The Blurring Between Casinos And Traditional Music Venues: Q’s With Keith Sheldon


Over the course of Keith Sheldon’s impressive career, he’s had his feet on both sides of the casino-venue divide. Having previously worked with Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Global, whose buildings then included Barclays Center, Nassau Coliseum and Webster Hall, and now overseeing the Hard Rock’s entertainment division – which includes stages of every stripe across casinos, hotels and more – there may be no better person on the planet who better understands the differences and similarities between the two verticals. 

Pollstar: What are you up to today?

Keith Sheldon: I’m in and out of the New York Hard Rock Hotel, had a couple meetings. Bailey Zimmerman was there in the morning and LL Cool J in the afternoon and the IEBA Conference is there tonight doing a reception, so a lot of good activity.

You were at BS&E Global before Hard Rock would love your take on the difference between the two worlds.  

The lines are getting blurred more and more between the entertainment that is casino-oriented versus a traditional venue. Especially for a brand like Hard Rock, where entertainment has been part of our DNA for 50-plus years doing restaurant stages and hotel properties in addition to our casino properties, where the thread that’s woven throughout each one is entertainment. 

Was your transition from BS&E to Hard Rock a steep change? 

The entertainment business is very much a relationship business. It’s about knowing the acts that could play your stages and making yourself part of every conversation and BS&E set me up for success in that regard. However, looking at different rooms I previously operated, whether Webster Hall, Nassau Coliseum or Barclays Center, it was always about what was on stage, the rink, the court, and you monetize around that through ticket sales, food and beverage, sponsorships, suite sales. Whereas in the integrated resort casino model, entertainment can be a revenue driver, but you also want to make sure that revenue driver is complementing other aspects of the facilities you’re operating, whether those are food and beverage outlets, like full scale restaurants, whether that’s hotel occupancy, whether that’s attracting the right type of customer to the casino floor. There’s so many more kinds of amenities at your disposal at an integrated resort. 

How do these major underplays help further your business?

When you’re operating any venue and doing something unique and special not happening anywhere else in the world, you’re setting up your overall business for success because you’ve become a destination. You’ve become an aspirational room. The artists want to know, “Why are Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica all playing this 6,500-cap Hard Rock live in South Florida and can I play there too?” On the flip side, the fans start to see all these great performances typical of stadiums or arenas and they want that special experience and might travel for it. For us, the ability to offer that unique experience to the customer at large, but also, money-can’t-buy experiences to some of our top VIP customers, is a unique value proposition that differentiates us. 

Is that like when Best Buy gave away CDs just to get you into the store?

We’ve done a really good job of not creating a loss leader product and instead create such a great value proposition through aggressive deal making and also cross booking and looking at brand deals and integrating everything that we do for the benefit of a Hard Rock Live venue in a way that we can monetize that business. So that’s a profit center in its own right. And then when we are able to double dip, so to speak, and create a scenario where people are already casino customers and traveling in from far and wide, that’s the real win-win for us.

Do agents or promoters want to do  tours with Hard Rock?  

It happens on a relatively frequent basis because our rooms are of diverse shapes and sizes in various geographies. It’s not always easy to string together a “Hard Rock Tour,” however, we’ve done it several times and have standing deals with certain artists. We do mini routings for certain tours so it can be a one-stop shop for different types of conversations. 

Living in Southern California, it seems like the casino market is getting more competitive. What’s your sense? 

As the lines get blurred between casino entertainment and traditional entertainment, you create more marketplace competition and as more casinos, especially regional casinos, pop up, it makes it more competitive with the added rooms. But our unique competitive advantage is that we’ve been doing entertainment for 50-plus years and we’re a brand that is able to offer the artist more than just a stage to play at, whether that’s a retail collaboration, charitable endeavor or a multitude of rooms to block book together to simplify a routing schedule.

What do you consider your most impactful business success over the last year?

The campaign we ran with Halsey this past year was a huge success. We created a retail collaboration with Halsey to support charitable efforts during the month of pride. In addition, we had her perform at the original Hard Rock Cafe in London in front of an intimate audience of about 60 people. Then we had three performances with her in Northern Indiana Hard Rock Live, Hard Rock Live Sacramento and also Hard Rock Live Hollywood. We’re just scratching the surface of those types of partnerships.

What projects or initiatives do you have coming up this year? 

We have a lot in the pipeline. We plan to break ground in Athens, Greece, in the near term, we have domestic projects happening in Bristol, Virginia; Tejon (California); Rockford, Illinois and Ottawa, that should be opening in the relative near term as well. Mexico City is close behind. We have big plans for Las Vegas that’s on the development side. And then from the talent booking side there’s a lot of big shows we’re set to announce in the coming weeks and months. Most notably, last week we announced Ed Sheeran coming off his stadium run to do Hard Rock Live in Hollywood on Oct. 22.