No two places in the country are more iconic or famous than Atlantic City and New York City. And given their uniqueness and long commitments to becoming top-tier association meeting and convention destinations, both are enjoying unprecedented success in today’s highly competitive marketplace.
Although New York City reigns as a global brand well known to people from all over the world, Atlantic City is equally iconic to Americans who recall its place atop the list of classic beach destinations on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard. And no landmark of that time-honored world is more famous than The Boardwalk.
After resuscitating itself as a casino gambling destination three decades ago, Atlantic City today — even though it still boasts eight Las Vegas-style casino hotels — is returning to its roots as a popular convention city and as a family beach destination. “Atlantic City continues to transform and reposition itself,” said Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC. “The convention industry has a tremendous impact on Atlantic City’s economy, and Meet AC is committed to growing the convention business in Atlantic City.”
“Over the past eight years, the facilities in Atlantic City have gotten better and better every year. Most of the hotels have undergone renovations or expansions that improved on their meeting space. And they have also improved their pricing over that time.” — Louis Riccio
Louis Riccio, executive director of the Madison (NJ) Housing Authority also serves as the event coordinator of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NJNAHRO). Riccio has used Atlantic City every year for the organization’s four-night annual meeting for 450 attendees for the last eight years. For the last two years, he has used the 942-room Resorts Atlantic City hotel as his venue, and the association will return next year for a regional conference of 600 attendees from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, DC.
One reason why Riccio is so loyal to Atlantic City is its status as a historic icon among summer tourists from the East Coast. “The city has done a marvelous job of maintaining The Boardwalk and maintaining the beaches,” he says. “They have added hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand to increase the length of the beach. And that’s one reason we find that after our April meeting each year, quite a few of our attendees come back in the summer to have a family beach vacation in a classic American beach town.”
The most important thing for meeting planners who are unfamiliar with the 2015 incarnation of Atlantic City to understand, Riccio says, is that “it offers a lot more than just gambling. It has hotels with great meeting space and fantastic restaurants. As a destination, in my experience, Atlantic City also offers excellent service across the board. Everyone I have dealt with there over the years has been very accommodating. They are willing to do just about anything to make sure you have a successful meeting and that you want to come back.”
Riccio also stresses the steady course of the evolution of Atlantic City as an association meeting destination.
“Over the past eight years, the facilities in Atlantic City have gotten better and better every year,” he says. “Most of the hotels have undergone renovations or expansions that improved on their meeting space. And they have also improved their pricing over that time. Over those eight years, we have used a number of the city’s hotels and we have always found them to be very accommodating in terms of our budget. In general, the pricing is always good.”
The quality of the local dining scene is another thing that surprises planners who take a look at Atlantic City for the first time, Riccio says. “The city has very, very good restaurants, and the options range from very expensive fine dining restaurants to very inexpensive restaurants that still serve very good food,” he says. “Even the food courts in the hotels serve good food. You can go there and have dinner for as little as $10. And that range of options and price ranges is not just true of the hotels, it’s true of the city itself.”
His loyalty to the Resorts Atlantic City hotel is primarily based on its level of overall service.
“The thing I like best is their attention to detail,” he says. “Their personnel are extremely conscientious. At this point, it’s almost like we have become friends, where they can almost read my mind. They anticipate what I need and are very proactive in making sure that everything goes smoothly. They anticipate my needs before I even tell them what I need. And you don’t find that level of service in very many hotels anywhere. It’s very rare.”
The other reason why Riccio and his attendees remain loyal to the hotel is the exceptional value it offers. “The reason we went there in the first place in 2014 and the reason we now keep coming back is the price we get,” he says. “In my experience, since I have used a number of the casino hotels there over the last eight years, they have the largest rooms in town for the least expensive price.” Room rates for his block are between $50 and $79 a night, he says. “And you just can’t beat that price.”
Last year, Riccio’s value proposition got even better when he learned of the “Meet in AC” cash incentive program offered by Meet AC, the entity that promotes the city’s meeting and convention business. The program is administered on a case-by-case basis, according to Meet AC. The program is available to any new group or convention booked or actualized by 2018. The event must generate at least 500 room nights in Atlantic City and be booked through Meet AC in order to receive the incentive per contracted room night. The incentive is offered over and above hotel commissions. Priority is given to midweek, non-summer meetings. The program is for groups either using the Atlantic City Convention Center or individual properties in Atlantic City.
Until this year, Riccio was unaware of the program. Once he learned of it and participated, he received a $10,000 incentive reward. “And for our meeting, that’s a significant amount of money,” he says, adding that he also will be working with Meet AC for next year’s larger meeting.
Atlantic City’s hotel inventory currently totals 15,630 rooms. Its eight major casino properties, in addition to Resorts Atlantic City, are the 1,253-room Bally’s Atlantic City; 2,000-room Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa; 800-room The Water Club, Borgata; 1,144-room Caesar’s Atlantic City; 2,587-room Harrah’s Atlantic City; 728-room Golden Nugget Atlantic City; 2,129 Tropicana Hotel & Casino; and 2,032-room Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
Major non-gaming properties with at least 10,000 sf of meeting space include the 502-room Sheraton Atlantic City, and 270-room Stockton Seaview Resort.
The 31-acre Atlantic City Convention Center features 500,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space, 45 individual meeting rooms that total 109,100 sf, and 32,000 sf of prefunction space.
Given its evolution as a meeting destination and its ambitions, Atlantic City got a big boost last May when Meeting Professionals International announced that the city will be the site of its 2016 World Education Conference. The new Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center, a Caesars Entertainment property, will serve as its venue.
Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center is the largest convention center hotel complex from Baltimore to Boston with its two 50,000-sf ballrooms. The ballrooms can be divided into 29 individual sections and will offer state-of-the-art, technologically advanced meeting space that can be utilized by up to 5,000 attendees. In addition, Harrah’s Atlantic City offers more than 2,500 hotel rooms that will be directly accessible from the meeting space, making it the perfect year-round destination where attendees can eat, sleep and meet all in one location.
The Playground, formerly known as The Pier Shops at Caesars, is a 464,000-sf self-contained entertainment venue jutting out over the Atlantic Ocean. It includes eight live entertainment clubs and restaurants, high-end retail establishments, bowling alley, swimming pool and a sports bar.
Gardner’s Basin, located in the marina district, is undergoing an expansion and redevelopment project designed to provide additional restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Plans also include reconstruction of The Boardwalk from the now-shuttered Revel to Gardner’s Basin.
The famous Steel Pier soon will boast a 200-foot-high observation wheel. The $14 million project will offer riders views of both the ocean and the Atlantic City skyline from inside climate-controlled gondolas.
Borgata Festival Park, the city’s newest outdoor entertainment venue, is an outdoor venue featuring a 4,000-person capacity concert space adjacent to the hotel casino. It includes a main stage, bar, ping pong tables and amenities including beer trucks, fire pits and tables.
New York City is America’s most iconic metropolis, more beloved than ever since the events of 9/11. And since the financial crisis of 2008, the Big Apple has regained its status as the country’s most prized meeting destination — for associations that can afford it or at least find a way to make it work on the budget they have available.
“New York is a unique destination,” says Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and expositions, at Atlanta-based association management company Kellen Meetings. “It’s a place unto itself.”
Although New York is a perennially popular destination for many association meeting planners because of its global recognition and vast range of singular amenities, from the Empire State Building and Wall Street to tony Fifth Avenue and hip, trendy SoHo, the city also offers a distinct practical advantage when it comes to hosting meetings and events, Hope says.
“One of the things that really makes it unique as a meeting destination is that it has a huge concentration of independent hotels,” he notes. “There are far more independent hotels, as a percentage of total room inventory versus branded hotels, than almost anywhere else. And New York is famous for its wonderful independent, boutique-style properties. The challenge is finding them. Unless you have existing relationships in New York or at least understand the destination, it can be daunting to discover the high-quality independent hotels that would perfectly suit your needs.”
A related challenge for first-time users of the destination, he adds, is the fluctuation in hotel room rates. “The same hotel that might charge you $250 per night this week might be charging $650 next week for the same room, depending on what time of year it is and what is going on in the city. As a result of those factors, New York has huge peaks and valleys in their rate structure based on demand.”
And today, in general, he says, New York is getting higher rates at its premium properties than at any time since 2008.
However, Hope says, for many association meeting planners who want to stage a truly spectacular meeting in a place unlike any other, “New York is always part of the conversation, because it has great mystique. It’s a vibrant city. That said, there are usually issues of room rates and availability in the context of the association market, which tends to be quite rate-resistant. But for some associations — the right associations, and especially those that are headquartered in New York and others that might be attached to markets like the financial market, which is centered there — then New York works well as a destination. You just have to find the best rates you can.”
At the same time, Hope says, because there is such a vast array of hotel options, particularly among independent properties, planners must pay careful attention to certain sourcing factors that are essential to a successful meeting in The Big Apple.
“You really have to qualify the condition and service level of independent properties,” he advises. “That means you need to know the market. For example, one of the hotels that we really like is The Roosevelt. It has maintained a high standard of service over the years. But we needed to get to know the market and get to know the hotel’s owners and management team before we knew we could count on and recommend The Roosevelt year after year. Other properties have peaks and valleys in terms of condition and service level, especially if they change ownership or management companies. So you have to be very careful about that. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Based on his years of extensive experience of planning meetings in New York, Hope has a short list of preferred hotels. For large meetings, he likes the city’s famous trio of major flag, big box properties: the New York Marriott Marquis, New York Hilton Midtown and Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers. For medium-size groups, the legendary Waldorf Astoria New York is among his favorites. “That hotel just maintains a service level that is awesome.” He also favors the Grand Hyatt New York at Grand Central Station. “That property is also a guaranteed home run every time,” he says. For small groups, his go-to property for years has been The Roosevelt Hotel.
In addition to its stellar hotel product, another factor that makes New York so well-suited to association meetings and events is its unparalleled array of offsite venues.
“That’s one area where New York really shines,” Hope says. “New York has more special event venues and lofts, warehouses and art galleries and courtyards than any other place. There is just an incredible variety of creative options to do something really special. And there is also something for every budget level.”
Hope’s favorite venues include the landmark Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Do an event there and it will never be forgotten,” he says.” He particularly likes the Egyptian-themed Temple of Dander that overlooks Central Park. “We used that not long ago for a black-tie event for 200 people, and it was just spectacular,” he says. In September 2014, the Metropolitan Museum opened yet another spectacular venue, its new David H. Koch Plaza, which includes fountains and 100 newly planted trees, permanent and temporary seating areas, and diffused nighttime lighting.
Another venue he prefers is the world-famous The Rainbow Room atop the 65-story 30 Rockefeller Center and NBC/Universal’s corporate headquarters. “It’s another venue that is just truly spectacular,” he says. Originally opened in 1934, The Rainbow Room reopened in October 2014 after an extensive renovation. It operates as both a restaurant open to the public and a private event space with superb in-house catering.
Among other options at 30 Rock is the building’s famous outdoor terrace, often seen on “The Today Show.” “At the right time of year, generally in spring or fall when it’s not too hot or too cold,” Hope says, “there’s no better place than that to do a reception.”
With a current inventory of 113,000 hotel rooms and another 11,000 in the works, New York has debuted or is opening a wide range of new properties over the next two years.
Although most are smaller properties with insufficient amounts of meeting space for association meetings, some are innovative new properties that are good options for small and medium-sized meetings.
The new, 190-room SLS New York Hotel, designed by hotel superstar Philippe Starck, who rose to fame as the result of his mid-1990s design of the Delano in South Beach Miami, is scheduled to open on Park Avenue in summer 2016.
The 287-room The Beekman — A Thompson Hotel is scheduled to open on Beekman Street in lower Manhattan in winter 2015. Award-winning restaurateurs Keith McNally of famed institutions Balthazar and Pastis and Craft Hospitality chef/owner Tom Colicchio will be operating the highly anticipated restaurants.
New hotels include the 122-room Hyatt Herald Square New York, located on West 31st Street off Fifth Avenue, and the 210-room Park Hyatt New York, located on fashionable West 57th Street.
The New Yorker, a Wyndham Hotel is New York City’s newest reimagined historic hotel. The 912-room property features upmarket amenities, newly redesigned guest rooms, 23,000 sf of meeting space and a location in the very heart and soul of midtown Manhattan.
For major association conventions, one of New York’s advantages is its Javits Center convention facility, designed by legendary architect I.M. Pei and originally opened in 1986. The complex contains 840,000 sf of exhibition space on four levels, 28,000 sf of dedicated meeting space and 665,000 sf of prefunction, support and staging areas.
The Javits Center North exposition space, which opened in July 2010, features an 80,000-sf, column-free exhibit hall that is linked to the main building by a 30-foot-wide corridor.
Despite the fact that to most Americans New York still means Manhattan, the borough of Brooklyn has slowly but steadily gained recognition and generated enthusiasm as a meeting destination over the past decade. Today, for association meeting planners who want to do a New York meeting and also avoid Manhattan’s high price tag, Brooklyn is a popular alternative.
Meghan Gutierrez, CEO of the Manhattan-based Lymphoma Research Foundation, has used the 665-room Brooklyn Bridge Marriott, with 44,542 sf of meeting space, as her venue for the organization’s annual three-day North American Educational Forum on Lymphoma every other year for the past decade. The conference, which draws more than 500 cancer patients, caregivers, physicians and researchers, alternates each year between the East and West coasts.
Gutierrez and her event will be back in Brooklyn this October.
Why such longstanding loyalty to Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott?
“When you’re planning a national meeting, access to the venue is a critically important piece of your decision-making,” Gutierrez says. “Because we are located in Manhattan, we wanted to identify a place that met all of our needs and was relatively close to our office, but still was highly accessible for our faculty and attendees. And when we began to look at the area, we focused on Brooklyn, because at that time, it was an up-and-coming area of New York City. But it also met all of our needs in terms of access and venue availability.”
Once she toured the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott for the first time 10 years ago, she knew she had found her East Coast home. “We felt it was a wonderful venue that met all of our needs and could perfectly host our conference,” she says. And that has proven to be true over the course of five biannual meetings.
One of the key reasons why Lymphoma Research Foundation keeps coming back is the extraordinary value proposition the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott delivers when compared to Manhattan. “We don’t only think about geographic accessibility for the meeting,” Gutierrez says. “We also think about financial accessibility for our attendees, especially our patients and caregivers. Because of the uniqueness of our program, we know that many people want to attend. So we want to make sure we do everything we can to make it affordable for them. One of the things we’ve done over the years is to work closely with the hotel to make sure that our sleeping rooms are affordable for the average person.”
To maximize the cost-effectiveness of the conference for her budget-minded attendees, Gutierrez also uses the hotel’s catering department for all three of the event’s daily meals.
“The value we get for our food and beverage budget is tremendously high,” Gutierrez says. “In our case, the hotel is serving a population that in many cases has been diagnosed with cancer. So we always want to be very mindful of their nutritional needs and the dietary restrictions a number of them have. The hotel has always worked very well with us in addressing those things. They are also very good about diversifying their offerings, because we also have attendees that are avoiding certain kinds of foods or types of products. So we also work hard to be sensitive to individual requests for meals. And again, we have established a very close relationship and good communication with the culinary staff at the hotel. And that allows us to respond very well to all of the needs that our attendees have.”
In addition, the hotel delivers consistently superb service across the board. “Their team, from the internal meeting planning team we work with, all the way to the onsite support staff during the meeting or culinary staff, is really an extension of our own staff,” Gutierrez says. “They have become so familiar with our meeting and our unique needs that we are really collaborators. And that kind of relationship helps us do a better job of making sure that we produce an excellent meeting.”
Like Manhattan, Brooklyn also offers exceptional offsite venues. The Barclays Center offers seating for 4,000 to 7,700 attendees, in the Cushman & Wakefield Theatre as well as boardrooms, restaurant and club space and private use of the sports arena where the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets play.
Last February, the Kings Theatre, formerly Loew’s Kings Theatre, opened in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn after a $94 million renovation that restored the original movie palace-type theater, which opened in 1929, to its full historic and architectural splendor. AC&F