Magazine On-line [spring 2011]
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Alumni Profiles

Nelson Parker '96 / This Hard Rock brings good luck

Getting stuck between a rock and a hard place is a figurative reference to misfortune for most of us, but not for Nelson Parker ’96. When the words are transposed into the familiar corporate name of Hard Rock Cafe, they become a symbol of opportunity that Parker took advantage of in May 2010 when he became head of development, Americas, for Hard Rock Hotels and Casinos.

Nelson ParkerOperating under the umbrella of Hard Rock International, headquartered in Orlando and owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the hotels and casinos segment of the company has a growing portfolio of 15 upscale properties. They include beach resorts throughout Asia and high-end properties in locales such as Orlando, Las Vegas, and San Diego. Parker’s responsibilities include development opportunities in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

“Even when I came to Transylvania, I already knew I wanted to work in business in an entrepreneurial way,” said Parker, who completed a business administration major (management emphasis) at Transy. “My position at Hard Rock involves me in creating new deals all over the world, but particularly in the Americas. There’s a different challenge every day, and I really enjoy that.”

Parker’s specific duties involve identifying potential locations and franchise, management, and equity partners, as well as planning and executing development initiatives for the proposed properties. Extensive travel and presentations are a big part of his job.

“In the past three months I’ve visited Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Columbia, as well as many cities in the U.S.,” Parker said. “In my prior positions, I traveled throughout the U.S., the Caribbean, Asia, and Canada. I evaluate opportunities to see if they’re a good fit for us as a company and explain what Hard Rock is all about.”

Parker typically meets with hotel and casino owners, developers, investors, and government agencies regarding potential hotel, hotel/casino, and casino projects. His role also calls for structuring and negotiating transactions.

His work requires a high degree of analytical and communication skills, abilities that Parker said he honed while at Transylvania.

“In particular, I believe I developed my critical thinking skills, and my writing skills improved exponentially while at Transy. The whole environment there—faculty members and students—was of a very high quality.”

The Hard Rock brand name got its start in 1971 in London, England, when two Americans opened the first Hard Rock Cafe. The brand name would eventually go international and become inextricably linked to the chain’s use of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia to decorate its cafes. Today, the company has 168 venues in 52 countries, including 132 cafes.

The rock ‘n’ roll sensibility got its start in 1979 when renowned guitarist Eric Clapton donated a Fender guitar. It has since grown to include more than 72,000 objects, making Hard Rock the holder and exhibitor of the world’s largest collection of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. Among the treasure trove of classic guitars, posters, costumes, music and lyric sheets, album art, platinum and gold LPs, photographs, and lots more are Jimi Hendrix’s Flying V guitar and John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “Help!”

The company’s website includes this statement: “Here’s our philosophy of hospitality: rock ‘n’ roll makes people feel great.”

“The rock ‘n’ roll sensibility is really the core of our company and our brand,” Parker said. “We see ourselves as a very authentic representation of rock ‘n’ roll. And even though our hotels and casinos are a different product from the cafes—they’re more upscale and sophisticated—they still have a sampling of rock decor.”

Parker brought 14 years of business experience to his position at Hard Rock. His career began just after graduation in 1996 when he joined his family’s food products company in Springfield, Mo. He moved to St. Louis in 1998 to accept a position with Kasten Group, a private equity firm, where he was involved in mergers and acquisitions. He started there as a business analyst and left as investment manager.

Parker got his first taste of the gaming industry in 2003 when he joined Argosy Gaming Company, followed by a stint with Foxwoods Development Company, where he left as vice president of development for resort casino activities to join Hard Rock.

“I loved the gaming industry immediately,” he said. “It’s a unique business. It’s exciting, fun, and has a lot of great components to it—lodging, gaming, food and beverage, hospitality.”

And although gaming can be addictive, Parker knows that for the vast majority, it’s nothing more than one of the many options for leisure activity.

“You can spend a few hours on the golf course, go shopping, or spend that time in the casino,” he said. “I think most people come to a casino with a budget, and their gaming is done in a responsible way. They know the odds are in favor of the casino, but sometimes they get lucky.”

Parker lives in Orlando with his wife, Jill, and the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Lily.

—William A. Bowden

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