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Let Me Entertain You

Keith Sheldon • President of Entertainment, Hard Rock International

Let Me Entertain You

When he graduated from Brooklyn Law School, Keith Sheldon knew his heart belonged in the entertainment field more than the law. He had interned at AEG, one of the largest concert promoters in the country.

“I pivoted to what I was most passionate about,” says Sheldon. “I have no regrets.”

He got a paying gig with AEG. During his five-year stay, he headed up entertainment at the XL Center in Hartford and the KFC You! Center in Louisville. He shifted to BSE Global as vice president of programming for the parent company of the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets, and its NBA G League team, the Long Island Nets.

Seeing a candidate primed with experience in venues along the East Coast, Jim Allen, Hard Rock International chairman and CEO, hired Sheldon as president of entertainment for Hard Rock International. In that capacity, he would oversee the entire entertainment portfolio for the company from Sacramento to Atlantic City. His task was to bring the best product on stage.

“There’s no revenue when there’s nothing on stage,” Sheldon says.

Unlike his time with AEG and BSE, at Hard Rock, Sheldon had the entire casino world to deal with—to worry about—a world in which entertainment was a cog in a much larger wheel, not just the wheel.

“Casino entertainment was as much about attracting customers in a broader ecosystem, one that operates 24/7/365,” Sheldon says.

Entertainment is part of a machine. In the arena world, entertainment is the machine.

“You need a hook to bring folks in to play and stay,” he says. “Perhaps that hook is Guns N’ Roses.”

But in the Hard Rock world, it’s also hotels, cafes and touch points, retail collections, music memorabilia. The flagship Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida leads with big events, be it Miss Universe or the Rolling Stones.

“It’s about attracting new customers all the time through entertainment,” Sheldon says.

That means the entertainment needs to attract enough of the kinds of customers who will do more than attend a concert and leave. There are exceptions. The Jonas Brothers, for example, have the kind of mass appeal that crosses generational lines.

“They are an incredible fit into what we’re doing. Those acts have cultural relevancy in the future,” Sheldon says.

Corporate Hard Rock—Sheldon and his staff—works with individual Hard Rock properties on their plans.

“Entertainment is part of the DNA of everything we do,” he says.

Take Atlantic City. The Hard Rock resort is in a competitive environment, competing with Philadelphia and New York venues. The property relies on the big room, the Etess Arena, which holds 6,500 people.

On the other side of the country, Hard Rock in Sacramento will be getting its first entertainment vehicle in the spring.

“We’re excited about that space. It only holds 2,500. So, their programs will differ from the Etess,” Sheldon says.

His department works with his old bosses at AEG, but also with Live Nation, artists themselves, and other content providers. The company seeks the best opportunities for the mix of cash and casino customers who visit the properties.

Sheldon arrived at Hard Rock in the middle of the Covid-19 casino closures.

“From a macro perspective there has never been anything like Covid. It was devastating to the entertainment industry,” he says.

Entertainment is back in a major way post-pandemic.

“I’m optimistic we’ll become stronger than ever,” Sheldon says.

He credits the Hard Rock “Safe and Sound” program for easing the way. “People felt comfortable,” says Sheldon.

Hard Rock requires masks for all staff and back-of-the-house workers. “We do what it takes to make artists feel comfortable,” Sheldon says.

Jim Allen is among Sheldon’s biggest boosters.

“Coming from the entertainment industry, Jim is one of the folks I’ve had to lean on. He educates me on all things I am trying to do.”

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.