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Seminoles announce plans to expand Hard Rock brand globally

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - The Seminole Tribe of Florida is expanding its brand of Hard Rock restaurants, hotels and casinos around the world after buying the company earlier this year from a British company.

Members of the tribal council and its representatives spent a week in Europe during the latter part of June, announcing the expansion plans at press conferences in several European capitals.

''The tribe aims to double the number of Hard Rock Cafes to about 250 and have about 90 hotels,'' Hamish Dodds, CEO of Hard Rock International, said at a press conference in London. Restaurants will open at the rate of about eight a year and hotels at about five a year, he said.

The tribe also plans to expand the casino business, starting in the United States. During the tribe's trip abroad, the Interior Department ordered the state of Florida to negotiate a Class III gaming compact with the tribe within 60 days or the federal agency will step in and allow Class III gaming, including lucrative slot machines - with a state agreement.

The Seminoles purchased Hard Rock International in March, paying $965 million for its 124 signature cafes in 46 countries and the world's largest collection of rock memorabilia - around 70,000 pieces. Eric Clapton's guitar still resides in the original Hard Rock Cafe, which opened in London in 1971.

The Seminoles, who never surrendered to the U.S. government's exterminations wars of the 19th century, trail-blazed the first American Indian-bingo hall in the late 1970s. The tribe chalked up another first with its Hard Rock purchase: It was the first time an American Indian tribe acquired a major international corporation.

''It is exciting,'' Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said. ''We held press conferences in Oslo, Gottenburg, Copenhagen, Berlin and London, and it's quite remarkable to spread the news of the Seminole Tribe or American Indian tribes in some of the capitals of Europe.''

The Europeans are very receptive, Bitner said, but in need of revising their view of American Natives.

''They're very interested but, truthfully, they haven't had that much opportunity to be exposed to American Indian tribes. Frankly, I think until the acquisition was announced, most Europeans thought of American Indians based on their stereotype in old John Wayne movies. That's pretty much all they've had to go by, so now we've been trying to upgrade the level of knowledge and at the same time use it as an opportunity for greater awareness of Hard Rock Cafe,'' Bitner said.

The tribe will focus the Hard Rock expansion in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America markets in which they see the greatest opportunity for growth, Bitner said. The same Hard Rock International management team will continue to run the operation.

The tribe is headquartered in Hollywood, Fla., and most of its 3,300 members live on or near the tribe's 100,000 acres of reservation land. It offers eco-tours of the Everglades, a Native village that features deep water alligator wrestling and a wildlife presentation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (''a place to learn'') Museum, an RV resort, campgrounds and hunting adventures.

But most of the tribe's revenues come from its seven casinos on its six noncontiguous reservation lands, including two Hard Rock casinos in Miami and Tampa.

The tribe operates one of the most successful gaming operations in the world, even though it is currently restricted to Class II gaming with no slot machines and players playing against each other rather than against the house with its bigger payoffs.

When the tribe acquired Hard Rock International, it wrote a check for about half the equity and sold bonds for the balance, Bitner said.

''The tribe has one of the few investment-grade ratings in the gaming industry from Moody's and Standard & Poor's, and they've been able to use that to raise money by selling bonds for their economic growth,'' Bitner said.

The seven casinos, plus the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming, owned by Florida's other indigenous tribe, earned $1.56 billion last year, a 21.5 percent increase over the previous year's earnings, the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report by Los Angeles-based economist Alan Meister.

The Seminoles currently employ more than 2,000 non-Indians and purchase more than $24 million a year in goods and services from more than 850 Florida vendors, and pays $3.5 million in federal payroll taxes, according to the tribe's Web site, www.seminoletribe.com.