If you’re old enough to remember the tune “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,” from the Broadway classic “Oklahoma,” your perception of Atlantic City may be stuck in the early-2000s. Years-old reports of its death, as the saying goes, were greatly exaggerated. These days — finally — a happy, new reality is trumping old perceptions. Atlantic City, in fact, is once again becoming a genuine player in the meetings game. Brick by brick, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, it’s changing its look, it’s changing its feel and, yes, it’s starting to really change those pesky, outdated perceptions. And because of these changes, Atlantic City is fortifying itself against the boom-and-bust economic cycles to which it has been victim for so long. Perhaps the most encouraging example of the “street by street” mantra is the Tennessee Avenue Renaissance Project. This is a civic/business effort to turn a once-blighted street into a colorful “new” street with unique shops and eateries, and to turn the once-blighted neighborhood in which it’s located into a hotbed of new businesses and new visitors who may eventually become new residents. Tennessee Avenue is already starting to come to life with interesting shops. Hayday Coffee is serving up a variety of coffees and a dose of fierce pride in their city. If you’d like a bit of chocolate with your coffee, you can get that, too, at MADE Atlantic City Chocolate. Want to work off the calories from the coffee and chocolate afterward? Go down a few doors to The Leadership Studio, a not-for-profit business that’s the only yoga studio in town. Or, if your attendees are looking for a nice place for dinner or drinks, try the premiere dive bar now open on the “new” Tennessee Avenue called Pic-a-Lilli Pub. Or The Irish Pub. Or Mr. Steak Restaurant. What does the Tennessee Avenue Renaissance Project tell us about Atlantic City? It says that city officials and young entrepreneurs are investing their time and money in making their city a better place. It also says that people are now patronizing new businesses in a part of town they may not have patronized before. The result? New life in a neighborhood once thought dead. New life is coming to other neighborhoods, as well. MGM and Caesars have announced they’re studying a potential hotel/casino project in the Marina District of the city. Elsewhere in town, officials have approved $10 million in lobby and atrium upgrades to Atlantic City’s iconic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, the city’s original convention center (the one made famous by Miss America Pageants, political conventions, etc.). This allocation follows $2 million in upgrades previously approved for this historic facility, which is open for tours. The current Atlantic City Convention Center, a 600,000-square-foot facility that opened in 1997, will also be upgraded. Like the rest of the country, the beer and distillery craze has hit Atlantic City, too. Little Water Distillery opened last year, featuring small-batch whiskeys, rums and other artisan spirits in a city that was notoriously unfriendly to the Prohibition laws in the early-20th century. The fact is that everything really is up-to-date in Atlantic City, particularly when it comes to meeting infrastructure, attendee amenities and interesting attractions. Actually, things are not only up-to-date, but also creating new possibilities for planners, and there’s now a ton of “fun” things for attendees in addition to the casinos. The best way to find out about Atlantic City, of course, is to ask other planners who’ve held meetings there. Most will quickly tell you the old perceptions are just that — old. Many say their attendees often consider Atlantic City meetings to be among their most productive … and a great place to get to know other attendees better and have fun. Which, of course, enhances their working relationships when they’re back in the office.
For all the momentous modifications taking place here, some things, thankfully, haven’t changed. For instance, the beaches — Atlantic City still has one of the most famous (and best) beaches in America, the Boardwalk, gaming and great nightspots, fantastic restaurants and a parade of well-known entertainers constantly coming to town. Now, it also boasts one of the most booming foodie scenes in America, with excellent homegrown chefs, as well as nationally known celebrity chefs starting up new restaurants there. It currently has more beachside attractions than almost any city in America — and that number is constantly growing. It has the most famous old convention hall in America (really, the original convention hall in America), now a fascinating museum. There is fabulous shopping right in town, with the famous Tanger Factory Outlet Center. And, it’s now rediscovering — and showing great pride in — the historic buildings and sites that may have been somewhat neglected at times in the past. There’s a new service ethic here, as well, and that’s obviously of great interest to meeting planners. Gone are the days when hotels would sometimes rely too much on the entertainment aspects, sometimes at the expense of other needs. But, now there’s a recognition that a first-class meetings destination requires an ongoing effort to improve both the service and the meetings infrastructure. These days, if you ask a planner who’s been to Atlantic City lately what he/she liked best about it, there’s a good chance you’ll hear something about the service and the attention to detail. “We’ve been meeting in Atlantic City for 102 years,” says Maureen Murphy, director of professional development for an association called New Jersey Realtors, “and we’re going back in December!” The organization, which merged with the New York and Pennsylvania realtors’ associations in 2000, jointly stages the “Triple Play REALTOR Convention & Trade Expo” every year. Murphy brought 8,500 attendees from the three states to Atlantic City last December, and they met at the convention center. “One of the things that impresses me about Atlantic City,” Murphy says, “is that we see new things — new restaurants, new attractions — every year when we come. And, the service ethic in Atlantic City is second to none. Two years ago, we had our 100th anniversary celebration at One Atlantic, a glass structure which literally sticks out into the ocean at the end of the pier. And, people are still talking about it.” Murphy adds that members of the organization contribute a substantial amount each year to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
The recent upgrades to Atlantic City’s meetings infrastructure have been impressive ones. For example, Atlantic City’s historic Claridge Hotel added 15,000 square feet of meeting space in 2016 to hit the 100,000 mark. In addition, both the ballroom and the 483 guest rooms were recently renovated. And, to top it off — literally — the hotel opened Atlantic City’s first rooftop bar, VUE, in late-2016. With superb “views,” VUE is also used for events. Changes have been taking place at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa over the past two years, as well. In fact, the hotel has spent $50 million on improvements. The results include an outdoor pool and beer garden, a Marketplace eatery and a nightclub called Premier. Of most importance to planners, the improvements also included a brand-new Central Conference Center — which has since been expanded by 18,000 square feet. And celebrity chef Michael Symon debuted his latest restaurant, called Angeline, last year. Harrah’s Atlantic City isn’t standing still on its considerable laurels, either. In the last couple of years, it’s renovated 450 guest rooms and the Pool at Harrah’s, a popular gathering spot day and night. One of the country’s most well-known chefs, Gordon Ramsay, opened a new steakhouse in Harrah’s this past Memorial Day. It’s his second in Atlantic City. The Bourbon Room, a 2,380-seat entertainment venue, opened in the former House of Blues in March. It’s situated in the Showboat Hotel, which re-opened two years ago with 852 guest rooms. Tropicana, too, has recently completed a $75 million upgrade, which includes a new, state-of-the-art fitness center, guest rooms and gaming areas. Over the past two years, it’s added five new shows to its outdoor sound-and-light show and a new nightclub. With its purchase of The Chelsea Hotel, Tropicana now has 2,730 guest rooms.
Speaking of “everything’s up-to-date” in Atlantic City, two new casino resorts have recently opened. The old Taj Mahal became the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City — and Hard Rock International spent $300 million to make it that way. You’d expect a Hard Rock to be full of superlatives and, in this case, you’d be right. Pretty much everything in the resort is new, including 20 new-concept restaurants and the meeting spaces. The old Revel Casino Hotel re-opened as the Ocean Resort Casino. Together, the two resorts brought another 3,499 guest rooms and 310,000 square feet of meeting space to Atlantic City. The economic benefit to the city of this double-shot of new hotels was immediate. “The reinvestment and rebranding of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, as well as Ocean Resort Casino, will benefit Atlantic City greatly,” says Jim Wood, president and CEO, Meet AC. “Seven thousand new jobs have been created, ensuring a significant economic impact in our community as a whole. The opening of these two properties is further testament to Atlantic City’s position as a very viable meetings venue.” Carlos Cano is president of the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling (NJACAC). He brought 300 attendees to the Golden Nugget for the Annual Conference in May. It was the third time in the last four years he’s brought the group there. “We start planning for our next meeting the day our last meeting ends,” Cano says. “We want to make sure we leave no detail uncovered. And, the reason we’ve come back to Atlantic City is that we like to provide our attendees with a destination where there’s plenty to do in their downtime, good restaurants, and, in this case, the Jersey Shore and the Boardwalk attractions. And, because, as planners, we like the Golden Nugget. The conference spaces there work very well for us. There are a lot of things for attendees to do, so they don’t have to leave the resort if they don’t want to.” NJACAC works with dlPlan, a meeting/event-planning company located in Atlantic City. “We like to leave some things to the experts, and we value their advice,” says Cano. “We work with them on things like logistics, contracts, pricing, securing the space and on providing the best experience — both in the meeting rooms and out of them — for our attendees.” Atlantic City’s guest room count now exceeds 17,000. And, talk about rooms with a view — nine of the meeting hotels have water views.
When attendees want to go out on the town, they need only walk out the door to do it in Atlantic City. Just outside are lights, colors, attractions, excitement and excellent restaurants (and new ones opening all the time). The Boardwalk itself was recently extended and now extends more than five miles. Cyclists are as welcome as the strollers who are just taking in the salt air and ocean breezes. Recently opening on the Boardwalk was The Biergarten Atlantic City, which offers distinctive draft beers. A boardwalk and pier that are already filled with unusual attractions recently added The Wheel on Steel Pier. It cost $14 million, is 227 feet high and offers spectacular views of the city and Jersey Shore that can’t even be measured in miles. Riders go up in one of 40 climate-controlled gondolas, which means fun in the winter, as well as summer. Food and beverages are allowed, and there are special packages for groups. The Wheel is enormous. But, next year, the Boardwalk’s getting another new attraction that’s even bigger; so big, in fact, it’s almost hard to (figuratively) wrap your arms around it. The new “Polercoaster” will be 350 feet high and 52,000 square feet. The owner, ABC Ownership LLC, is also planning other attractions nearby, among them a zip line, extreme ninja course (“extreme” obstacle courses like the ones on TV), a state-of-the-art XD Theatre with oversized screens and sound systems, a sky-diving simulator, a bar and retail space. Barbara Parmese, chair of the annual meeting for the New Jersey Health Information Management Association (NJHIMA), doesn’t have to be sold on Atlantic City as a place to have productive meetings. Her association has been meeting there since 2002. She brought 175 attendees and 65 exhibitors to Resorts Casino Hotel for the NJHIMA 2018 Annual Meeting. “There are several reasons we keep coming here,” Parmese says, “not the least of which is value. The hotel rates are reasonable. The meeting spaces are reasonably priced, and they’re generally close together, so our attendees aren’t spread out. The hotels are big enough so all our attendees and exhibitors can stay in the same place. We believe strongly that this enhances business relationships and networking.” This was the group’s second consecutive year at Resorts Casino Hotel, and they’re already booked there for next year. Parmese says the group books its venues well in advance — up to 18 months, in fact. “Atlantic City is changing the old images,” Parmese says. “It’s a place to which attendees really like to go. And, as a planner, I like the reasonable prices, and I like the fact that so many attractions and restaurants — and the Jersey Shore — are right out the front door. Our attendees don’t have to take cabs to go somewhere … and any planner would like that. And our post-meeting surveys show that our attendees think our Atlantic City meetings are very productive.” AC&F