Duncan McKenzie, president and general manager, Hard Rock Biloxi



As the Hard Rock's new president and general manager, what are your aspirations for the property?

First of all, given our brand and location, the great facility and people we’ve been able to hire, we should clearly make great progress this first year. I’m looking forward to making that progress. Certainly, we should be number one in the market for our size. We’ve got such a great product here.

How do you see the Hard Rock being positioned today?

I think, currently, we are becoming a much stronger regional destination and have regional recognition. Our brand is the strongest on the coast, and it certainly has global recognition. I think Hard Rock Biloxi and the city of Biloxi itself will eventually become a national destination.

Let's talk about the Hard Rock customer. What is your demographic?

The Hard Rock motto is Love All, Serve All, and to me, that means inclusiveness. What we’ve tried to do is make everybody feel like they’re wanted and welcome here at the Hard Rock Biloxi. We are looking at all ages and types of people.

How do you mix that out? Do you have different offerings for, say, the baby boomers versus the younger hipsters?

Sure. The reality is we were all Hard Rockers at one time in our life, and we are all still Hard Rockers in our own particular way. We’ve got to make the types of offers that matter to different people. Certainly music is in the DNA of this company, and we all have different genres we like. We’re offering music here for everyone. For instance, we’ve just booked Stevie Nicks in the theater here. She certainly is cool and hip and should be a great attraction for the property, not necessarily to the younger generation. Cool and hip has different definitions for different ages. There’s no question that resonates across the generations and genres. Country can be as cool and hip as current rock and roll to those particular individuals. We try to stay edgy in each different genre.

The Hard Rock property there has been a success story after the delays with Katrina, but there are still areas that need to be addressed. What are some of those areas?

Our founders had a vision when they brought the Hard Rock to the coast. Our success will really be determined by our drive to continue to deliver all the great entertainment and gaming offerings that we have currently. We have to stay on the front end of that. We’ve got to continue with the great food and drink offerings … all the entertainment offerings you would expect from a great Hard Rock Casino.

What kind of changes, if any, are you looking at making?

We’ve done some things already. For example, our entertainment schedule: we’ve opened up a little bit. We’ve got Montgomery Gentry coming in, Trace Atkins, Bret Michaels, Collective Soul. What we’re trying to do is give a broad offering of entertainment for individuals of all age groups and diverse backgrounds. Again, Love All, Serve All.

Obviously, you're a gaming veteran, and you've had a lot of experience down there in the Gulf, too. What are your thoughts about how the Mississippi Gulf Coast is fairing right now in terms of recovering from Hurricane Katrina?

A lot of us refer to Katrina as a tragic opportunity. It was a horrific thing to happen, but coming out of it are some great opportunities, and it’s up to us to seize those opportunities and build back in a much better way than we ever were before or ever envisioned we could be. That is happening. Progress is being made. Thank God for the thousands of volunteers who come down here and help us build back what we have; thank God for the leadership in our state; and thank God for the federal help we’ve received as well. Every day is better. The coast today, especially the gaming market, is back to where it was pre-storm, even in light of the 5,000 to 7,000 hotel/motel rooms that are no longer here. We are coming back bigger and better, and people are recognizing that and coming to the gaming facilities.

What do you see is the biggest need or issue that the community has?

We’re struggling a bit with affordable housing. It’s due in part to the insurance costs today and the impact that has had, not only on the construction of homes, but on the pricing of rental insurance. There are programs that the Gulf Coast Business Council is working on to help affordable housing take place.

What kind of impact have you seen with regard to employees? Do you have to pay higher wages or allow for more personal issues to be re-solved?

I think wages today are higher than pre-storm. A lot of that is caused by the increased cost of living, especially housing. That has settled a lot, and we’ve made progress, and I think most people that want to be in a home have found a way to do it, but there are still those out there who need to get out of the FEMA trailers and into affordable housing.

How would you say your role today differs from past companies?

With Hard Rock, here, we are the company. In previous positions, I had a corporate headquarters to depend on for support in different areas. We found we are able to maintain that support here at the property, and we’re kind of a self-run entity.

What kind of management style would you say you have?

I feel strongly that I should be at the property when and where the customers are, and 55 percent of our business is here from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, so I try to spend a lot of time on the floor on the weekends. During the week, I try to get a lot of my administrative functions done. Once we set the vision, I like to let the operators run their areas.

You're very involved with charities and volunteer work. Tell us a little bit about that.

Probably the most rewarding experience I had doing community work was with the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. I was a chairman in 2005, the year of the storm. We spent the rest of that year and the next rebuilding the Chamber of Commerce. We had a team of people that were dedicated - the first six months we met every Friday morning for hours rebuilding the Chamber and helping small businesses get back. In addition to that, I’m the incoming chairman of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which has received millions of dollars in funds that we’re trying to get distributed to help the coast get rebuilt. I’m an executive committee member of The Gulf Coast Business Council, which was really formed after the governor’s commission as a vehicle for local business leaders to take the recommendations from the governor’s report on recovery and try to implement the recommendations. On a much lighter side, I’m the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade here in Biloxi. I’m having a great time with that.

Duncan McKenzie is the new president and general manager of the Hard Rock Biloxi Hotel & Casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He began his gaming career with the Hilton corporation in its hotel division in 1975 and worked with the subsequent companies that Hilton merged with for more than 29 years. McKenzie has worked in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Laughlin, Kansas City, New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast under the Hilton, Park Place and Caesars brands. Just before Hurricane Katrina, he went to work with Isle of Capri Casinos in a regional position, serving there until a couple of months ago when he moved to the Hard Rock. McKenzie has been on the Gulf Coast since 1999 when he ran the Flamingo in New Orleans for Hilton. “I was there five years, living in Slidell, which is just about 40 minutes from here at the Hard Rock,” McKenzie said. Slidell is also where Katrina made its first direct landfall along the coast. He recently took the time to speak to Casino Journal Editor Andy Holtmann about his new position, the challenges and opportunities his property faces and the road ahead for recovery along the entire Gulf Coast.