There’s a line outside of Body English, with more than 100 babes in bikinis and ripped bros with arms exposed. Tattooed hard-bodies wrap around the corner and all the way past Courtney Love’s signed guitar. Inside, dance-floor booths are filled with hundreds of beautiful twenty-somethings. It’s reminiscent of the club’s heyday—but instead of drinks, hands clutch the résumés of aspiring bartenders, cocktail waitresses, food runners and security personnel. It’s the casting call for pool season at Rehab, and 1,500 people will apply over four days. One candidate explains the enduring allure: “Rehab is unique because there’s a beach. The other pools are just pools.” As Rehab prepares to celebrate its 12th season, the party is still what its founders envisioned. For a look back on the birth of Rehab we sat down with Kevin Kelley, who until recently had been overseeing the opening of Macao Studio City resort in China, but who was also the Hard Rock Hotel president from 2003 to 2006.
What do you recall about the early Hard Rock brand?
It all goes back to Peter Morton, who was the creator of the original Hard Rock Café in London in the early 1970s. Peter and his partner, Isaac Tigrett, were growing up in London when rock ’n’ roll was at its zenith. These guys really understood what the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was all about, applied it to their café and did a phenomenal job. Peter saw an opportunity to take that whole ethos into a hotel hospitality experience. He is one of the best tastemakers the city has ever seen. The Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas became all about caché and living the rock-star lifestyle. Peter knew that there was tremendous brand value in creating experiences, a cool that guests couldn’t get anywhere else. Whether it was [hanging out] at the Center Bar, blackjack in the Peacock Lounge, seeing a band up-close and personal in The Joint, or partying at the pool–Peter wanted amazing experiences that people would talk about.
What was the party scene like in 2003, when you arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel?
The property was eight years old, and the legend of Hard Rock was quickly solidifying. The entertainment component in The Joint was legendary. The food and beverage components were amazing, from casual dining at Mr. Lucky’s and Pink Taco to Nobu—there was nothing like Nobu in the whole city, and it had a crowd that was second to none. Peter was the first guy to have a true nightclub inside a casino, Baby’s; Pure was just getting ready to open. [Editor’s note: Club Rio opened in 1995, Drai’s and Ra in 1997, Baby’s in 1998; see more early club openings at VegasSeven.com/Nightlife-Timeline]. Our pool had a waterfall and a sand beach—there was nothing like that in Las Vegas! Every other pool around the city was a slab of concrete with lounge chairs and 55-year-old cocktail waitresses slogging drinks.
What were pool parties like pre-Rehab?
Everybody was trying to do filler events midweek when resorts were quiet. A pool party would consist of a band or a DJ, some cocktail servers and bars sprinkled around a swimming pool at night, with guests standing around in their work clothes. Maybe there would be some lame contest or theme. The Hard Rock probably had the best of the lamest. (Laughs.) One of our midweek pool parties was a burlesque show at the pool. We spent big money producing this thing, and it was a complete train wreck. People were expecting the Spearmint Rhino and got tatted-up chicks with big bellies and craziness.
Who were the architects of Rehab?
I give a lot of the credit to Peter for demanding something special and then allowing the creative process to occur. The original architect of the Hard Rock pool parties was Warwick Stone, the brand guru. Peter’s son, Harry Morton, was getting more involved in the business. So Peter, Harry, Warwick, Chad Pallas—our events guy at the time—and myself. The conversation was: Ok, our stuff is awful. Everybody else’s stuff is awful. Let’s just start with a clean sheet of paper and figure out what’s next. Harry said, “I think people want to come to a pool party and actually get in the pool!” Fridays and Saturdays at the Hard Rock pool were completely booked to capacity, but we knew from the club business that Sundays were good for industry. How do we get the best-looking women in Las Vegas to come to this place and want to come back with three more of their girlfriends because they had such an amazing time? We took advantage of our assets: We had the cool factor, we attracted lots of pretty people and we had a good facility. Add the right music, alcohol and pool product together and we created an experience that couldn’t be duplicated by any other property in town at the time.
Was anyone else throwing cool pool parties?
At that time Miami was cooler—they had a better vibe, a little bit better execution. Places like the Delano and the Shore Club were really good and catered to tourists, but really executed with the industry people as well. They were a little bit more sophisticated in terms of their marketing tactics, more club-like in terms of recruiting good-looking girls, and creating a very cool scene there.
How did the name Rehab come about?
We were just spit-ballin’. I asked something to the effect of, “So what is this experience all about?” People bust their ass all week long, make a pocket full of cash, then come chill, rest, relax, rejuvenate and get themselves back in shape so they can do it all over again the next week. Pallas suggested, “This is where you come to rehab, right?” It was like the light bulb went off. It was so perfect. The double entendre: rehab from the week, but obviously so many rock ’n’ rollers go to rehab for other reasons. It was just magic.
What was the programming like at the first Rehab pool party?
The first afternoon we opened Rehab we brought over this DJ from Miami. We paid him big money to show up—back then big money was probably $2,000. The place was jam-packed and it was an amazing crowd, probably 15 girls to every guy. The DJ starts with chill vibe music and the next thing you know, people start booing him off of his platform! He is smart enough to realize that he needs to pick up his tempo, and then it just starts to rage. Everyone starts dancing and drinking, all fired up, having an amazing time. Turned out that people didn’t want to chill, they wanted to party.
What’s most different about the Hard Rock Hotel in 2003 versus today?
We benefited from never compromising on the quality, always going a step further, maybe leaving a bit of money on the table in terms of cost. Unfortunately, when the Morgans’ guys came in, they got into trouble because they didn’t develop a great product and found themselves overleveraged in an economic downturn. The Morgans left, Brookfield and other guys have come in, but no one has been able to capture the caché or quality. You go to the Cosmopolitan now because there is a level of quality there that suits your tastes and sensibilities. You go to the Hard Rock Hotel and it’s third-rate execution, which ultimately translates to third-rate results. Guarding and preserving integrity is hard, because it is easy to drop values and pander to the bottom line; how to pack more people in, how to sell another bottle.
Today, competition makes it harder to develop a proper mix of people inside the clubs. Before, there is no way a group of 12 dudes could come to Body English, not even with a $20,000 minimum table. We just weren’t going to sacrifice our integrity or the club experience. When you have “sixes” dancing on a stripper pole, to me that’s game over. But you can’t argue with the massive numbers and great margins. I tip my hat to them in terms of the success they built on the work that came in the beginning. It’s fun to be part of the genesis of what you see today.
In retrospect, what is Rehab’s legacy?
It set the tone for every other pool party. Steve Wynn and every president up and down the Strip came to study Rehab, trying to figure out how to make it transferable to their properties. If you look at Wet Republic, it was not built to lounge; it was built to have a pool party like Rehab. Encore Beach Club, same thing. If you ask me, Rehab spawned all that. Steve Wynn and the MGM boys were very smart in what they did, using deep pockets, taking advantage of demand in a market segment, and creating facilities and experiences that people would talk about and want to bring their friends to.