In Las Vegas, summer is synonymous with adult-only pool parties soaked in liquor and teeming with barely clad girls. The grandfather of all pool parties is Rehab at the Hard Rock Hotel, and the man behind Rehab is Phil Shalala, the resort’s vice president of marketing, and all-around brand guru. Shalala, 37, is the wunderkind who moved to Las Vegas from San Diego to take over the Hard Rock’s branding when he was just 30. He grew up in Connecticut and went to Iowa State University on a hockey scholarship before starting a brand development and athlete representation firm in San Diego. The Hard Rock started out as a client until Shalala was offered a gig as one of its top executives. Since arriving in 2003, he has been instrumental in launching Rehab in the summer of 2004, and overseeing an $800 million expansion of the resort that opened in 2010.
What do you think made you so successful so young?
I was able to kind of step outside the 101 Casino Marketing book and be able to really do some things and put something out there that was fresh and new, and that came from my understanding of youth culture and music and fashion. … I think the other thing that made me successful is I live this brand. I live this lifestyle. I was a customer here for a long time before I actually took this job. You need to be able to live it. You need to be able to breathe it. A lot of what I was able to do came from my understanding of this lifestyle and this brand, as opposed to understanding what are the basic requirements to market a casino. That’s all crap. That can be taught to anyone in 30 to 60 days, but if you don’t live it, if you don’t understand it and can’t adapt quickly, then there definitely is not a place for you at the Hard Rock.
Where is Rehab six years later?
We were able to take something that was the representation of a day-life pool party and we were able to build on it, not just being here, at the Hard Rock on Sundays, but a lifestyle brand—a lifestyle that represents a fun party, good times and beautiful people. We did that by starting a clothing line. The third year in, we developed our own beverage, a collaboration with Coca-Cola, and it was the first beverage to have ingredients that literally [helped] rehabilitate you. We were the first ones to have a product that, with co-enzyme Q10 and green tea extract, there was a thought process behind it—what does rehab mean and what do people at rehab want from a beverage? So we built that, grew it and just recently sold it to Hansen’s this past year. Then we got into the reality world and we’re in our third season of our reality TV show [Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel on truTV], so we’re taking what this party means and basically putting it out to the masses.
Are there any drawbacks to Rehab?
You either love it or you hate it, but I would say from a business standpoint, there are no drawbacks. You can’t really say there’s a drawback when you’ve created a platform that has become normal for every single hotel and casino in this town.
Can you picture a day when the Hard Rock isn’t cool?
Sure I can. That is something that we are very cognizant of every day; making the right decisions and choices, whether big or small, could potentially hurt your brand. That’s a challenge and it’s a risk that we take every day. I think we all know of brands that were once cool to us that aren’t necessarily cool anymore, for whatever reason, so the risk of that happening is something that we take very seriously.
Does Las Vegas have to reinvent itself?
It’s a well-established brand. It’s a well-established location that means something to everyone, and I think it’s on its way back quickly. It’ll always be the Entertainment Capital of the World. I think that’s attractive to a lot of people. As far as what’s next for Vegas, I’d like to see some different people get into office. I think Vegas needs to grow from an educational standpoint. … I think that there needs to be a significant amount of improvement in the medical community in order for Las Vegas to put itself on the map as a city that’s going to bring education and medical experts into this community. … That will really grow this town. It will evolve this town into a complete community, a complete city that is equal to and recognized with everyone else.
What’s your favorite place to go in Las Vegas?
Red Rock Canyon. Getting up into Red Rock Canyon and hanging out up there removes you so far from what stereotypical Vegas is all about. Just doing that and being able to go back to it, I really enjoy going up there. I also like hanging out downtown on a Saturday during the day. I’ll go down and play $3 craps at the El Cortez. It puts you in touch with the real people.
Can you see yourself leaving Las Vegas?
Sure, absolutely. It depends on what happens in my life for the next couple of years, but I enjoy it. I like it. I’ve adapted to it very well. It was very hard for me to move here from San Diego, as you can imagine, but I enjoy it. I like the energy. I like the opportunity. I like to be part of something that could be the next big thing, and that’s the opportunity that’s here in this community as a whole. So, I could see myself staying but I could also see myself leaving.