The stunning job opportunities created by the Hellenikon project, with an emphasis on domestic human resources, as well as several parameters that define his company’s investment, were laid out by Jim Allen, CEO of Hard Rock International, who spoke to Athens-Macedonian News Agency's (ANA) Dimitris Manolis.
What is driving Hard Rock to Athens? Why does a U.S. company want to invest a lot of money in Greece, especially at Hellenikon?
Jim Allen: I think the greatest reason is that we obviously have been in Athens for many decades and we certainly understand that Athens is a gateway city with literally thousands of years of history and we believe that it is going to continue to be an amazing success in the future.
What are your plans? Could you give us a quick overview of how you think you will build your project?
JA: We are in a process with the other companies that are submitting, and that is due October 4, so we will be announcing all the specifics of our project after that. We are looking to create a world-renowned destination, an integrated touristic resort that does not focus solely on gaming - the focus is on entertainment. That is obviously what our brand has been doing for almost 50 years. We are currently in 75 countries around the world.
You said that Hard Rock will develop an integrated tourism and entertainment complex. Will such an investment be sustainable?
JA: Yes, we certainly recognize the opportunity the Greek government has created by having the casino component, but we think that if there is not a focus on all the other amenities, that’s when it becomes a challenge. And obviously that’s where we have a tremendous amount of experience. As we look at the expansion of our business, this is just a wonderful opportunity for us.
What appeals to you most about this investment?
JA: I think the first thing is, obviously, the city itself, as I mentioned, an amazing international gateway city. And then when you look at the land parcel that we have the opportunity to compete for, the views, the access - it’s just absolutely tremendous. And then when we look at the proximity to other countries, and the ease of access, international air coming in, we think that is something extremely attractive. Most importantly, we have many locations in that particular part of the world anyway, so we have the ability to not just market to other locations - whether it be in London, Spain, the Middle East, Asia - but obviously to all our locations on a global basis, and that’s clearly what we will do.
Lamda Development, recently took over 100% Hellenikon project. How do you see this move?
JA: Yes...that is something that we think is a very positive development. The commitment Lamda and the Latsis family have made is exemplary of the new confidence people and investors in particular have in Greece. We have so many decades of experience in working in foreign countries, with partnerships, with owners, with foreign currency regulations, historical societies, obviously a political process, so when we see a change in structure, that does not create concerns for us, unless there is some issue with integrity or honesty. However we have seen nothing but positives in this structure. We have enjoyed working with the Mitsotakis government and the numerous meetings and discussions we have had with Lamda have all been very favorable. So we want to make sure we are humble, but this is something we do every single day in 75 countries around the world. We know that none of the other organizations that are interested have that experience, and to your point, it’s very important to have that experience in building, designing, working, constructing, with local partners in a foreign country.
How would you assess the bidding process so far?
JA: You know, the government did an excellent job expediting the RFP process and passing the critical ministerial decisions, which are very specific, so once again this goes back to experience. With these types of processes, we’ve competed in and submitted all over the world, whether it be the United States, Australia, London - you know the list is just amazing - so we are very familiar with this type of process. We have complimented the Mitsotakis government, frankly, on the thoroughness of the process.
About this project, when do you think you will be able to deliver the project? How long will it take and how much money are you willing to invest?
JA: We are not 100% sure yet because we don’t know how long it will take the government to make a decision on who they select, and then once that occurs obviously we have to go through our local approvals, but in terms of the construction of a building like this, it will be somewhere between 22 to 24 months, at the fastest pace, and probably 26-28 months at the longest pace.
Do you think that the Hellenikon project can be the next prominent endeavor for Hard Rock following the guitar-shaped hotel in Florida?
JA: Well we are very excited about opening the guitar in South Florida. We certainly think that this building in our presentation - and certainly with the amenities and entertainment that we will be submitting - we are very proud of. We’ve created some great relationships and partnerships, both locally and internationally, so yes, I think this is going to be a ‘must see’ attraction.
What would be the benefits of this investment for Athens, Greece, and the Greek people?
JA: I think the first thing is jobs. Sometimes there is a perception about European casinos, you know, where they are just kind of small, or downstairs and dark, but the reality is that this is meant to be a vibrant, very high energy entertainment and hospitality complex, so whether someone is an upholsterer, or maker of furniture, or a carpenter, or a cleaner, or in technology, finance, food and beverage, hotel rooms, certainly table games, slot operations, compliance - these are just a few of the areas that will have permanent jobs. Then when you think about building a structure of this size and magnitude, then you are talking about thousands of construction jobs, so, amazing opportunities of employment, and most importantly there is most likely an opportunity for anyone that is interested and mainly young people. So someone who has a lot of high education, technology-type experience, financial experience, there are executive and professional positions, but if someone is more skill-based, a labor-type, there is certainly work in the store rooms, the warehouses, culinary jobs - there are so many different opportunities. But most importantly we’re going to give local preference to the Athens residents and the people of Greece. We are also going to have schools to teach people certain jobs that they may not have previously been aware of.
Are you willing to make further investments apart from this project?
JA: Well, I think right now, we certainly made an investment in Athens kind of at the height of the economic crisis when we decided not to leave the country. We decided to build a brand new Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki and we invested many millions of dollars to do that, so I think we’ve already demonstrated we are committed to Greece and Athens and we would focus on that and obviously this new integrated resort as our primary business opportunities at this point. But certainly with the amount of land and the amount of opportunity and the amazing geographic location, assuming we will be successful in the new resort if we were selected, we would always be receptive to discussing some other opportunities.
How has the engagement been with the Greek government and the Greek authorities so far?
JA: As I mentioned before we have enjoyed working with the Mitsotakis government to a great extent. You know, one thing that I’ve learned - in December I’ll be 40 years in this industry - it’s about us giving respect to a local government, most importantly. Number 2, it’s about us respecting the culture of the people that elect the government. So, sometimes businesses become a little bit uncertain in the political process, but because of our vast experience in so many countries, you know we just understand being patient, and working through the process. And, once again, being very humble, a brand like Hard Rock, you know, last year billions of media impressions, we know that will create a positive atmosphere in the city, if we are selected.
Generally, how do you assess the prospects of the Greek economy?
JA: We certainly recognize, globally - not specifically to Greece - that there will be economic downturns as we go through the historical economic cycles, and the good news is that in Greece things have been moving in a favorable direction in recent times. We certainly are aware of the challenges of the last seven, eight, nine years, but I think it goes back to my opening statement - we don’t think the country of Greece, specifically the city of Athens, is going to have a long term problem. We have proven that by our investment in the Cafe in Monastiraki at the height of the crisis and by our efforts now to create a world class integrated resort. Yes, any business or country has to navigate through ups and downs, but we are 100% of the belief that Athens and Greece will be here for another couple of thousand years.
How do you imagine Athens 10 years from now?
JA: I’m very optimistic that if Hard Rock is selected we are going to create some excitement that frankly is nowhere in Europe right now. And this has happened in other jurisdictions where if you just have a casino, its Ok, but when you really create something that becomes an entertainment destination, then people and tourism will continue to flock to obviously enjoy hopefully our integrated resort, but also all the amazing tourism and cultural experiences that are in Athens.