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Mohegan brand eager to make splash in wake of the Hard Rock Hotel

The former Hard Rock Hotel property in Las Vegas remains on schedule to open before Jan. 1.

Representing its first foray into the market, Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment, run by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut is set to open the 60,000-square-foot Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas later this year.

The refurbished resort will include three hotel towers, a five-acre pool area with a tropical theme, and indoor live music and entertainment area that will have the capacity of about 4,500.

The resort, which will house more than 1,500 rooms and suites, will also feature a dozen dining options, including luxury brands Nobu and MB Steak, according to a news release.

The old Hard Rock, on Harmon Avenue just east of the Strip, closed in February. A group of investors, including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, purchased the resort in 2018.

The Las Vegas Sun recently caught up with Joe Hasson, 64, a gaming industry veteran and former longtime Station Casinos executive who will manage the casino, to get an update on the rebrand and remodeling project.

The last time we saw much coverage on the old Hard Rock was earlier this year when it closed. What does the property look like now?

There’s no stone left unturned as far as reinvention and reimagination of the resort. Virtually every square foot is being touched in order to give it an identity of its own. Construction is ongoing five or six days per week right now. It’s beginning to take shape. You’re beginning to see what’s coming with the emergence of a new and refreshed palette. We’re aiming to reopen late this year in the fall. As best we can tell right now from a construction point of view, we’ll hit that target.

You say you’ve reached out to — or will reach out to — close to 300 former Hard Rock employees to offer positions at the new casino. How much of an advantage will it be to potentially have some folks on staff with some experience in the old space?

It’s going to bring a lot of institutional knowledge and guest knowledge and expertise. I have some people back on board already, and others I’ve been in touch with directly tell me they’re looking forward to coming back. I’ve been in the casino industry and the hospitality business for a terrific number of years and it’s understandable to me that there would be an excitement when a workforce momentarily steps away, then returns.

Many businesses like this, if they’re doing a restart of some sort, they have to assemble a fresh team. Perhaps with a fresh team, you’ll have to teach a lot of what I call choreography. You have to teach people how to work well as a team. Here, that should be smoother and easier because so many people will have worked with each other before as service providers and know the physical property.

Since the Hard Rock closed in early February, the COVID-19 pandemic has unsettled countless lives and put a chokehold on Nevada’s economy. What has it been like going through this reset process in that type of uncertain environment?

This is a challenging time for so many people, not just in this business and not just in Las Vegas. The nice thing for us is that we get to take a very careful and studious look at what the best practices are and what the regulatory environment is. What crafts a safe environment now for both the workforce and guests? We’re taking a careful look at everything we need to do to put best practices in place.

Anything specific that you can talk about as far as best practices?

As we look at our colleagues across Las Vegas, we’re looking at what’s working and that all works its way into our plans as far as how to shape the gaming floor. I won’t spell out all the things yet to come, but we’re working things in. When we look at what others are doing, we might say, “Oh, there’s a good idea.” Frankly, I’ve seen more good ideas in the last 30 to 60 days than you would ever have expected prior to that. With difficult circumstances comes innovation by necessity.

Will the Las Vegas experience be the same after COVID-19?

Las Vegas reinvents itself all the time. Whether it’s with circumstances like we’re experiencing today or the ever-competitive dynamic here, Las Vegas will always reinvent itself. More specifically, I’ve worked virtually everywhere across the United States — destination markets, Native American markets, regional markets and local markets — even in difficult times, Las Vegas is a lot of fun.

People who enjoyed Las Vegas before, I’m confident they’ll enjoy it again. For people who have not been here, it truly is the entertainment capital. There’s nothing like it.

Las Vegas, of course, hasn’t exactly been a traditional hotbed for tribal casinos. What is the significance of Mohegan entering this market?

First, I think about how fortunate I am to have had to manage casinos on Native American soil. I feel fortunate to be able to offer those experiences as part of who I am to the Mohegan Tribe. The tribe has what I’ll call a theory of business that they call the Spirit of Aquai. It permeates everything they do, from business relationships to personal relationships. It’s about being welcoming, cooperation, mutual respect and the cultivation of lasting relationships. Those cornerstones are real for the tribe — that’s how they do business. Now they have the opportunity to bring those cornerstones here and plant their flag, so to speak, in Las Vegas for the first time.

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