Trend-setting is no ‘Hard’ sell

Nov 16, 2004 3:47 AM


It was an epiphany that ended up tweaking the persona of Las Vegas, and it changed the city forever.

The guy having that epiphany on a beach in Hawaii, Kevin Kelley, is now the president and chief operating officer of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the resort whose imaginative and risqué advertising campaign aimed at Generation X and Generation Y, has rocked the marketing world.

The essence of the epiphany was that he should dump the plan that would have seen him ending up as a dentist and instead go into the world of gaming. The epiphany had some help: he met a woman on that beach who was in Hawaii on a vacation from Los Angles, and she envisioned him in a casino, and not standing alongside a dentist’s chair. Her views must have carried some weight because he wound up marrying her and they have two children, a boy now 18 and a girl age 9.

Kelly, 46, has traveled a long way in the gaming world since 1973, when he was drawing the worst assignments a 15-year-old pool boy could get at the Flamingo. He started as a dealer at the Hilton, then in relatively short order worked his way up to casino shift manager and then baccarat manager before Steve Wynn called and Kelly found himself at the Golden Nugget.

From the Nugget, Kelly went to Station Casinos, where he would spend 10 years and again was constantly moved up the company ladder. Eventually, Hard Rock owner Peter Morton contacted him and brought him into the hotel, where he will be completing his second year as the guy in charge of perhaps the trendiest resort in the city.

Kelly, a 1975 graduate of Valley High School, attended UNLV but never graduated because he found himself moving up in the gaming industry fast enough without a degree. However, he now says that not getting his degree in business and hotel management was a mistake.But if so, it was one of the few he can recall making in a career that has stretched over 25 years in the gaming industry.

The biggest regrets he can think of in his two-year stint as Hard Rock president is not remodeling the resort’s nightclub, Body English, sooner, and not buying the property next-door, where another tower is planned, a lot sooner.

In contrast, he has no trouble thinking of the most rewarding aspect of his job. He likes to "watch the people on my team grow and prosper. It’s great to watch them elevate their game. That’s one of the best things about the job," says the lanky, boyish looking blonde who has 24 people on his executive team and oversees 1,850 employees at the Hard Rock.

He says that his biggest accomplishment at the Hard Rock, besides record cash flows and record revenues, is pulling the executive staff together to get a game plan that has re-established the Hard Rock as the dominant resort in the Gen X and Gen Y market, which he defines as consisting of people in the 21-45 age range. He is quick to insist that the credit for that accomplishment should be shared. "It’s not just me that makes the whole thing happen."

His biggest frustration at the Hard Rock was in the well-publicized battle the resort had with the gaming regulators over the content of its billboard advertising, which some people said went over the line of good taste. "I’m a glass half-full guy. With the Gaming Control Board, I was disappointed and frustrated that there wasn’t a settlement (sooner), that it had to go to that extent. It was a long and distracting process for us and them as well. I’m sure they would admit that they’ve got bigger fish to fry."

Kelly defends his resort’s billboard campaign as "irreverent and fun, and it speaks to our customers. If we put up $7.55 chicken dinner specials, that doesn’t speak much to our customers. I think our (advertising campaign) is much more varied than other casinos. Are we going to continue to do it? Yes, of course. But we’ll be mindful of the repercussions."

Kelly is also mindful that the Hard Rock’s biggest competitor for the Generation X and Generation Y market is the Palms, and he is quick to say he respects the Maloof brothers, the resort’s owners, "and I think they’ve done a great job of promoting the Palms. But the Hard Rock is the originator" in identifying and appealing to a market that had never been courted before.

"They’ve expanded the market (and) we capitalize on that," he says. But "we think about the customer and not the indicated that he won’t be in a rush to add a European-style topless swimming pool to the Hard Rock’s array of attractions until he hears the customers requesting one. He says having a topless pool "won’t validate us any more than not having one."

His work day, which can extend from 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday but is not that long on other days of the week, is filled with being either proactive or reactive. In his proactive mode, he marshals projects through their different stages to completion. In his reactive mode, he meets with people "who want to do business and (see) if it’s a good fit" for the Hard Rock.

When he’s not working he likes to surf and snow board but much of his spare time is spent with his family, including a son who Kelly wants to get into a quality college in the East and who talks about becoming a real estate developer.

Kelly is much less specific about his own future but he knows the clock is ticking. He says he knows he has about five to seven years left in gaming, and after that he won’t commit himself to any career goals other than to say he will be "selective" and wanting "a different quality of life."

But for now he hopes both friends and opponents would say "I’m very fair, I’m consistent, that I’m a guy with integrity and that I deliver what I say I would deliver."