|By Jerry W. Jackson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 17, 2005 - Hard Rock Cafe International Inc. took another major step on the road to becoming a global player in casino gambling this week with the appointment of an industry expert from Las Vegas to the newly created position of vice president of casinos.
Michael Soll, 39, said Wednesday that he sees great potential for the Orlando-based entertainment giant's future in casinos, both domestically and overseas such as in the United Kingdom.
"You're going to see some exciting things from Hard Rock," said Soll, who for the past three years has been vice president of planning and development for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas.
Soll said Hard Rock's plans are in the formative stages, but the primary goal now is to develop a comprehensive strategy to expand the company's reach in casinos as an owner, investor and brand licenser to third-party operators.
"Casinos are not new to Hard Rock, but until now a lot of what has happened so far has been serendipitous. We want to get some real strategy around it, for increasing opportunities and to leverage the brand," Soll said.
A native of New Orleans, Soll previously worked in New York for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, one of the nation's largest hotel and resort companies with a major presence in Orlando. Before that, he was an equity analyst following the gaming industry for Bear Stearns & Co., one of the country's best-known stock brokerages.
With his broad background in hotels, gambling and finances, Soll said he sees Hard Rock as particularly well positioned to grow in the field with hotels, casinos and the profitable Hard Rock Cafes, now in more than 40 countries.
Hard Rock's parent company, London-based Rank Group PLC, is a major player in European gaming, where deregulation efforts are under way to make casino operations there more closely resemble those in the United States.
Hard Rock already has hotel-casinos in London and Manchester, England, and Rank Group officials have said in the past they see more opportunities for growth in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Soll said Wednesday that he sees plenty of potential closer to home, with the opening next summer of a Hard Rock licensed hotel and casino in Biloxi, Miss., where boat and barge-based gambling has taken hold in the past decade.
In Florida, Hard Rock has licensed the brand name to fly over two of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's new, multimillion dollar casinos, in Tampa and Hollywood. By licensing the brand, Hard Rock reaps high profit-margin income without the downside risks of equity ownership, a technique for leveraging the brand that Hard Rock CEO Hamish Dodds has said he particularly prefers.
Seminole casinos technically do not allow full-scale gambling in the style of Las Vegas or Biloxi, because of Florida's longstanding opposition. But the tribes have found ways to mimic the sights and feel of traditional casinos with slot machines and other games that pay significant pots.
Soll said he thinks Hard Rock has great potential to ink other Indian casino deals elsewhere throughout the country where high-stakes, Vegas-style gambling is allowed, and reap even larger profits. "That's going to be a very important segment for future growth," Soll said.
"In Florida, we're in pretty good shape, although that's not to say we might not work another deal here" for an Indian casino, Soll said. "But new and existing opportunities outside Florida are available because many tribes are not yet benefiting from a good brand name."
Soll, who is married and has two children, 4 and 2, has moved to Winter Park and said he finds it "quite a contrast from the desert" landscape of Nevada, where he lived for the past three years. "I love all the big trees. They remind me of my home in New Orleans," Soll said.
HARD ROCK CAFE INTERNATIONAL INC.:
--CEO: Hamish Dodds.
--New position: Vice president of casinos, Michael Soll
--Businesses: 122 Hard Rock Cafes in 41 countries, hotels, casinos, music memorabilia, merchandise, live music concerts and performance venues. Annual revenue: About $400 million.
--Parent company: Rank Group PLC, London.
Source: Sentinel research
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