piece of memorabilia in the Hard Rock’s entire collection: A 24-karat gold leaf piano owned by Elvis Presley.
It is, as the kids might say, pretty extra. And for casual visitors, perhaps a little intimidating.
But those are the customers Bonner will be counting on to help the Seminole Tribe and Hard Rock recoup their investment in Tampa.
“Tampa has always been a great property, a great moneymaker for the Tribe,” Bonner said. “But if you weren’t a gambler, there wasn’t a big reason to come. So we’re going to re-establish ourselves as entertainment. We want to re-establish the Hard Rock brand as the Hard Rock brand, right?
“Maybe the history here has been, ‘Okay, Tampa’s a great market, we don’t have to do much, we do just enough.’ Now we want to do a little bit more for everyone.”
Here’s a guide to what’s new at the Hard Rock.
While not as splashy as the guitar-shaped hotel opening this fall at the Hard Rock’s property in Hollywood, Tampa’s expanded hotel is impressive, adding 562 rooms (including 77 suites) across 14 floors to become one of the largest hotels in west-central Florida. There’s a sweeping, chandelier-lit driveway leading directly into the new lobby — or you can park for free in a garage at the corner of Orient Road and Hillsborough Avenue, where a covered walkway will take you into the casino and down to the front desk via two of the tallest curved escalators in North America. One cool section that most visitors won’t get to see: a top-floor, suite-level VIP check-in area, complete with its own elevator system and gaming area. Basic room rates vary by date, but generally start around $159 per night.
Technically, it’s an “event space,” 30,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space suitable for conventions, parties, poker tournaments and more. But more than half of that space can be configured into the Hard Rock Event Center, a concert venue capable of holding 1,500 to 1,800 fans. That’s technically smaller than Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, but the Hard Rock isn’t treating it like any old club. Rather, they intend to bring in 45 to 50 national, ticketed concerts per year, including up to a half dozen by big-ticket, A-list acts like Keith Urban, who headlines a grand opening concert on Friday. Many of the tickets for each show will be distributed to VIPs and high rollers, but a good chunk will be available to the public. Don’t expect them to last long, though — Urban’s show and one by Smokey Robinson on Oct. 10 both sold out quickly.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Hard Rock is adding four new spots for dining and drinking, including an Italian fine dining concept dubbed Cipresso; grab-and-go coffee and upscale pastries from Constant Grind; and an Enomatic wine shop called the Cellar. All were scheduled to be up and running by the grand opening. The first new spot to open was the indoor-outdoor Pool Bar and Grill, located — where else? — by the pool. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., it offers a full bar, including bottle service, hard seltzer and cocktails on tap, served in little pouches with bendy straws, sort of like oversized, grownup Capri Suns. The food menu is standard cabana-cafe fare: burgers, salads, sandwiches, appetizers and kids’ dishes.
Just off the pool, on the way to the hotel elevator, sits a 26,000-square-foot salon and spa, including a fitness center, hair and nail salon, “aqua lounge” and a new barbershop with free whiskey bar. The new spa features an expanded list of skin and body treatments, including oxygen facials, light therapy and a traditional hammam, similar to a Turkish bath. There are private rooms for couples; down they line they’ll offer romantic activities for special getaways, like one-on-one body painting. Tip: Any spa treatment includes access to the spa’s locker rooms and lounges, which include steam rooms, hot tubs, Himalayan salt saunas and more.
The spa also has a retail store, but more of those will pop up elsewhere. In addition to a new gift shop and location for Rain Maker, offering Native American gifts and artwork, spokeswoman Darien Cobb said the casino may look into bringing outside retailers into spaces that have not yet been developed. That would happen down the road a bit, though.
Already one of the world’s largest casinos, the Hard Rock will add 1,000 slots and 41 table games, though some of them will be placed in existing, reconfigured spaces. Already open are a new high-limit room (minimum buy-in: $100) and a nonsmoking gaming area. The most intriguing new gaming space will sit at the top floor of the hotel tower and be open only to VIPs.
The new hotel’s swimming and lounge area features three pools on a 1.3-acre deck, surrounded by 20 cabanas, hundreds of loungers and two permanent DJ booths. One pool is private, one is adults-only (not that way; get your mind out of the gutter) and one is family-friendly. While the pools are normally open only to guests, the public will occasionally be allowed in for special events and certain weekend pool parties. The pool sits adjacent to the event center’s entrance, with a wall of garagelike doors between them. That would enable the hotel to create a more open indoor-outdoor event space.
The biggest-ticket item by far is Elvis Presley’s 24-karat gold leaf piano. The Hard Rock bought the piano in 2015 for $610,000, according to auction records, and designed the hotel’s gleaming new atrium around it, complete with a pair of Elvis guitars and two of the tallest curved escalators in North America.
But you also can’t miss a costume worn by Lady Gaga during her halftime performance at Super Bowl LI; it sits in the new hotel’s lobby, near outfits by Britney Spears, Bjork, Sammy Davis Jr. and others. Collected near the ticket desk to the new event center are an array of framed gold records, a Grace Slick coat and a Tom Petty guitar. And for scavenger-hunt completists, there’s an item near the escalators on each floor of the hotel — a custom wool Frank Sinatra jacket on 9, a black lace Jennifer Lopez bodysuit on 5, a pink faux fur parka from Lady Gaga on 3 and more. (Of course, as memorabilia comes, memorabilia goes. As part of the casino’s freshening-up, four Kiss costumes that stood sentinel around the former Center Bar are among the items that have been shipped back to storage in the Hard Rock’s vault in South Florida.)
The Hard Rock has been working on a jam-packed, celebrity-filled schedule for its grand opening. Unfortunately, the general public won’t get to see most of it, as several events are either sold out or invite-only — although some fans can win entry to select events by entering at blogs.seminolehardrocktampa.com.
Just after noon on Thursday, skywalking scion Nik Wallenda and his mother, Delilah Wallenda, will perform a high-wire walk between the hotel’s old and new towers. That will coincide with the Seminole Tribe’s celebratory guitar smash, as well as a performance by dance troupe Light Balance in the event center. That night, invited VIPS will party in the event center with Outkast rapper Big Boi and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Friday brings the big Keith Urban concert, which sold out long ago. There will be a $500,000 blackjack tournament on Saturday, though that, too, is open only to invitees. Finally, there’s a VIP-only pool party on Sunday featuring a DJ set by Kardashian-adjacent reality star Brody Jenner.
IF YOU GO
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 5223 Orient Road, Tampa. (813) 627-7625. seminolehardrocktampa.com.