British billionaire Branson, partners buy Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas

Updated March 30, 2018 - 5:49 pm

Las Vegas’ casino business has a new competitor: flamboyant billionaire Richard Branson.

Branson, founder of the Virgin Group conglomerate, bought the Hard Rock Hotel with partners and plans to turn it into a Virgin-branded property by the end of 2019.

The celebrity British businessman and other executives made the announcement Friday at an outdoor pool lounge at the hotel, which, a statement indicated, will be renamed Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

The deal not only gives Branson a foothold in Las Vegas’ lucrative casino industry, something he has long coveted, but will usher in a fortune’s worth of changes to the 1990s-era, off-Strip hotel.

Branson’s partners in the deal include Bosworth Hospitality Partners founder Richard “Boz” Bosworth, the hotel’s new CEO; Los Angeles investment firm Juniper Capital Partners; and Toronto real estate firm Fengate Capital Management.

The sale, by Toronto’s Brookfield Asset Management, closed Friday. Terms were not disclosed.

In an interview with the Review-Journal, Branson said it’s less expensive to buy an off-Strip hotel as opposed to one on Las Vegas Boulevard. “The price you pay is a lot different.”

Also, when the Hard Rock’s overhaul is done, he said visitors will see that “we know how to design things, to bring some magic back to it,” and that the hotel is not “far out of their way.”

Not a ‘boring business talk’

Branson and Bosworth declined to give the purchase price at the partylike news conference, which featured a DJ playing thumping music and swimsuit-clad women dancing on platforms in the pool.

“We’re not going to make this a boring business talk,” Branson told the crowd, after a Review-Journal reporter asked the sales price and who the majority owner is, during a Q&A session. “But I’m sure somebody can let you know some other time.”

A spokesman for Brookfield did not respond to requests for comment.

The 1,500-room Hard Rock, a mile east of the Strip at 4455 Paradise Road, will keep its name until the overhaul is done and stay open as it gets renovated in phases.

According to Bosworth, the new owners plan to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars in transforming this property.”

Among other things, its signature giant guitar out front “may not survive,” Branson told the crowd. “But we have a giant V” that is “sort of guitar-shaped” and “may take over.”

Branson’s Virgin Hotels unit operates one property, in Chicago, but has around 10 others in the pipeline. The Las Vegas hotel would be its largest, as measured by room-count, Virgin Hotels CEO Raul Leal said in an interview.

Still, the Hard Rock is dwarfed by many other hotels in town, and Leal said his group wanted something “a little bit smaller, a little bit more boutique” in Las Vegas.

“We didn’t want some glass tower on the Strip,” he said.

No newbie

Branson, 67, has a net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. And he’s no stranger to Las Vegas.

Virgin Atlantic launched passenger service from London to Las Vegas in 2000, with Branson stepping off the inaugural flight in a rhinestone-studded red jumpsuit and pasted-on Elvis sideburns.

He invested last year in high-speed-transit startup Hyperloop One, which has a test track in Apex Industrial Park north of Las Vegas. Branson joined its board, and the firm changed its name to Virgin Hyperloop One.

And more than 20 years ago, Branson voiced interest in opening a casino here.

In 1997, as he was opening the now-shuttered Virgin Megastore at Caesars Palace, he said that he was “looking” for a hotel site.

“In fact we’re on our way to one now,” he said as he left the store.

The RJ reported that he wanted to open a casino-resort on or near the Strip by 2000, but it never happened.

In the interview Friday, Branson said he “honestly just couldn’t find the right property.”

He added that the Virgin Group has been expanding into “many different areas,” but when the Hard Rock became an option, “we realized that it was worth waiting for.”

The sale was expected. The Review-Journal reported in January that Brookfield was in talks to sell the resort to Bosworth, Juniper and Virgin Hotels, and that it would be rebranded as a Virgin property.

The Hard Rock opened in 1995. Developer Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain, reached a deal in 2006 to sell the resort to Morgans Hotel Group Co. for $770 million.

In 2011, after the economy crashed, lender Brookfield assumed ownership of the financially troubled hotel after it reached a settlement agreement with the owners.

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

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