RLHC sues Hard Rock, alleges knockoff branding

RLHC's lawsuit alleges the Hotel RL and Reverb concepts look a little too similar.

Spokane-based RLH Corporation filed a lawsuit today against Hard Rock Cafe International in federal court in New York, alleging, among a host of complaints, that Hard Rock copied RLHC’s trade dress for the the Hotel RL brand. 

The suit boils down to Red Lion’s belief that Hard Rock repurposed RLHC’s millennial-focused Hotel RL brand concept into a similarly millennial-focused brand called Reverb. Hotel RL was designed by The Gettys Group, and is known for its coffee culture, trained baristas and the “living stage,” where members of the community can host events, as well as kiosks in place of a front desk and other locally derived touches.

RLHC’s suit points out that The Gettys Group also designed Hard Rock’s Reverb, and claims their newest concept shares too many similarities. RLHC goes so far as to state in a release that the Reverb concept plagiarizes the signature elements of Hotel RL.

“While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it is indeed understandable that Hard Rock would seek to imitate our brand’s success in this market, we are not appreciative of Hard Rock’s wholesale infringement of our trade dress with The Gettys Group’s help,” Greg Mount, president and CEO of RLH Corporation, said in a statement. “Hard Rock’s infringement is particularly troubling in light of its aggressive litigation strategy to protect what it considers to be its own trade dress. RLH Corporation welcomes fair competition, but infringement of our trade dress is unfair and illegal.  We are prepared to defend our brands and will pursue all avenues available to RLH Corporation to ensure that all of our brands are protected.”

Both Hotel RL and Reverb share a barista-focused coffee concept.

Hotel RL’s trade dress is protected by federal trade dress law, and refers primarily to the visual design of a product. As such, trade dress is treated as if it were intellectual property, causing RLHC to seek an injunction against Hard Rock Cafe, as well as “compensatory damages,” Hard Rock’s profits from the Reverb chain and legal fees and costs.

RLHC also stated that it believes The Gettys Group is under breach of its contract “given the similarity in work produced for Hard Rock,” and is seeking to enforce its rights under its existing contract.

The Hotel RL brand currently has seven open properties, while Hard Rock’s Reverb was announced in early June of this year. Some of Reverb’s signature elements include an entry area with digital signage, a pod-focused check-in for self or assisted check-in experience, a barista-led coffee bar, “communal steps” attached to an indoor/outdoor live entertainment area referred to as “The Stage” and local art. The brand’s other features include a co-working meeting space, a “sound booth” broadcasting studio and a customizable sleep space with an extra, hidden mattress.

HOTEL MANAGEMENT reached out to Hard Rock for a statement regarding the pending lawsuit and allegations from RLHC, receiving this in response:

"Hard Rock International believes that the RLH Corporation’s claims are without merit, and will vigorously defend itself against such claims. Hard Rock has more than 46 years of experience and we are the authority in providing premium, lifestyle offerings and authentic music experiences to guests around the world. As this is pending litigation, Hard Rock has no further comment."

The suit places Hard Rock in an awkward position, but this isn’t the first time a hotel brand has been accused of stealing another’s identity. In 2010, Hilton and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide settled a lawsuit that saw Hilton’s executives accused of stealing confidential information regarding Starwood’s W Hotels chain, leading to the failed launch of Hilton’s Denizen Hotels. In the end, Hilton agreed to make a $75 million cash payment to Starwood, and was on the hook for up to $75 million more in hotel-management contracts.

Hilton was also subjected to an injunction prohibiting it from developing a new lifestyle brand for two years. Hilton eventually did develop a lifestyle brandCanopy — in 2014, but the lag in development time was surely a drawback for the company.

While the parallels are clear between Hilton and Hard Rock, the two situations are only superficially similar. The Hilton case was a case of corporate espionage, and dealt with stolen documents (as many as 100,000). Meanwhile, it has yet to be seen if Hard Rock is even at fault for the similarities between Reverb and Hotel RL, but time will tell.