Neil Moffitt Photo by Andrew Sea James / Vegas Seven

Exclusive: Hakkasan Group CEO Neil Moffitt Says Goodbye

In an exit interview with Vegas Seven, the former Hakkasan Group CEO discusses his departure and the company’s impending merger with hospitality giant SBE

It’s 4 p.m. on Saturday and Neil Moffitt is standing in his office high atop the Hakkasan Group’s headquarters in southwest Las Vegas. The afternoon light blasts through the panoramic windows forming pyramid-like shards of color on the super-white bare walls. The Strip, with castles, skyscrapers and cartoonish architectural forms, extends far across the horizon in the distance. It is the time of day known as the golden hour, when everything looks surreally beautiful thanks to the sheen from the setting sun—and, of course, from the gauzy veil of eternally churning dust.

This could be a scene from any regular day in the life of the top executive of a global hospitality company with more than 7,000 employees—except today is quite an extraordinary one for Moffitt. There are no phones ringing. The art that once adorned the walls is gone. The computer is disconnected. All that remains is a singular black frame encasing a flyer for a Godskitchen event from the early 2000s, a party he created before coming to Las Vegas.

“The day I found out my father died was the day I found out that my wife was pregnant. I really thought long and hard about what the future held for me.”

These are the last moments of Moffitt’s tenure as CEO of Hakkasan Group and some of the final hours he will be spending in Las Vegas for the foreseeable future. In a day’s time it will be announced that he’s resigning from the position he has held for five years. His motivation for leaving is purely personal and his tone is reflective, relieved and content.

“The last eight months have been extremely difficult for me. Last year was a big turning point. My dad called me up and said, ‘I’ve [got] 30 days to live, son.’ I was in the back garden of a villa in Saint-Tropez,” he says. “I am the guy from project housing [in] Coventry [in England]. I would love to tell you I was born with a billion dollars. We’re a very humble family. And there I am in my big fancy villa thinking I’m a big shot. It was literally like I got whacked over the head with a hammer.”

Moffitt was soon faced with the fact that all of his connections, money and success couldn’t change the inevitable. “I raced home and, typical me: I can fix it. I can find someone, I can do it, and we can do this. Let’s not give up. We got him on a [drug] trial—I called [in] all the favors in the world. But he still lasted [just] 30 days. The day I found out my father died was the day I found out that my wife was pregnant. I really thought long and hard about what the future held for me.”

Fast-forward nine months and Moffitt’s son Maverick is born to his wife Heidi, joining his two other children, 4-year-old Maxwell and 18-year-old Emily. It was this series of life-changing events that awakened a new spirit within the man who spent the last 14 years building a Las Vegas–based global nightlife/daylife and dining empire. “It’s been a phenomenal roller coaster of commitment, passion, desire and sacrifice to get where the company is today, and I think my family bore the brunt of that.”

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Al Powers

Calvin Harris spins at Hakkasan

During his Las Vegas journey, Moffitt has learned many things and met many people. But it started with the offer of a ride on a private jet.

“In the early 2000s in Las Vegas, it was all about the Foundation Room at House of Blues on Monday. [Michael] Fuller was on the decks and Derek Silberstein was a GM. That was the big one. There was Raw [at Luxor … and I was doing [events that tied to the festivals I created in Europe], Godskitchen and [also GlobalGathering]. It was my perfect excuse to come here. Just take three or four days and have a good time.

“[During that time] an opportunity came up to be part of the TV show called The Club about Ice Nightclub. I was in Los Angeles, and I had a call and they said, ‘Would you be interested in this TV show?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I thought it was a crazy idea. I was a festival promoter … not a club promoter. My ego was the size of a house. Someone said to me at the time, ‘Well, the guy will fly you in on a private jet.’ Wow, I’ve never been on one of them, sounds great. Welcome to Las Vegas. And he’s going to fly me in a private jet and put me up in a mansion.”

Moffitt ended up meeting with the owner of the distressed Ice Nightclub, calling in many of his DJ friends and ultimately flipping the switch on the venue. The plan afterward was to go back to Europe and carry on his festival business—until he met the late Craig Neilsen.

“I [started] doing consulting work for Craig Neilsen of Ameristar Casinos, a genius of a man who was willing to spend time with me. He was a quadriplegic, living in Canyon Gate Country Club. I learned a lot from him about leadership, and understanding that people’s opinions matter. I think that when you’re a quadriplegic and you very rarely get out, you have to listen to people’s opinions. He put everyone in a room and consulted us on what we thought.

“All the goals, all the ambitions, everything I’ve ever wanted, I’ve achieved and more. You have to be very honest with yourself at that point and say, ‘Where do I go from here?’”

It was Neilsen who awakened Moffitt to the changing tastes of the consumer. He saw that the next generation was not as interested in gaming, and there needed to be a new reason to attract them to his casinos. This was the era when The Light Group ruled Strip nightlife with Light Nightclub at Bellagio, but others were following suit—Tao opened and so did Wynn Las Vegas. Moffitt’s eye was on the prize.

Brenton Ho / Powers Imagery

Hakkasan Group’s Wet Republic

Armed with this knowledge, he began to build a team under the name Angel Management Group that first included Silberstein, Alida Roberts and Randy Davila, who suggested they start promoting a night at Tabu inside MGM Grand with hopes of sparking a relationship with casino executives.

“Now I’ve gone from being a festival guy, to running a club. Now I’m not running a club; I’m promoting Tabu. Come on,” he says.

Then it all fell into place 10 years ago with the opening of Wet Republic. “[Former president of MGM] Gamal Aziz designed it as basically an oversize Mo’orea in Tahiti—and then realized that American ladies don’t like to walk around with their boobs out. So what were they going to do?” Moffitt says. “We took over the operation of the pool.”

Then came Studio 54, the eventual takeover of Pure Management’s venues and the partnership with Hakkasan Group to open Hakkasan Nightclub. This innovative concept put Moffitt at the helm of the fast-expanding company and in control of a global empire that would acquire the Strip’s other nightlife powerhouse, The Light Group, in 2014, among many other hospitality companies from coast to coast.

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Andrew Sea James

It was after a keynote speech last month at the Nightclub & Bar Show that Moffitt made the decision to step down as Hakkasan Group CEO. “I talked about the start of my self-employed business career, which is 1992 until today. And I remember when I finished the speech, I [thought] ‘it’s enough.’ And that really was the moment,” he says. “I left the stage empty. All the goals, all the ambitions, everything I’ve ever wanted, I’ve achieved and more. You have to be very honest with yourself at that point and say, ‘Where do I go from here?’”

Moffitt approached Hakkasan’s shareholders and everyone was supportive of his decision to liquidate his interest in the business. “At midnight on April 13, I signed it,” he says. “I came in on Thursday, and it was my last day. I haven’t done the goodbyes because I can’t—it’s too emotionally difficult. I’ve got a press release going [out], and I’ve left it to the staff. I made a [personal and heartfelt] video.”

Just before Moffitt’s engagement at Nightclub & Bar, news of Hakkasan Group’s merger with fellow hospitality giant SBE was made public. He is quick to say this has nothing to do with his decision to leave.

“I’m a big proponent of the merger. I’m very proud that we’re putting these two companies together. If this is the last thing that I do for this company, it will be my greatest achievement,” he says. “Hakkasan has 60 venues across four continents with another 30 to welcome before 2020. SBE is a company with 25 hotels and 27 new hotels either under construction or in design. But it’s time for someone else; it’s time for a new group of people to take this company to the next level. They’re going to design hotel rooms, gyms, spas, restaurants, daylife, nightlife.”

In terms of insights into marrying the worlds of Hakkasan Group and SBE, he assures that the companies will grow in strength and that their flag will remain firmly planted in desert soil, while ascending to even bigger dreams.

“We wanted to do Hakkasan hotels; we were very close to doing it, but it’s a whole different infrastructure. If you take what [SBE’s] got and what we’ve got and put it together, the sky’s the limit. The people who are going to head up that company have the passion and the determination to finish what they start. It’s everything a hospitality company wants in the world. The new merged entity is a legacy piece, and I’m very proud of it. And importantly, I’m very proud of the people I’ve worked with.”

Moffitt name-checks many well-known nightlife luminaries who influenced his time in Las Vegas, from the Ice Nightclub days to the present: Davila, Silberstein, Alex Cordova, Michael Fuller, Zee Zandi, Mike Snedegar, Gary Brooks, James Algate and former president and COO, and his successor, Hakkasan Group’s new CEO Nick McCabe.

“My expertise has been building this company from a team perspective, an executive perspective, the grassroots perspective and putting together the best possible group of people in hospitality,” Moffitt says. “And if that’s my [professional] legacy, I’m happy with it. [Personally], I just want to be the best dad I can be while I’m alive. When I leave the earth, it’ll be with no money in my pockets and it’s not going to matter, is it? What’s going to matter is that my children are well-rounded and they’re ready to face the world without me. I am not currently interested in anything else. Family comes first.”

“When I leave the earth, it’ll be with no money in my pockets and it’s not going to matter, is it? What’s going to matter is that my children are well-rounded and they’re ready to face the world without me.”

As Moffitt begins the next chapter, he is focused on a change of scenery that will take him to a new home in L.A., the fulfillment that will come with raising his young boys—“I want to drop them off to school, I want to pick them up”­—and accompanying his daughter as she gets ready to compete as an equestrian in the 2020 Olympics.

“I want to make sure I’ve worked as hard on my relationship with them and being a good dad as I did at building my business—that’s all that’s really left for me. I have no business goals, I have no monetary goals. I have one goal left in my life, and that is to be remembered as the best father.”

He also confidently says that he will never re-emerge on the Strip in a business capacity but Hakkasan may still see him again someday. “I might come back as a customer,” he notes with a laugh.

From flyer boy to glass collector to bar manager to festival promoter to CEO, Moffitt reflects that he owes it all to being a dreamer and Las Vegas, as the city that actualized the wildest of those dreams.

“I love this city for many things. It’s been like a saint. It really took care of me, it’s developed me. It’s made me who I am today,” he says. “For your dreams to come true, you’ve got to really be determined to not let anybody steal [them].”

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