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Tampa's Hard Rock casino wants to go global — but can it?

TAMPA — The Seminole Tribe of Florida has declared that the fate of its plan to build the biggest hotel in Hillsborough County hinges on the fate of the deal that lets it offer baccarat and blackjack in Florida.

In delivering that message to state leaders, the tribe has revealed its business strategy for the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa:

They want to take it global.

Tribal officials said that the popular casino serves a mostly local crowd from Tampa Bay and Orlando. Those regional customers keep the Hard Rock's 5,000 slot machines and 244-room hotel packed. The tribe said it doesn't market itself nationally or internationally because it doesn't have the room.

"Right now our business model does not allow us to market in those areas," Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen told the Tampa Bay Times this month. "If someone from those areas calls up, we don't have the room for them."

But Bob Jarvis, a professor of gambling law at Nova Southeastern University, questioned that plan. He doesn't think tourists will come to Florida just to visit a casino that can't offer craps or roulette.

"Those people are going to go to Disney," he said. "Nobody is sitting there saying 'Let's go to the Hard Rock.' "

• • •

The Tampa expansion is part of the Seminoles' larger $1.6 billion proposal to also add a new hotel to its casino in Hollywood, Fla. Officials caution that tribal leaders have not yet approved those plans.

The tribe has also said its expansion plans won't happen at all unless state leaders renew the exclusive gaming compact that lets the Seminoles run card games like blackjack. Those negotiations have stalled in Tallahassee.

The price tag of the Tampa expansion was estimated to be up to $650 million. The plan is to build a 16-story tower next to the casino that would add 573 hotel rooms to its existing 244-room hotel.

That would give the Seminole Hard Rock a total of 817 hotel rooms, making the Hard Rock the biggest hotel in Hillsborough, besting downtown's 719-room Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

In the past, the Times has described the project as a second hotel. But officials recently said they actually intend to expand the existing hotel.

The tribe also wants to build a new entertainment venue and add other amenities: a new ballroom, a new pool deck, a new restaurant and bar space for 250 people, and 450 new parking spaces.

The Tampa and Hollywood expansion projects would create 15,000 temporary jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs, according to tribe officials.

The Seminoles were mulling the Tampa project years ago but put it on hold when the recession hit. They said the plan is well into the design phase and they're working on regulatory approval.

"The tribe is certainly preparing as if the (gaming compact) approval is coming," Allen said. "We would take into account not just the agreement itself, but especially the state of the economy in Florida.

"We want to make sure we're very cautious about moving forward. We saw what the crash in 2007-08 did to local businesses and unemployment."

But Allen also told the Times editorial board on March 9 that without a renewed gambling deal, the expansion plan will be halted once again: "If nothing happens, both of these projects are on hold."

• • •

Tampa International Airport's new overseas connections to Latin America and Europe have given the tribe new markets to target. So have new domestic routes to Tampa and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

Expanded air service has fed a record run for tourism on both sides of the bay. The Seminoles believe that, if they expand, they can benefit as well.

"Obviously they're watching the trends as well as anybody else," said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Hillsborough's tourism agency. "They have come to the conclusion that we have become a very, very hot destination."

Allen said expanded air service to Tampa and new hotel capacity could give the Seminoles a business opportunity they haven't had before.

"Because we operate our hotels at 98 percent capacity," he said, "we don't have the ability to market into South America or Europe, into New York or Atlanta."

But Jarvis said it's more likely that those new hotel rooms will be filled by even more Floridians flocking to Tampa's Hard Rock.

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said attracting more Floridians is also a part of the Hard Rock's business plans.

"It's important to remember that the possible expansion would be primarily focused on adding hotel rooms and amenities to attract international and domestic visitors," he wrote in an email. "That might include visitors from other parts of Florida."

Jarvis also doubts the Seminoles will delay or scuttle their expansion plans if things don't go their way in Tallahassee. The tribe has done so well in Tampa, the professor said, they might expand anyway.

"It's something any rational business would do," he said.

That's because Tampa is the most profitable of the Seminoles' seven casinos in Florida. Its operations produced $2.2 billion in total revenues last year — 40 percent of that came from Tampa's Hard Rock.

"Tampa is the crown jewel of the Seminole empire," Jarvis said. "That's where they're making the most money."

• • •

What would a bigger, more popular Hard Rock mean for Hillsborough?

Probably not a whole lot. Tourism is already thriving, and the county is generating year after year of record tourist bed tax collections.

The casino's hotel doesn't collect the bed tax because it was built on sovereign tribal land. Those taxes help fund Hillsborough attractions and Visit Tampa Bay's tourism marketing efforts.

But the Seminoles contribute to Visit Tampa Bay anyway. The tribe has paid the county tourism agency about $80,000 a year since 2004. That reflects the agency's membership dues and how much the Hard Rock would owe the county if it had to pay the tax.

Visit Tampa Bay's ad campaigns often feature the casino as one of the diverse attractions — including Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo and Ybor City — that visitors to Hillsborough County should check out.

But it doesn't appear that the Hard Rock attracts the kind of tourists who would spend money elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

That's because the casino is a destination unto itself. Gamblers may not venture far from the slot machines to see the sights. There are also plenty of places to eat and drink at the Hard Rock.

Still, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said every asset that can draw tourists to the region helps.

"Any visitor is a good visitor," he said, "regardless of where they stay in the county."

Jarvis said the tribe will struggle to attract overseas tourists who just want to gamble.

Those visitors have much better gaming options in Las Vegas, where the world's gambling magnates run destination resort casinos.

"Florida is not a gambling destination," Jarvis said. "It will never be a gambling destination unless you let the Sheldon Adelsons and Steve Wynns in."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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