By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Attending a press conference this past week announcing a marketing partnership between Hard Rock International and soccer icon Lionel Messi brought to mind my previous visit to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
It was March 11, 2020. Notable because that evening the NBA delivered shocking news it was shutting down operations indefinitely after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19. Within days, not only the sports world but the nation itself was at a virtual standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the afternoon of the day that changed everything, we had lunch at the Beach Club Bar & Grill by the pool outside the Hard Rock’s spectacular new guitar-shaped hotel. Little did we know, it would be more than a year before we would dine out again.
Certainly, COVID is still a deadly menace throughout the world. But with 43 percent of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated and more than half having received at least one dose, venues and events have been able to resume activities that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
That was evident in the celebratory tone for the unveiling of megastar Messi as brand ambassador to highlight the 50th anniversary of Hard Rock International.
Merchandise, guitar and a Messi burger
The FC Barcelona superstar wasn’t present as he was off playing for his national team, Argentina. He did appear in a made-for-Hard-Rock video. Models showed off some of the Messi merch, which will be sold at Hard Rock properties everywhere — they are in 68 countries.
Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, showed off a flashy Messi guitar and disclosed that a Messi burger will be served at Hard Rock Cafes everywhere beginning in August.
Extra napkins with that Messi burger, please.
Of greater interest at the event was the question of when Messi may make his presence felt in South Florida. Big news in the soccer world recently has surrounded media reports out of Barcelona about discussions on a unique 10-year contract for Messi with FC Barcelona that would have him finish his playing career with two seasons (2023-24) for David Beckham’s Inter Miami club in Major League Soccer before returning to Spain in an off-field role.
Messi linked David Beckham’s Inter Miami team
Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas said in an interview with the Miami Herald that he and Beckham have had talks with Messi’s representatives.
Allen was asked whether the partnership with Hard Rock was a step toward bringing Messi to South Florida.
“Well we are aware that there are other rumors. The only thing that I can say is that we would love for the rumors to be true,” Allen said coyly.
Considering Messi is the second-most discussed athlete on Twitter — behind fellow soccer sovereign Neymar — without having a Twitter account, is is easy to imagine what he could mean to soccer in South Florida and MLS as a whole.
Similar to what Hard Rock, an iconic brand in its own right, is banking on as it rebounds from the pandemic.
The Hollywood, Florida, resort had completed a $1.5 billion expansion, including opening of the 450-foot high guitar-shaped and a state-of-the-art 7,000-seat Hard Rock Live performance venue, in late October 2019.
Four months later the resort was temporarily shut down, like travel and entertainment venues everywhere.
Hard Rock still coping with Pandemic
I asked Allen about the challenges Hard Rock faced in navigating through the pandemic.
“Monumental task,” Allen said, and pointed out numerous safety protocols that were put in place, including sophisticated purification and disinfecting air flow systems, before reopening the facility last June.
Many of those safety protocols are still in place, though face masks are now voluntary according to current CDC guidelines.
“Closing this building and this business on a global basis for three months and in some cases longer. … We still have many of our locations that are just not open,” Allen said. “There is like a second wave in many countries in Europe right now and we’re just starting to see the potential to open some of those operations. Many hotels that we had planned to open frankly had to get delayed.
“So it was certainly challenging, but I think you judge an organization by its culture, and our commitment was there.”
I have always enjoyed the cultural connection of the Hard Rock to the music industry since the first Hard Rock Cafe opened in London in 1971. The memorabilia collection has grown to more than 86,000 items on display throughout the chain, now owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
We saw the cast of “The Sopranos” walk along a red carpet outside the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood when they gathered to watch the final episode of the mob drama in 2007.
Seminole Hard Rock expansion a major upgrade
That was in the old outdoor village that was removed to make room for the Guitar Hotel.
The revamped venue is a clear upgrade on the original, including 14 restaurants, shops and nightclubs. At the center of the complex is The Oculus, a light, water and music experience that is Ground Zero for group photos and selfies.
We were impressed with the Bae Korean Grill Bar & Lounge on our first visit to the reopened complex prior to the pandemic. The poolside grill which we tried on our second visit, is casual dining with a great view of the towering guitar.
The biggest improvement is the new Hard Rock Live. The previous concert hall felt more like a gymnasium.
A full slate of shows was canceled in 2020. But after a lost year, theater events are starting up again, with comedians dominating the lineup for the rest of 2021. Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr are coming in August. The first notable music event is Guns N’ Roses for two nights, Oct. 2-3.
But of most interest: When is Lionel Messi coming?