In 2018, when Joe Lupo took over as president of Hard Rock Atlantic City, he had just finished a stint in the same position at Hard Rock Tampa, one of the most successful casinos in the U.S. Due to his many years as an executive at
Atlantic City’s Borgata, Lupo was able to grow revenues, increase loyalty and capitalize on a market he knows like the back of his hand.
When Atlantic City reopened, casinos scrambled due to a prohibition on indoor dining that was announced just before customers returned. But according to Lupo, the properties are making it work. Lupo spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros over the phone for an Atlantic City executive panel to be published in the September edition of Gaming Law Review.
Podcast sponsored by FSBtech.com
GGB: You’ve had a tough time in Atlantic City over the last few months. Why don’t you fill us in on how it’s been going since it opened up in early July?
Joe Lupo: We’ve been making the best of the hand that we had dealt to us. People are pleased with what we’ve been able to provide. It was important for us to be transparent, specifically about what we could not provide. I think that’s been really helpful, to set that expectation.
Here at Hard Rock, we have some great outdoor balconies that look over the ocean, and we’ve set up some great dining for our customers to sit outside. We’ve tried to do the best job we can. We’ve got probably as much Plexiglas around the property as anyone, if not more. We were quick to jump on that. It’s been important that we really impress this—our “Safe and Sound” protocols with the help of our Hard Rock corporate protocols.
It’s been really important that we set that tone, that we’re safe, we do have a clean property, we’re enforcing the wearing of masks. As far as playing, you can play safely and have a nice experience here at the Jersey Shore.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the shutdown. How much guidance did you get from the regulators when the order was given?
We heard a lot of things from the regulators and the governor. Obviously, we were working closely with everyone. We started having meetings the week before, and I got the management staff around the table to anticipate what might happen.
When we did get that notification—I think it was on a Monday morning—we literally were shut down by 2 o’clock that day. It was a tough issue for everybody, but we had good guidance, and we’ve been working well with the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. The governor’s office has been communicative as well.
What was your strategy to stay in touch with your customers throughout the lockdown?
That was really important. We kept on some of our player development staff, and we were in touch with a lot of our customers. Obviously, it wasn’t about promoting the business, it was just making sure they were OK and asking if they needed anything.
You develop some strong relationships in a high-frequency market like Atlantic City, where many customers know how many kids I have, their names, and saw them being raised over the years. You really develop friendships.
Hard Rock has one of the best online casinos in the state. Did you direct people to that if they still wanted to stay active in gambling?
We did if they were interested. We weren’t pushing it too much. Obviously, a lot of people were out of work and going through some tough times. Here in New Jersey, when it started out, New Jersey’s (online gaming) numbers were through the roof.
We wanted to be sensitive to the issues that people were going through. The online team did increase their spending on advertising, on TV and some other advertising mechanisms. But I didn’t think it was the time to push too hard.
It was more about how people were doing, concern over friends and family that we’ve known for years here in Atlantic City.
Another group you wanted to stay closely in touch with was your employees. How did you stay engaged with them through this period?
They’re the backbone, aren’t they? We heard from them a lot. I kept on a few human resources individuals. We really went over and above to try and communicate with them, both through email and direct mail, and we set up some phone systems so they would have direct access to ask us questions. We wanted to hear their feedback and see how they were doing.
We heard a lot of feedback, and we could not be more thankful to our owners showing their support. They wanted to make sure our employees had food on their tables. We gave away over a $1 million in ShopRite (grocery) gift cards over a few different periods. Everyone wore masks, and they drove through the porte-cochère, and we would hand those out. I’m telling you, it was dramatic. People were just in tears and thankful and could not have been more happy.
How much of a curveball were the dining restrictions, which were announced just prior to opening?
We just took a very aggressive approach towards trying to be ready. Cleanliness was not an issue. Our rooms were clean. The real scramble was for outdoor dining. I believe we didn’t get that notice until Monday, and we opened on Thursday. At that time, we believed we were going to have 25 percent indoor dining.
That was a little bit of a scramble to come up with. We currently have three outdoor balconies where we can serve food. Our food and beverage team had our toughest challenge, but they came through and worked hard.
Then it was more about hotel rooms. How many should we book? How many can we feed? What’s the experience going to be like? What about the promotions? People cannot stand on line. They cannot congregate. So what kind of promotions can we do?
We didn’t have a lot of notice—just over a week, but we were able to get the job done. I really could not be more proud of the team for doing so.