It seems like Mark Birtha was always destined to work for Hard Rock International. That company’s corporate culture fits Birtha’s experience and philosophy toward operations like a glove. His previous experience with companies like Mirage Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Marriott International, Starwood and Station Casinos was prologue to his hiring to run the Hard Rock property in Northfield, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. He quickly made that racino the most successful property in the state. Birtha then went on to develop Hard Rock Sacramento for the Enterprise Rancheria tribe in California. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros in June.
GGB: It took many years for the Enterprise Rancheria casino to get approved and built at that location. Why do you think they picked Hard Rock as the casino operator?
Birtha: It took literally 20-plus years for the tribe to bring this vision to life, and they went through a number of developers. At the end of the day, Northern California is a great marketplace. It’s a competitive marketplace. I think the things that really made the Hard Rock decision—a smart decision on both sides—was clearly the power of the brand. It’s an international brand that everyone knows and really enjoys, and automatically you think of Hard Rock. You know what kind of experience you’re going to have. So that really stands out as a draw for people here in the marketplace.
Did the fact that Hard Rock is owned by another Indian tribe—the Seminoles of Florida—make a difference to the Enterprise Rancheria tribe?
Yes. It makes it very special. And it makes it very special for me to have the opportunity to be a steward of that relationship and watch it grow and continue to perform and excel. And so it’s very fulfilling for me, and very redeeming for the tribe in that sense, in the knowledge that they made a great decision. Now we’re coming up on the fourth anniversary this fall, and we’ve done a lot of great things in a short time, so that really, really resonates.
Your operation in Sacramento has inspired a tribe in Southern California to sign with Hard Rock as well. Tell us about that.
I just had dinner with the chairman from the Tejon Indian Tribe, Octavio Escobedo. There’s a great group of people down there. It’s another opportunity for Hard Rock to continue to grow now in Southern California, in the Bakersfield area. That project will hopefully be starting up sometime soon and will really be a game-changer down there. It’s another exciting opportunity for a tribe to work with a tribe and for Hard Rock to continue to do what we do best.
The Enterprise tribe actually seems to understand the value of the casino goes far beyond revenue, and allows tribal leaders to plan for the future—as they always say, for seven generations. What have they done to establish that principle for their tribe at this point?
The Enterprise Rancheria has made a very strong commitment to their people and to the community. I think it stands to say that they’ve really raised the bar on that expectation. Clearly the casino is the economic engine. It really sets the foundation for everything that they need to do from an infrastructural perspective, whether it’s in investing in their health care, or providing housing, providing jobs and economic development, a tribal development program and training. All of those amenities and tools are out there, including employment for tribal members here at the property. But most importantly, it allows them to begin their business diversification process, and look at additional opportunities to expand the casino to add other ancillary businesses to continue to have their tribal members involved in the business that we’re building, whether they’re learning it or involved in the management or the operation of it.
As important as the great facility you’ve opened in Sacramento is a superior staff that provides excellent customer service. Are there any common threads that go through all the employees that you’ve hired?
One of the key ways is to really hire people for their personality. Clearly having experience is critical, but we can train people for these roles as well. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re at executive level or you’re coming in at an hourly or mid-level management role. And it really sets a very firm foundation for them to continue to build and reinvest in the property, reinvest in themselves, and really share the wealth of all the hard work and the vision. This will provide for at least seven generations. This property will be here and will continue to provide that relief and support and great experiences that will continue to make them successful. So they’ve done a great job in laying down that framework, working with the Seminole tribe, and using their experience for decades of how to do these things correctly over time.
What’s next for Hard Rock Sacramento?
We’re looking to add more gaming space and programmatic things. We don’t have bingo or poker right now. Those are things we’re considering for the future. Obviously, if California gets it right one of these days and passes sports betting and online gaming, we’ll be adding those amenities to the property. Then there are other things like spas and more meeting space. We’ve got 10,000 square feet. I think we need more of that in the future. So there’s clearly a lot of opportunity to continue to expand as the demographics continue to increase here and more and more homes are being built in the area, and more people come to the area. The other unique thing about where we are here in Sacramento at this property, there is a 900-acre sports and entertainment zone that exists, and we sit right in the middle.