INTERVIEW: DALE HIPSH, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF HOTELS, HARD ROCK INTERNATIONAL
This June will mark 50 years since Hard Rock’s legacy began. Over that time, the brand has grown from humble beginnings into a global success story. Dale Hipsh, Senior Vice President of Hotels at Hard Rock International, tells Sophie Harper more about the brand’s ethos of building solid foundations for the future and why the brand’s hotel designs start with luxury rather than gimmicks.
It’s no secret that I have quite the sweet spot for the Hard Rock brand. I was a spotty teen with aspirations of world stardom (before I realised I couldn’t actually sing) when I bought my first Hard Rock merchandise. Many a happy memory has been made at a Hard Rock Cafe or Hard Rock Hotel since, including an incredible trip to the famous Guitar Tower shortly
after its opening in 2019. Needless to say I was pretty excited to have an interview with Hard Rock International’s Senior Vice President of Hotels, Dale Hipsh, prior to the brand’s 50th anniversary this June.
“If I did it all over again, I wouldn’t have gone to hospitality school, I’d have gone to design school because I’m great at it, naturally.” Dale smiles broadly as he tells me how he gets involved in each project. “I drive our design teams insane because I insist on being in the middle of all of it. I have no formal training, but I do have a good eye and a passion for it – which is why I love SPACE so much – and I get a lot of joy from collaborating with our teams on creating these hotels.”
Not far off celebrating his 20th year with Hard Rock, Dale tells me how fate brought him to his current position. “It’s a long crazy story… I ended up with a unique talent for design later on in life,” he says. “And I now see things quite visually, which means I’m really great at uniforms and interiors, acoustics, space, playlists, all of those things.”
Dale’s enthusiasm is sincere and he describes his work as being the love of his life. “I always think of it as the early part of my career being the first album, then the second, and I had what I call my ‘Walden Pond’ period – I left for the woods of Mississippi for a year and a month, which is how long I think it took Thoreau to write Walden Pond, I went for a bit of a journey and came home, fortunately. I started working at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood as the VP of Operations right after September ’11.”
He shares snippets of stories and favourite moments from the last two decades and it’s difficult not to feel a little star-struck when you realise who’s company Dale keeps. Even his office walls tell fun stories of shoulder- rubbing. “We don’t get to have any memorabilia in our offices, but that’s a photograph of Lenny Kravitz,” he points behind him. “Lenny is a friend of mine and the photographer is a friend of mine. Then there’s a memorabilia case from Budapest that we had made as a sample and instead of throwing it away, we thought I’d have my shirt that I wore at the hotel opening in Ibiza used as the memorabilia – so I was the celebrity of the moment!”
Of course you can’t talk to the Senior Vice President of Hotels at Hard Rock International without asking about Hard Rock’s incredible collection of music memorabilia. “My favourite piece of memorabilia, hands down, are Jim Morrison’s leather pants,” which are in the Hard Rock Cafe in the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood in Florida. “If you can’t have the real thing, those leather pants will do,” he laughs.
Telling me more about the memorabilia and how each project has its own collection specifically curated, Dale says that as a self-confessed nerd he loves the amount of research that goes into putting a story together for each and every site. “It’s really a labour of love, which is not just my approach – Hard Rock has been doing this for years and long before I came along.” He tells me how they’ll study not just the culture of the country, but of the local community and address. “We go all the way deep. You might go all the way back to discover a hardware store had been on that site back in the 1800s – it’s an absolute historical dig.” Once they have a good understanding of the hotel’s locale and neighbourhood vibe, they’ll build the memorabilia collection. “All of history has music woven into it and so when you begin it’s about paying honour to the site and the process. You learn the history and from there the music emerges, then you bring it from the historical era to the modern era and you have this whole ark of a story that is underpinned by music and the heritage of that location – that’s the starting point.”
Memorabilia is often collected years in advance of that project opening to the public and isn’t simply a process of dipping into existing memorabilia from the vault. “We have an amazingly talented and skilled set of memorabilia designers,” says Dale, “they’re the ones that do all the heavy lifting. We collaborate on the story but they drive the engine of that story, they tell us what’s possible, what exists, and they go out there and collect it and then design the displays and the lighting and the placement, all in concert with the interior design firms.”
The interior design and architecture of each hotel is of great importance to the brand, but Dale is keen to point out that it’s not all about music themes and gimmicks. “It’s very rare that you have the privilege of doing something as iconic as the Guitar Tower, right? From a hotel perspective you go first for a beautiful, contemporary, luxury hotel design. People get really confused about what it means to build a Hard Rock Hotel – not everything’s guitar shaped, not everything’s in the shape of a pick, not everything looks like a drum, so we always say we start with luxury or premium interior design and architecture – that’s the base – and there, once you put the memorabilia into that environment, you almost need nothing else.”
Dale tells me how design studios are selected to work on Hard Rock projects alongside their own in-house team. “It’s sort of an orchestration of collaboration, because it’s not just one set of designers. We have our own in-house interior designers, just like we have our own in-house memorabilia designers, but we don’t drive interiors, we work with the best and the brightest and we have a shortlist from the likes of Gensler, Jeffery Beers and Associates, Rockwell – we have the privilege of working with some of the best in the world. We prefer to stick with designers we’ve worked with before, designers that know us and understand the brand, that have the shorthand of our language, that have been told the long stories and gone through the process. There’s a first time for everything though,” he adds. “The firms we work with are on the list but there would have been a first time at some point, so we’re not rigid in that we only work with a handful of premier-level architects and interior designers. We are absolutely open to collaborate, especially when you’re working around the globe like we do, but we do make certain we’re working with firms that have a background in luxury or premium hospitality as a starting point.”
In addition, Dale says how important it is that they make sure their teams don’t ‘guild the lily’. “You don’t need to keep adding stuff to the building because the memorabilia tells the story and the soundtrack amplifies it. Once you’ve got the vibe, you’ve got the music, you’ve got the memo, and you’ve got a beautifully designed hotel facility from a luxury perspective, it feels just about right. If you come at it trying to be ‘Hard Rock’ and the carpet is leopard print and everything looks like a drum façade or the chandelier is a saxophone or the front desk is built out of drumsticks, really quickly that gets to be too much. We’ve found the sweet spot is luxury. Once you’ve layered the memo and put in a great soundtrack, you’re almost always pitch perfect – as long as you’ve localised it and you’re not just reading it from a script, you’ve actually written that story bespoke for the destination so that it has that authentic voice and that sense of reality – that really separates us from everybody else.”
Hard Rock is a brand crafted on its links to the music industry, but a large part of the brand’s appeal is that it’s meant for everyone to enjoy, not just stalwart rock fans. “There are really two things that tap into your primordial brain, and that’s scent and music,” Dale says. “We came out of caves making noise and making music and that’s a universal truth. Every culture has its own unique backbeat and rhythm – its own syncopation. You find that when you tell a great story about that music, if you’re a local person it resonates with you, and if you’re a traveller learning the authenticity and the realness of that journey and that music really creates an amazing experience for our guests. Music is the universal elixir, everyone loves music, so for us that’s the space that we own and we’re devoted to the process.”
Devotion is a big topic for the brand, not only to its customers and fanbase, but to its team as well. The events of the last 18 months have been a true test of grit and determination for many companies, and Dale tells me with pride how Hard Rock has gone above and beyond to take care of its family during a time of real crisis. “It would be inappropriate to be overly excited about it because it’s been so devastating. I have to tell you though, working for Hard Rock, it’s been the very best time of my career because we all worked through the whole pandemic. Hard Rock International spent $90 million keeping everyone employed and we all got to work – we worked from home and we were isolated and all had to deal with that, but we all worked.”
Over the course of the last year, Hard Rock has created its Safe & Sound programme to ensure everyone working at, or visiting, a Hard Rock property can feel assured that their health and safety is top priority. “We’re so proud of it,” Dale says, “and it’s been so well received by our guests. One of our team members from the hotel division came up with the idea from that Capital Cities track…” at which point Dale bursts into song, “…and we felt that having a song playing in the back of our heads and being inspired by music, we could create a programme that’s true to the roots of Hard Rock.”
Created in conjunction with Ecolab, the National Science Foundation, and the CDC, Hard Rock set about interpreting what exactly safe and sound meant. “We had great advisors and it’s been a differentiator for us. It wasn’t easy, not everyone in the world is happy to have their temperature taken and to be socially distanced and be required to wear a mask, so we had a lot of work to do around the world – to train the employees, to make sure they were being compliant with Safe & Sound but also to help them interact with guests that were perhaps a little resistant to it. We’ve stood our ground all the way through and have become known for our safe space and, candidly, we don’t put up with any bull – it’s our way or the highway – if you don’t want to be part of the solution we’re just as happy for you to go somewhere else.”
Dale is confident that the pandemic hasn’t done irreparable damage to the industry, “I believe the hospitality industry is going to explode, like a rocket ship!” he says. “There’s so much pent-up demand to go on vacation, to get out and go, so I don’t think it’s going to be this long slog to recovery, it’ll take longer for the group travel and business side, but the leisure side of things I think is going to exceed our expectations. So our job is to be ready to catch that demand and to make sure that we’re providing an amazingly impactful and memorable experience.” And with new hotel openings storming forward, it’s easy to follow Dale’s optimism and start getting excited about travelling again.
“We’re opening in Madrid and Budapest this year, and the hotels are beautiful. Situated in the prime location in the heart of the vibrant city, Hard Rock Hotel Madrid is located at the golden triangle of art in Madrid. Budapest is another jewel in the crown – these little boutique hotels are so beautifully designed and well curated. In Budapest we’re right in the theatre district, near the opera house right on the edge of what use to be the ruin bar district, so it has a very cool vibe.” He adds excitedly: “Then there’s my life’s work, the Hard Rock New York. Of everything I’ve done in my whole career this is the pinnacle of that and we open in March 2022! Again, we did a lot of research for each project and how we were going to breathe life into the hotels and what filters we were going to use. For Madrid we chose La Movida Madrileña – this amazing movement in Spain during the late ’70s and ’80s, which was just such amazing fun to discover. We have a good time being able to hang out in these cool locations and go out to every restaurant and every bar and every concert, and be a tourist and soak it all in and then spin it back out.”
June marks Hard Rock’s 50th anniversary and although they can’t go too crazy with celebrations just yet, Dale hints at some exciting plans but mainly expresses his respect on reflection of just how far the brand has come. “We’re the child of two amazing parents. One of the parents being the founders, Isaac and Peter, who came back from a trip to India with the mottos ‘love all, serve all, take time to be kind, save the planet’ combined with the Seminole Tribe of Florida who, as a native American tribe have a connection to the land and to family and to long-term strategies in relation to it. There’s a real sense of family and a real sense of investing for the future. The Seminole Tribe of Florida doesn’t think in terms of second quarter returns and third quarter returns or the stock price,” he explains, “they think generational: they think about their grandchildren and they think about the long term. Because of that approach they have a strategy of investing in the company and in the people who work for the company that really supports what Peter and Isaac came back from India with 50 years ago. It manifests itself in a way where our employees are very well looked after and in turn our team is quite superior at looking after our guests, which makes for an environment where we’re all really happy.”
Dale’s hopes for Hard Rock are essentially that the team – the family – keeps up the good work. “We’re very privileged to have a fanbase in all of our hotels, they really support us, so I just want to keep meeting the moment and grow. The work I do, the work we do today; it’s just the beginning. We’re really building Hard Rock Hotels for the grandchildren of the tribal members that are now running the council. In another 50 years Hard Rock Hotels will really be something beautiful to behold. All we need is to keep doing what we’re doing now and it’s going to be pretty amazing. We’re just at the beginning of a journey, we’re the first chapter and our goal is to leave a really solid foundation that others can spring from. It’s such a privilege and so much fun – it’s a really great thing to get up to do every day.”