In today’s interview, hear from one of our industry’s top executives on the path that lead him to his current position at one of the newest Tribal gaming properties: the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain, a 20-year vision in the making.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Enterprise Rancheria Tribe and the casino have surpassed their projections. Birtha shares, “I go into every single day with this level of gratitude that I’m just so deeply appreciative for all the experiences I’ve had, for the people I’ve worked with, for those who’ve taken me under their wing and believed in me. And for those guests, that we try to build those hospitality experiences and want them to come here and find this place to be their home away from home. And getting to know them and their families and what’s really important to them and what’s special. That is the core of the hospitality industry. And that is quite honestly what has driven me each and every single day to come to work and just be excited and passionate about what I do.”
The Enterprise Rancheria Tribe dedicated close to 20 years to design, construct and open Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain, which is located 30 minutes north of Sacramento. This landmark destination has become the template for regional casinos in the Hard Rock International portfolio. In addition, this partnership between the Enterprise Rancheria Tribe and the Seminole Tribe of Florida represents the first time an East Coast and West Coast Native American Nation have collaborated together to develop an integrated destination resort. The hotel casino includes a 169-room hotel, 1,600 slot machines and 60 table games, six restaurants, a pool and Body Rock fitness center, and over 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in the Kumi Event Center.
The property opened in October 2019 to critical acclaim and was quickly embraced by guests in the Northern California market. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain closed from March through May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of Hard Rock’s properties implemented their comprehensive Safe & Sound sanitation program to protect team members and guests from COVID-19 upon reopening, and have continued to utilize many of these initiatives; Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain even invested in one of the most stringent air filtration systems in the industry. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain has continued to grow operations since reopening, and its continued success allowed Tribal ownership to begin construction of its Phase II development. This new expansion includes the first Rocktane Gas + Smoke gas station, convenience store and drive-through smoke shop on the West Coast (opened November 2021) and the development of Hard Rock LIVE, a 2,500-seat live entertainment and event venue scheduled to open in late Spring 2022.
TG&H On Air Edited Transcript
Deana Scott, Raving CEO, and Mark Birtha, President, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain
Deana Scott: Hello, and welcome to Tribal Gaming and Hospitality Magazine. You can go to tgandh.com for all the operational insights! Today we have a person with so many operational insights that we’re excited to share Mark Birtha’s story today, President at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain. Mark, thank you for joining us.
Mark Birtha: Thank you for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be with you all today.
Deana Scott: Mark, you have such an interesting career and of course, being with the Hard Rock brand from the Tribal perspective, can you give us a little bit of background about you specifically and, and where, how you ended up in your position today?
Mark Birtha: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you again for the opportunity. I really appreciate it. I’ve had a phenomenal 28-year-plus career going on and it seems to have all happened overnight. Honestly, it’s been an amazing run and, you know, I was fortunate to start my career at The Mirage. I was like a kid in a candy store back in the early nineties, you know, with all the excitement in Las Vegas and everything happening at that time. So I was able to move from there to the Bellagio as part of the opening team and was a food and beverage person back in those days. And so it really opened up my eyes to all the possibilities in our industry, not only on the gaming side, but really more on the non-gaming side too. From there, I was fortunate to move over to the Venetian and had quite a career for over six years.
I was involved with the early Macau days when LVS was one of the first licensees there. And I remember standing in Macau on the Cotai new development area as they were dredging it with Sheldon Adelson, literally, as he pointed out and said, “I’m gonna build a Las Vegas Strip here.” And we all just kind of looked at each other, like, “oh my gosh.” And you know, being part of that experience and my various roles there, from the convention side to the marketing side to development, was just phenomenal. And again, it was a really great time in the industry when so much was going on. And then, you know, I left there to go work on some other development projects, actually joined Marriott, ironically, and was going to build the biggest Marriott in the world in Las Vegas.
And then lo and behold that little recession came along and kind of opened up all our eyes, but it really opened up another door for me then to move on, to work with Casino Del Sol and have my first experience in Tribal gaming with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
In the early 2011 time period, we opened up a 130 million hotel and conference and non-gaming expansion in the midst of what was literally the Great Recession. So to be part of that, with that ownership at that time, was just a great experience. I came back to Las Vegas, worked with Station Casinos and really spent a lot of time in the locals gaming market, which was great experience. And then I got a phone call … I’d been talking to the Hard Rock for quite a while and was able to move to Northeast Ohio, where I was able to work directly with Jon Lucas and more importantly, Jim Allen and, and that whole team to basically oversee the Hard Rock Rocksino property in the Cleveland marketplace.
And as many of you know, after five years of operation, it was purchased by MGP and rebranded as an MGM for over a billion dollars, which was phenomenal. But that then opened up the door for me to come out to Sacramento and open up our first hotel casino that we licensed and managed as Hard Rock International here on the west coast. And so now I work with the Enterprise Rancheria Tribe, and we’ve built an amazing property and it’s clearly been a very eventful last 18 to 24 months. We’ve had some tremendous success and built some great partnerships and learned a lot. It’s just a great, great property, great company, and going on my eighth year with them now. So it’s been, it’s been quite a ride, all that in 28 years.
Deana Scott: You’ve really had a knack for being at properties or places where the industry was pivoting. And I think about where you’re at now at Fire Mountain and that property opened October 2019. So take us back to what you were thinking in October 2019, and then how that has changed over the two years from the world imploding, basically.
Mark Birtha: Yeah. It’s so funny you would even ask that. It’s in our opening speech, I remember clearly saying that, you know, today we open up our doors and we’re 24/7 and we’ll never close them again. And that was October 30th of 2019, and four and a half months later, I was getting ready to close the doors as we decided to work on the pandemic situation and take a couple months off for us to retool. Hard Rock International, again, had a great program that we put together called “safe and sound” that was over 150 pages of information on sanitation and safety from some of the leading experts around the world. And we were the first Hard Rock to reopen as a casino and implemented all these new procedures. But, you know, as we all know, it became truly a new normal and the last year and a half or more now has been continuing to evolve.
Now we’re in an even, in a newer normal now, and trying to learn about what we need to do to be successful in this environment. So to be a brand-new property, literally coming out as a toddler and four and a half months later closing the doors, two months later reopening the doors, seeing amazing business levels and implementing these new procedures. We’re seeing that guests really appreciated all the investment that we were making as a property and as a company to really keep them safe, was something I had never really experienced in my entire career. And that was a learning lesson. And even today we’re continuing to evolve. I mean, we’re all learning in this industry, what it’s like to deal through this newest challenge. It seems like every five or so years, there’s a brand-new challenge of some sort.
And we all take a step back and take a deep breath and learn and grow. This has been a new environment to operate in. And in some cases there have been some positives. In some cases, there have been things that may never come back to the way we used to do business. So we’re all learning, we’re all growing. It’s just about being flexible and taking one day at a time and really making the right decision for the ownership for the company, for the team members and for the guests. And I think if that is your profile and your primary focus, you really can’t make the wrong decisions. We just try to continue to be flexible and move forward.
Deana Scott: And I find it interesting that the pandemic really, like you said, it’s changed so many things and there have been some positive things that have come out of it, just from the idea that we’re really examining the business model and what makes sense. And it’s allowed us to throw out some of those “you have to do because it’s gaming,” which I find refreshing. And it, it feels like Hard Rock International, specifically at your location, you’re still looking at the business and finding ways to innovate. Can we talk a little bit about Hard Rock LIVE and what that is all about?
Mark Birtha: Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad you asked. It’s funny, you know, we literally opened in less than two years. We were able to basically surpass our year five proforma projections. So we’ve just had a really good run here at this property, this market, and it literally provided us the opportunity to kick off our phase two, which started last June of last year. And it’s a $75 million expansion that has multiple phases within the phase. And this is truly part of our Enterprise Rancheria Tribe’s 20 year vision. It took them 20 years of bringing this whole development to life, and they’ve got plans for the next 20 years of how to continue to expand and grow. So we were able to kick off our phase two. The first part of that included our Rocktane Gas + Smoke, which is our gas station, convenience store and drive-through smoke shop.
That opened up in November of last year, 2021. And it’s the first Rocktane. That’s obviously our branded Hard Rock program that we opened up here on the west coast. We’re going to be opening up some offices and warehouse spaces that we needed because we continue to grow so quickly. But to your point, how Hard Rock LIVE is really the cherry on top and, you know, as an integrated destination resort that we’ve tried to create here, that’s really what Hard Rock is about on the casino side is creating these authentic experiences. We have all the amenities, the vibe, the energy, the design, the great team members, great food, great service experiences that really put us at the highest level of hospitality across the industry. Hard Rock LIVE though was the piece of the puzzle that we wanted to do day one, but again, coming out of the box and, you know, getting it open, we focused on introducing that in phase two.
So that venue is going be about a 2,500-seat live entertainment, music venue. It’s a multi-event space. So we can do trade shows and meetings and conventions and charity events, as well as music and comedy and all forms of entertainment. So we broke ground last summer. In fact, we just sent out a press release today about our partnership with Live Nation, who is going to be doing the exclusive booking for the venue with us and is a great partner. We’re going to be opening up these amazing new amenities sometime probably in June of 2022.
Deana Scott: That sounds amazing. I think we are very eager to get back to getting out and listening to music and doing those interactive events. So it’ll be fun to see that come to fruition for so many reasons.
Mark Birtha: Oh, music and entertainment is the fabric of Hard Rock. I mean, it’s our foundational piece. And so having more memorabilia, having live music and entertainment, it’s really something where we’re all excited about and, yeah, that pent-up demand and need is so viable and it’s potent right now, we’re looking forward to having that amenity.
Deana Scott: For you, Mark, as a leader who’s been in the industry a very long time and through many different jurisdictions and positions … what have you learned that you, changes your going forward, given the situation that we’ve been in over the last few years?
Mark Birtha: Yeah. You know, we’ve all done a lot of self-reflection the last year, year and a half. I really feel like I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to work for the companies I work for, to work with the people that I’ve worked with. I’ve had so many mentors and I’ve had the ability now to mentor other people. I think what really has come out of this, I think a lot of us realize it, we just don’t necessarily manifest day to day, is just to a level of gratitude. Quite honestly, whether it’s been our guests, whether it’s been our ownership, whether it’s been the people we work with day in and day out and the highs and the lows, having people out there that support you through everything you do, and having that level of gratitude to me is so powerful.
I look at our ownership here, the Enterprise Rancheria Tribe and all the trials and tribulations that they’ve gone through to get this property designed, developed, built, and opened. And then five months into the pandemic, our organization and our company made the commitment to pay our team members’ full wages, gratuities, benefits over the closure period here in Sacramento. And that loyalty, that gratitude, that appreciation for the team members was so powerful. So when we opened up our doors again, we didn’t lose anybody. And guests were flying back in here, because they really appreciated the fact that we made this financial commitment to build a “safe and sound” program and build all these amenities. So, yeah, you have to be flexible and fluid, because you never know what’s literally coming the next day, and this industry continues to evolve and change around the world.
I go into every single day with this level of gratitude that I’m just so deeply appreciative for all the experiences I’ve had, for the people I’ve worked with, for those who’ve taken me under their wing and believed in me. And for those guests, that we try to build those hospitality experiences and want them to come here and find this place to be their home away from home. And getting to know them and their families and what’s really important to them and what’s special. That is the core of the hospitality industry. And that is quite honestly what has driven me each and every single day to come to work and just be excited and passionate about what I do.
Deana Scott: Well, Mark, we are grateful for you and appreciate you taking some time to talk to us about your perspective, and congratulations again to you, your team and the Tribe on the beautiful Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain. We look forward to seeing the new endeavors come to fruition. So on behalf of Tribal Gaming and Hospitality Magazine, thank you so much.
Mark Birtha: Well, thank you for the invitation and thanks for all that you do, keeping us all aware of everything going on in the industry these days. And open invitation, anytime you want to come up, we’ll be looking forward to having you here.