Like the ocean breezes that blow over its storied Boardwalk, Atlantic City is welcoming winds of change that are clearing away the dark clouds of casino closings and bringing in a new air of revitalization to one of America’s oldest resorts, and along with it, a renewed surge in convention bookings.
Atlantic City meetings industry executives have read all the media stories and felt the financial impact of the 2014 closings, but they’re smiling now, as there are too many positive things happening in the city for anyone to be anything but bullish about Atlantic City’s future. In fact, for 2016 and beyond, things are looking pretty darn sunny.
“We are very optimistic that the city is rebounding nicely as a great destination for association meetings and trade shows.”
— Jim Wood
“The year 2015 was Meet AC’s first full year as a new organization, and we exceeded our goals by almost 39 percent,” says Jim Wood, CEO of Meet AC, the sales and marketing force that supports the Atlantic City Convention Center (ACCC), and has been instrumental in helping to attract corporate and association events to the city. “We are really thrilled with the outcome of how we ended the year in terms of productivity. We booked quite a few association events into Atlantic City in 2015, and 2016 is going better than planned, so we are very optimistic that the city is rebounding nicely as a great destination for association meetings and trade shows.”
One of the reasons Atlantic City continues to be so popular for association meeting planners is that all the large hotel properties have everything groups need under one roof, says Wood. “Tropicana has 19 different restaurants within itself, so whether it’s the Borgata, Harrah’s, Golden Nugget, Caesars, Resorts, the Taj Mahal or Bally’s, they all have a plethora of dining venues and function rooms. When an association meeting planner wants to have a trade show or convention in Atlantic City they have so many options of doing various types of events right onsite, without having to hire buses to move around hundreds or thousands of participants,” Wood says. “That’s what makes Atlantic City unique, with the self-contained properties that offer everything, and you still have the Boardwalk, and the Atlantic Ocean beaches are just steps away for planners who want to do creative outside events.
“One of our biggest assets, of course, is the Atlantic City Convention Center (ACCC),” Wood continues. “This venue provides exhibitors with 486,600 contiguous sf of exhibit space, as well as 45 meeting rooms featuring an extra 109,100 sf, ample prefunction space and all the amenities you would expect from a top-notch, professional convention venue.” The ACCC is the largest facility of its kind in New Jersey.
One of the major events scheduled for 2016 will take place in March, when the New Jersey Builders Association brings its 67th annual trade show to Resorts Casino Hotel. The Association of Building Contractors (ABC) trade show, hosted by the New Jersey Builders Association (NJBA), is the largest building industry trade show in the Northeast, drawing approximately 6,500 participants, including residential and commercial builders, developers, remodelers and subcontractors, plus a variety of manufacturers, suppliers and consulting professionals. The convention features nearly 400 exhibits and includes many educational seminars as well.
“This event has been growing tremendously since it started in 1949, and it has always taken place in New Jersey,” says Diane Nicolo-Pocino, vice president of events and programs for the New Jersey Builders Association. “We had been using venues all across the state, but in the last 30 years or so, because of the large amount of guest rooms and meeting space we now need, we have been holding the event in Atlantic City, using many venues in the city multiple times. During the past two years we were at Resorts (Casino Hotel), and will be there again in March for the 2016 ABC event.
“We have blocked over 800 room nights at Resorts, with an additional block at the Sheraton Convention Center hotel since many of our educational programs and other functions will take place at the Atlantic City Convention Center just across the street,” Nicolo-Pocino says. “Resorts really wowed us with what they have to offer in terms of service, cuisine and the new Resorts Conference Center.”
The new multifaceted conference center at Resorts Casino Hotel, completed last summer, added 12,000 sf of meeting space and 12 more conference rooms all on one level. The 12 completed meeting spaces, named the Atlantic Rooms, include mobile partitions, modular lounge areas with outlets and USB ports, prefunction spaces with snack and coffee areas, and state-of-the-art AV and lighting controls.
The showpiece of the conference center is the Atlantic Ballroom, a 6,500-sf function room with a multiuse prefunction area and views of the Atlantic Ocean. The new conference center brings the total offerings at Resorts to 24 meeting and function rooms with more than 64,000 sf of usable space. Fourteen of those meeting rooms feature natural light and ocean views. The 12 new breakout rooms have built-in 80-inch or 90-inch LED monitors, dropdown screens and cinema-quality DLP projectors. Two theaters offer seating for 300 or 1,350 with state-of-the-art sound and light technology.
Nicolo-Pocino says that Resorts provided everything they needed in terms of meeting and exhibit space for the last two events, and the scheduled three-day, March 2016 event should be even better. “The Builders Beach Party, called Head on Down to Margaritaville, will be held on the ‘beach’ at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville entertainment complex,” says Nicolo-Pocino. “The organization’s Sales & Marketing Awards (SAM) banquet, called Carnaval, a Rio-style SAM Spectacular, will be the grand finale and take place in the Ocean Ballroom & Superstar Theater. It will all be really spectacular.” Margaritaville is located at Resorts Casino Hotel.
Regarding Atlantic City’s future as a meetings and convention destination, Nicolo-Pocino says that the hotel properties in the city only seem to get better. “Everything is here, the gaming, shows, high-end shopping, room availability and meeting space, and everyone at all the venues works hard to make sure our event is successful.”
The New Jersey Association of Public Accountants organized their December 2015 event at the Tropicana Casino & Resort Atlantic City for 170 attendees. “I chose the Trop because of the capable, knowledgeable and friendly staff that you interact with when running seminars,” says Niles Breslau, the association’s executive director. “I am talking about all services at the property, from maintenance and servers to management staff, and The Quarter, with its shops and entertainment options, had so much to offer to our attendees, in addition to the gaming floor. Atlantic City is still a great place to visit and have a fun time.”
Tropicana recently announced a $25 million renovation that primarily will encompass upgrades to 500 guest rooms in the Havana Tower. Completed last year was a $50 million renovation that included Boardwalk façade improvements, hotel room upgrades and property-wide expansion. The property recently opened the multimillion-dollar AtlantiCare LiveCenter, which the Tropicana touts as the most advanced gym facility in Atlantic City.
One of the highlights of last year’s improvement project is the Tropicana Multimedia Light and Sound Show on the property’s re-imagined Boardwalk façade. Massive LED screens, strobe lights and continuous digital media displays light up the night in a choreographed multimedia light and sound show.
The Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel is the closest property to the Atlantic City Convention Center, located just across the street and connected by a covered walkway. The hotel offers 502 guest rooms and 27,000 sf of meeting space, including an 11,700-sf multifunction room, and for association meeting planners using the ACCC, the hotel’s proximity is a big plus. The property suggests that 250–300 rooms are workable blocks, with 400 rooms as a maximum.
Harrah’s $125 million Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center made a big splash when it opened in September of last year, and it is now gearing up for the 2016 World Education Congress (WEC), hosted by Meeting Professionals International (MPI) in June 2016. The WEC will attract more than 2,500 attendees, including corporate, third-party and association planners, suppliers, industry faculty and students, and it will be the first time that MPI has hosted a congress in Atlantic City. The Waterfront Conference Center offers 100,000 sf of meeting space and state-of-the-art technology throughout the venue. The huge amount of meeting space can be easily reconfigured into as many as 63 individual meeting rooms, including two 50,000-sf pillarless ballrooms that can accommodate up to 5,000 guests.
“We are happy to be partnering with Caesars Entertainment in hosting MPI’s WEC in 2016,” says Meet AC’s Jim Wood. “This is a strategic direction for Meet AC and for Atlantic City as we continue to diversify our mix of business. Showcasing Atlantic City to over 1,000 meeting planners and over 2,500 total attendees will definitely help us grow the meetings and conventions market.”
Harrah’s Resort’s other features include 2,590 hotel rooms, directly accessible from the Waterfront Conference Center, a 1,200-seat theater and an indoor pool covered by a 90-foot glass dome.
Bally’s, another Caesar’s Entertainment Atlantic City property, offers 1,760 guest rooms, many with ocean views, and 147 guest rooms in Bally’s Tower have recently been renovated. The hotel can provide 80,000 sf of meeting space, all located on one level, with 23 meeting rooms, from a 20-person boardroom to a ballroom for 1,900. There also is the Bally’s Legends in Concert Theater, with 450 seats and plenty of technological capabilities.
The third Caesars Entertainment property in Atlantic City, the 1,144-room Caesars Atlantic City, has 28,000 sf of meeting space, including the 17,135-sf Palladium Ballroom, with its generous pre-function space and elegant atmosphere. Ten meeting rooms range from 490 sf to 1,262 sf, and can be combined to create a larger space. The renovated Circus Maximus Theater at Caesars has comfortable seating for more than 1,500 guests for special events, and renovations of 286 guest rooms in Temple Tower will be completed by May. And, of course, for association planners booked into Bally’s and/or Caesars, meeting options can be extended at sister property Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and its Waterfront Conference Center.
“Bally’s opened Guy Fieri’s Chophouse last year with a view of the Boardwalk and beach,” says Steve van der Molen, vice president of meeting operations Atlantic City for Caesars Entertainment National Meetings & Events. “Caesars was also busy with new dining venues, including the debut of the Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill, modeled after the famous concept brought by the Michelin Star chef to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill has become the best spot in Atlantic City for a true, authentic British pub experience.”
Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget hotel casino, the former Trump Marina property, has been a shining star on the Atlantic City skyline since Landry’s Inc. completed the hotel casino’s $150 million transformation in 2011. In 2014, which saw four casinos close, the Golden Nugget generated $179 million in net revenue, a 36 percent increase over 2013, and in the first half of 2015 net revenue was $100 million, a 26.7 percent increase over 2014.
The renovation at Golden Nugget was top-to-bottom, and included new meeting space, guest room upgrades, and adding several popular dining venues, including Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse, the Chart House, and the seasonal H2O Pool + Bar Grill, located on the 6th floor of the hotel, with a breathtaking view of Atlantic City and the ocean. The property offers several unique meeting spaces, including the outdoor Event Lawn (45,000 sf), the Observation Deck (9,000 sf) and The Grand (19,920 sf).
The 2,010-room Trump Taj Mahal is New Jersey’s largest hotel meeting, conference and exhibit facility under one roof. Covering 17 acres of Boardwalk real estate, and 4.2 million sf of enclosed space, the Taj offers 155,000 sf of meeting space, including the 63,000-sf Mark G. Etess Arena, allowing association trade show planners to offer up to 325 8-by-10-foot exhibit booths, or 6,000 theater style. The 30,600-sf Grand Ballroom is just one of three large ballrooms for groups.
Meeting rooms at the 2,000-room Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa offer association planners additional options for anticipated group bookings. The property provides 70,000 sf of event space, accommodating 10 to 3,500 people, including a 12,000-sf meeting room. All meeting spaces at Borgata have built-in lighting systems, extensive video and sound technology, with additional meeting venues at The Water Club, the 800-room upscale hotel adjoining the Borgata. The 18,000 sf of meeting space at The Water Club includes 13 venues accommodating 20 to 200 people, with its own banquet and catering department, signature in-room dining and banquet menus by noted chef Geoffrey Zakarian, and access to Immersion, the 32nd-floor, 36,000-sf spa and lap pool.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa recently announced plans to invest more than $50 million into the improvement of its property throughout 2016: Borgata Festival Park will be transformed into an outdoor pool beginning this summer, featuring more than 400 chaise lounges, daybeds and cabanas, a full-service canopied bar, entertainment stage, and a variety of lawn games and activities, all centered on a 3,200-sf Roman-style pool. Debuting this spring is Premier, an 18,000-sf nightclub offering “a theatrical experience for partygoers.” The Borgata also added the James Beard award-winning chef Michael Symon to its fine-dining roster. With the anticipated fall 2016 opening of his new Borgata signature restaurant, Symon will join fellow chefs Bobby Flay (Bobby Flay Steak), Geoffrey Zakarian (The Water Club), and Wolfgang Puck (Wolfgang Puck American Grille), as part of the Borgata’s culinary family.
The iconic Steel Pier will reopen March 26 after a $14 million restoration. The amusement park will feature a 220-foot-high observation wheel offering riders views of Atlantic City and the ocean from inside climate-controlled gondolas.
The Playground, a 464,000-sf entertainment venue featuring eight live entertainment clubs and restaurants, plans to add more amenities including a bowling alley, sports bar and outside pool on the beach with cabanas.
Gardner’s Basin, located in the marina district, will launch an expansion and redevelopment project by the end of this summer. The project will include additional restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. In addition, the Boardwalk between Gardner’s Basin and Revel will be reconstructed.
Several other large association groups are seen as pivotal for Atlantic City’s continued success in 2016. The Triple Play Realtor Convention and Trade Expo guaranteed a return to Atlantic City in 2016 when they signed a three-year contract extension that will keep the 8,000 attendees, 325-booth trade show at the Atlantic City Convention Center through 2018.
The convention, co-sponsored by the New Jersey, New York State and Pennsylvania association of Realtors, is now in its 15th year at the Convention Center. The annual estimated economic impact derived from their convention is more than $4.8 million annually, which means the contract extension will mean a combined $14.4 million economic impact to Atlantic City. “We are thrilled that the Triple Play Realtor Convention has elected to remain with us here in Atlantic City through 2018,” says Wood. Last year the Realtor Convention attendees booked 3,900 room nights at various Atlantic City properties during the December event.
Teams ’16, the world’s leading conference and expo for the sports event industry, presented by SportsTravel magazine, will be held in Atlantic City on September 26-29, 2016. Teams attracts more than 1,400 attendees, including CEOs, executive directors and event managers from sports organizations as well as representatives from sports commissions, convention bureaus, corporate sponsors, event suppliers and other hospitality industry entities.
“The Atlantic City Sports Commission is ecstatic to host Teams ’16 in Atlantic City,” says Wood. “The sports business in Atlantic City continues to grow, whether it’s a convention or tournament. Teams will help us develop the AC Sports Commission as a cutting-edge agency and strengthen our relationships within the sports industry. Teams will generate substantial ROI for Atlantic City.” The event will be held at Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center.
The ACCC will again welcome one of the biggest conventions of its kind as it hosts more than 45,000 attendees for the 2016 New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Convention. Local Atlantic City businesses are expected to greatly benefit from the NJEA Convention activity over the six-day event in November. The estimated delegate spending is expected to reach more than $16 million, and more than 2,000 hotel room nights throughout the city will be contracted by convention attendees. In the past, the NJEA Convention has brought in the largest attendance of the year of all events at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Atlantic City officials also are attempting to extend the Miss America Pageant following the expiration of their three-year contract last year. The Miss America planners are negotiating with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) to see if the competition will remain in its original home on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 2016 and beyond.
Although some local residents believe that the competition does not bring in enough revenue to warrant the city’s multimillion-dollar investment to keep the pageant in town, most feel otherwise, alluding to the historic, emotional connection between Miss America, which started here in 1921, and Atlantic City. That connection, they say, has a public relations value that is priceless.
Stockton University marketing professor Jennifer Barr told the Press of Atlantic City, “The Miss America Pageant is part of the fabric of American history and society. Despite the television ratings slipping, it is a prestigious event that has a very high level of brand equity that spills over to Atlantic City. Brand heritage also is an important factor, because both past and prospective visitors are reminded that Atlantic City is not only the home of the pageant but also a viable resort destination.” AC&F