Regional Pitch Contest Brings Shark Tank Spirit To Hard Rock Virginia

Written By Marian Rosin on September 23, 2022 - Last Updated on August 1, 2023
Regional Pitch Contest

Small business owners in Southwest Virginia are getting their chance on the main stage in the 2022 SWVA Regional Pitch Contest. It’s designed to bring underrepresented entrepreneurs together with the state’s first Hard Rock casino.

Contest workshops took place Sept. 19 in Abingdon and Sept. 20 in Martinsville.  The two organizations behind the contest — Virginia Community Capital and the US Small Business Administration — hope the competition will result in a win-win:

Local women- and minority-owned businesses get to pitch their goods and services to Bristol Casino — Future Home of Hard Rock in the old Bristol Mall. The connection may even get the Bristol businesses a chance to do business with other Hard Rock Casinos nationally and internationally. The other Virginia casinos under construction could partner with the businesses as well.

With that in mind, even contest “losers” may ultimately win. As Carl Knoblock, Richmond director of the SBA Virginia, explained at a workshop:

“Even though you may not win, you may bring opportunities to the casino that they come and talk to you on their own and say: ‘Hey, can we talk a little bit further about this? Because we like what you have even though you didn’t win.”

Dana Wolfe, owner of GraphXsolution attended a pitch workshop. She said: “I think the opportunity is just a great opportunity for all the businesses in our area.”

Hard Rock itself earns the other “win.” The company wants to identify and connect with area businesses. And as Knoblock pointed out, the casino wants “local flavor.”

About the contest

Businesses that meet the following criteria and more may enter the contest and submit a three-minute pitch video:

  • For-profit business situated in the Appalachian Regional Commission
  • 51% women- or minority-owned
  • Already operating for at least two years
  • Have a business website
  • 18 years of age or older
  • Cannot be a current Hard Rock vendor
  • Must apply online only

The contest will divide a $50,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant into five $10,000 business investment grants. The five finalists get the awards. Winners also get the chance to do business with Hard Rock.

Knoblock and Sandy Ratliff, Vice President for Community Innovation at Virginia Community Capital, hatched the regional pitch contest idea. The concept came together after a Southwest Virginia Economic Forum.

“We are excited to open opportunities to local entrepreneurs,” Hard Rock Bristol President Allie Evangelista said.

She used the adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and added: “Southwestern Virginia will see the tide rise with this project.”

Regional pitch contest judging will be done by the final event’s audience and a Shark Tank-style panel of judges.

Some dates to remember are:

  • 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21: Application deadline
  • Dec. 8 (subject to change): Celebration and announcement of winners

The groups also posted Bristol Casino Regional Pitch Contest tips on YouTube, including advice on 3-minute video pitches.

Regional Pitch Contest partnerships

The workshops help pitches. But, they’ve given small business owners resources for finding business partners as well.

Knoblock encourages contestants to find partners with similar goods, services and business philosophies. The SBA director thinks partnerships are better than overselling a business.

The support system also helps if one partner vendor gets sick, according to Ratliff.

For example, a potter might make a deal with Hard Rock. But with 800 future hotel rooms to furnish, a partner can help the artist fill the order on deadline.

“A little piece of the pie is better than no piece,” Ratliff told PlayVirginia.

The regional pitch contest guides businesses through red tape as well. Vendors with sales under $20,000 get “exempt” status from the Virginia Lottery. Those with annual sales over $20,000 are “nonexempt” and must register with and be approved by the lottery. Approved “nonexempt” vendors can do business with any casinos or other large business entities in the state.

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