In December, more than two years after voters approved Virginia’s first casino, officials of Hard Rock International and the city of Bristol broke ground on the $400 million complex.
When it opens in mid 2024, Hard Rock Bristol will include a casino and sportsbook, a 300-room hotel, restaurants and bars and a concert venue. In the meantime, a temporary casino is going strong, and took more than $500 million in wagers in its first five months.
Presiding over all this excitement is Hard Rock Bristol President Allie Evangelista, whose career ascent—from hospitality intern to housekeeper to casino manager and executive—is nothing short of inspirational.
Born Allie Heinen in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, Evangelista came to the U.S. in 1998 for an internship at Walt Disney World. Despite a degree in travel and tourism, she began at the bottom, making beds, lugging luggage and parking cars, then progressed to a hotel front-desk position. In the meantime, she met Fabio Evangelista, the man who would become her husband. “So I went back to Brazil, packed a suitcase and said goodbye.”
Hotel manager Mark VanBuren, who was about to move on to Ameristar Casino in Missouri, suggested his protégé apply there too. “I had never seen a slot machine in my life,” says Evangelista, who was dazzled by the opportunity, but hesitated.
“I thought it was too good to be true. Why would they want me?” Even so, she adds, “I think you love gaming or it’s not for you—and for me it was love at first sight. I loved the fast pace, the energy. It was like being at a party. And I saw a chance to grow.”
Over the next 15 years, Evangelista did just that, climbing the ranks from slot operations to table games, from casino operations to human resources, then on to vice president and general manager, crisscrossing the country in the process. Along the way, she earned an MBA and a master’s degree in HR management.
“I always said yes to opportunity,” she says.
As for the new Hard Rock, “It has certainly exceeded every projection we had from day one.” The casino will have the usual mix of music memorabilia, and already displays costumes and guitars from entertainers like Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift. As of last fall, its loyalty club had more than 55,000 members from the immediate vicinity alone, and more from around the country. A 2019 study projects that it could generate $3.7 million in new taxes for the city, helping to fund a new elementary school, hire more firefighters, and buy new police cars.
“I know what this industry has done for me and my family and for different towns across America,” says Evangelista. “I know how it can transform a community.
“It’s so gratifying” to watch the new structure take shape, she says. “I wake up in the morning and I cannot believe my life. It’s challenging and very exciting.”
At opening, the property will employ 1,200 people, mostly locals. And many, like Evangelista, will have to start at the start. What will they need to succeed? “It’s very simple,” she says. “We’re in the people business. You have to want to work with people and make a difference in their lives.”
Evangelista thanks the mentors who recognized her potential: VanBuren, without whose influence she would never have considered gaming; Anthony Sanfilippo of Pinnacle Entertainment, who gave her first job as general manager; and Jon Lucas, CEO of Hard Rock, who tapped her for the role in Virginia. “They believed in me and took a chance on me.”
She also thanks her adopted homeland, where she found so much opportunity. “It’s amazing. I don’t take it for granted, and want to open doors for others.”