One-on-One: Hard Rock looks to expand in EMEA

In May, Hard Rock Hotels opened its first European resort in Ibiza, Spain. But this property is only the beginning of the brand’s presence in the Europe, Middle East and Africa markets, according to Josh Littman, Hard Rock’s director of development in EMEA. 

After years of developing its product in Asia and the Americas, Littman said that Hard Rock could no longer ignore Europe, which he called an “untapped market” for the brand. “Going forward, we’re dedicated to the EMEA region,” he told Hotel Management.

Now that it has “boots on the ground” in the region, he continued, the company is looking to expand in the Middle East as well. “Africa is an interesting place, but there are very few suitable locations for Hard Rock today,” he said. “That said, a lot of change is going on. There are lots of countries that are cleaning up their political and economic conditions.” As the company looks to expand, Littman thinks there are (or will be) opportunities in South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt and Morocco.

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In the Middle East, he continued, there are some places where the Hard Rock brand would not fit at all...but others where it would. A property is set to open in Abu Dhabi in 2017, and the EMEA team is looking for deals in Dubai and other UAE countries. Muscat, Oman and Doha are also good options, he added. 

But cultural values could play a challenge in establishing a footprint in the Middle East. Part of the Hard Rock brand is loud music, which Littman acknowledged is not appreciated by everyone everywhere. “Some countries are too conservative for that experience,” he said.

“There’s not much of a clash in Abu Dhabi,” Littman said, noting that the emirate is more conservative than Dubai, but is still a global market. “People can drink alcohol in hotels and listen to live music...The UAE, in general, is a progressive environment--not relative to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or New York, but there’s a lot of synergy between the Middle East culture and an appreciation for music and lifestyle and the Hard Rock style of service.”  

“It’s important to understand the key drivers in any market,” Littman continued, “and choose a location that appeals to various market segments. Dubai has a healthy mix of business, leisure and events.” To stay competitive in a market like Dubai, he said, Hard Rock should focus on the leisure side, “given that Abu Dhabi is slightly more skewed toward business travel.” With strong demand for hotels in Dubai, Lippman believes that demand is so strong for hotels in region, and location within the core center of the emirate could be successful, whether it’s in the Palm Jumeirah area, the Dubai Marina or downtown Dubai. 

In Europe, Littman said Hard Rock is looking into several cities for future development, but that no contracts have been signed and no specifics can be announced. He did, however, mention popular resort destinations like the Canary Islands, Barcelona, Malta, Germany and non-London cities in the UK. “If you look at the key capital, gateway cities with international resorts, that’s where we're pursuing deals,” he said. 

Spain is especially attractive for development, he added, since the country’s economy makes it ripe for investment. “There were lots of opportunities after the market collapsed,” Littman said. “A lot of assets. Europe has, traditionally, had a much higher percentage of independent properties than the US has.So there are lots of opportunities on the investor side.” 

As it prepares to expand throughout the EMEA region, Hard Rock is looking at all types of properties, from reflags to conversions. Some properties may be new-builds, but Littman noted that these tend to be more expensive and harder to situate in good locations. “In Africa, we’ll probably need to build new properties,” he said. “It’s great to convert and reflag, and it’s faster than a new-build. But it depends.”