Susan Renneisen is no wallflower, as she would be the first to tell you. For the vice president of community affairs and special events at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, every day is a party, so don’t expect her to show up in a business suit with shoulder pads. More like leather and feathers. She is very good at her job. You could even say that Renneisen was born for her role, as she is quick to share.
You once told me that you didn’t like to tell people that you’re from the South Side of Philadelphia.
I didn’t used to tell people years ago, because it was embarrassing. I grew up going to the Italian market to shop with my grandmother on Saturday to buy our fruits and vegetables from the street vendors. She would negotiate and try to get the extra vegetables out of them, things like that. It’s so funny—my grandmother used to go into the store and pick her chicken and wring the chicken’s neck. That’s how we shopped when I was a kid.
It sounds like a very extroverted environment.
Extremely, yeah, they were immigrants, obviously from Italy. My grandmother’s family was from Naples and my grandfather’s family was from Sicily.
I’ve been to Naples and Sicily and have eaten so well in both.
I did eat well as a child, no question about it. I think I actually learned the art of negotiation and the art of relationships when I was a kid with my grandmother negotiating on 9th Street. I think that’s helped me through my life, to be able to see the value of appropriate negotiation and the value that strong relationships bring. I learned that at a very early age from her.
There’s nothing like going to the market or stores and having that neighborhood feel, seeing the same people every day—that’s the fabric of a healthy neighborhood.
It’s that relationship thing that I’ve been able to learn from and bring into my life throughout the different phases of my life and career, keeping it at the forefront of my mind, how valuable relationships are. We never locked our doors in Philadelphia, ever. I grew up in a row home and our neighbors were all called aunts and uncles, and everybody knew everybody’s business, and everybody looked out for each other, without a doubt.
It sounds like a really interesting, textured childhood.
It really was, and I don’t think I appreciated it until much later in my life. At the point when I was in my 20s—becoming the sophisticated person that I thought I was supposed to be—that I looked back on it, and I thought, oh how embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell people I was from South Philadelphia. But I learned as the years went by how valuable my childhood was to me and my development.
How did you get into hospitality? It sounds like a natural segue.
It came about very naturally for me from when I was a child. I found—and I hope you take this the right way—I always liked bossing people around from when I was very young. It was my way. In our little group of neighborhood friends, I would try to get people together to do these different things, like to do a show, or I would put a boy and a girl together and say, “OK, so this week we’re going to plan your wedding, and it’s your job to get the flowers and it’s your job to get the dresses and it’s your job to get the food …” I would just plan these childhood fantasy weddings or parties and invite the whole neighborhood. And literally, because of the way our neighborhood was, this small neighborhood, all the parents and siblings would come out and we would do these weddings down the street. I would have a guy in our neighborhood who was a little bit older and I assigned him to be the treasurer and he would pass a hat at the end of the show and then save the money, so if anybody in the neighborhood was having problems—if their dog was sick or if they needed money if a pipe broke—we would have this neighborhood fund from the shows.
How old were you?
It was so ridiculous—I think I was seven or eight years old—but I think that was surely the genesis of knowing what I wanted to do with my life.
I know you landed in public relations while you were still a teenager.
My first job was at a bank in Philadelphia, but I’d failed my test so miserably because I had no idea how to type or do anything. But one of the managers worked in the PR department and decided I might be a good fit for a summer job, because they had a big golf tournament and they actually hired me to be a greeter and to welcome the celebrities and make sure they went to the right area to register. So, at 15 years old, I was taking care of Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf. I became really immersed in that world that I had no clue how to handle, but I did it because I was sweet and fun and I guess cute at 15, 16 years old and got away with it, and started learning the PR and marketing end of it by accident.
You say “by accident,” but it was almost destiny, because you had this attraction to the theatrical, to the show.
I do, can you tell?
Oh yeah, I can tell a little bit—that’s why it’s good for the editor to go to the photo shoot!
I don’t want to wear a business suit, man, give me something big! I swear, I tease sometimes that I was a female impersonator in a previous life, and I did these big shows with feathers. I have this desire to be on the stage with no talent. It’s frustrating sometimes.
But you found the environment where your style is totally appropriate.
I think I got a little lucky.
How long have you been with the hotel?
I’ve been with the Hard Rock now for 21 years. I came down with Jim Allen, who is our CEO and the man who works with the Seminole tribe and started the Hard Rock on the path to what it is. I started doing the groundbreakings and openings on a contract basis and then as things got closer, we both decided it would be the smartest move for me to become an employee. I convinced him he needed me, which he did, and I don’t think he regrets it. Maybe sometimes over the 20 years I’ve given him a little bit of agita.
What was your first role?
I was director of special events.
What should readers know about hospitality in the context of working with a native American tribe?
I don’t know if it’s about the product itself. It’s about the people; nothing is about the product, nothing is about a slot machine or a blackjack table or a hotel room. It’s about the people behind it that make the magic. When I first met Max Osceola Jr. and the other members of the Seminole tribal council back so long ago, I was very privileged that they shared with me a lot of their history. [Osceola, an elected representative on the Seminole Tribal Council from 1985 through 2010, died in 2020.] They are an unconquered tribe and very proud of that fact. They are very proud people, and they have a lot of traditions and a lot of their own feelings about the way things should be done.
What a journey he had.
Of course, when you grow to the point of a company that’s now worth billions and is worldwide, the growing has to accelerate quite quickly—from having some bingo halls to owning a multibillion-dollar company, and so they have. The tribal council is amazing. Jim Allen works with them almost daily. I think about their integrity and motivation to take care of their employees; they are very motivated to give back to the community that gave to them when they didn’t have anything.
2019 was a landmark year because of the expansion—the property became iconic at that time. So, what did it look like before 2019?
They had the original property and the hotel was beautiful—there were a little over 400 hotel rooms, all very nicely appointed, all built from the ground up with casinos, some event space, some very nice restaurants. And it used to have an outdoor area called Seminole Paradise, so when they did the revamping, they took that outdoor space and that’s where they put the guitar and upgraded the property to a whole new level with Bora Bora suites out in that pool area and the lagoon. If you are enclosed in that property, you have no idea where you are. You could be in Bora Bora—you wouldn’t realize that Route 441 is a minute from where you’re floating in this beautiful lagoon.
So, you have the type of overwater bungalows Bora Bora is known for?
We absolutely do out at the guitar tower pool. We have 17 of them. You can get right into the water and use the standup paddle boards. It’s such an incredible getaway where you really don’t need to go anyplace else. We have the most amazing and diverse restaurants, so every night of the week you can eat something different and be fully satisfied. There’s shopping, there’s gaming, there’s constant entertainment. Our new Hard Rock Live is a state-of-the-art clamshell theater that top performers from all over the world have performed in over the past couple of years and to see some of these incredible performers who usually fill arenas of 80,000 seats, playing in a small 7,000-person state-of-the-art facility is really something. It’s a different experience than seeing them in a stadium, because the quality of the sound and the proximity to the entertainer is something that you don’t get in these large stadiums.
Can you name some of the performers who’ve played the venue?
My favorites skew to the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney and Billy Joel and Elton John and Sting and Rod Stewart, but we also have all kinds of entertainment for the youth. We have Dave Chappelle coming up, and there are Latino performers because that market is extremely hot these days—the MTV Music Awards this year was all about the Latino performers and the different kind of music that they’re bringing. We have Keith Urban coming up, who’s one of my favorites.
Didn’t Maroon 5 open the venue?
They were our very first act and the show was killer. I mean, it was the first time anybody performed at Hard Rock Live and they did a full-on concert. Adam Levine was amazing as usual—he was very Adam and took his shirt off and the audience went crazy over him. The same night we had a plethora of stars that attended our opening from all over the map, and all walks of life. The Kardashian walked the red carpet and the world wrestling champion walked the red carpet and Morgan Freeman and Joe Manganiello and Johnny Depp—Johnny Depp was my absolute favorite; he was absolutely delightful. Steve Perry was there.
With the hotel opening the year before COVID it’s still new, in a sense.
It is, definitely. We were on a big pause: We opened in October 2019 and paused the following March.
So, are there future plans you can discuss, or are you just sort of just taking a breath and reveling in the moment?
The Seminole tribe and Jim Allen do not rest on their laurels. They are continually looking to make things better and expand and go to the next level, and they’ve evidenced that time and time again. The casino and hotel that we had when they first opened were doing extremely well. Their casino in Tampa was doing extremely well. Tampa is the number one revenue-producing casino in the entire world, believe it or not. And I think the Hard Rock in Hollywood falls in at about number three.
It’s a tough business in many ways. Did you ever have a breaking the glass ceiling moment?
I think I broke the glass ceiling years ago, because I’m very happy in what I do. I have always loved being part of the community, have always loved charitable giving, loved doing parties, loved creating new things. When you get up and do that every single day and you get paid to it, there’s nothing better in the whole world, and I am so fortunate to work for a company that not only allows me to give back, but also encourages me and helps me do it. That is a recipe for success in my book—and I don’t think I could do anything that would make me happier.
Photos by Nick Garcia