Lady Luck has not smiled on Atlantic City’s gaming industry in recent years. Revenue in that segment has fallen since 2007, and four casinos have closed to date. A major reason is competition: While Atlantic City is still considered the gaming capital of the East Coast, up-and-coming gaming markets in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Connecticut have been siphoning away clientele.
Fortunately, Atlantic City has many other cards to play in the tourism business, from its nostalgic appeal to great entertainment, restaurants and shopping. For incoming meeting groups, it also offers top-tier function space and services by upscale brands such as Caesars, Tropicana and Trump.
Focusing on these non-gaming virtues has effectively led to the “rebirth” of this classic resort town, renowned for Americana such as The Boardwalk and the Miss America Pageant. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) reports that in the last two years, non-gaming revenues have increased by more than $160 million and are now nearing $1 billion annually. Group bookings at the city’s primary meeting hotels also have been on the rise, increasing by more than 22 percent since 2009.
But the “new” Atlantic City has certainly not left the success of its meetings business to chance. It is taking calculated measures to ensure that the revenue stream continues trending upward. A significant step was the formation of the CRDA-funded Meet AC last April and the appointment of James Wood as its CEO. Formerly president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, Wood is intent on fulfilling Atlantic City’s potential as a meetings hub. “Knowing that the convention market is one that used to be vibrant here in Atlantic City years ago, (we’re trying to) reenergize that aspect of the business and bring more meetings and conventions back to Atlantic City.” The effort has seen results, with 8 percent more group bookings and 15 percent more convention-related room nights, in 2014 than in 2013. “We booked more convention room nights in 2014 than we had in the previous 15 years. So we have very positive momentum,” he says, adding, “We’re seeing growth in multiple segments, including corporate, regional association and sports, so that’s very encouraging for us.” Sports convention business in particular will benefit from the new Atlantic City Sports Commission, launched in January.
“We’re seeing growth in multiple segments, including corporate, regional association and sports, so that’s very encouraging for us.” — James Wood
Wood indicates the city is on track to realize a 20 percent increase over 2014 in its meetings business this year. During the first quarter of 2015, the Meet AC sales team brought 30 conventions and meetings to the Atlantic City Convention Center and another 19 to the city’s hotel properties. That’s an increase of more than 25 percent from the first quarter of 2014. In addition, attendee spending rose 32.7 percent from the same quarter as last year, to approximately $73.1 million.
“Atlantic City is a destination that is expanding outside of the gaming market. While gaming may still be an important part of this city, attracting convention business is their current goal,” affirms Sally O’Shea, CEM, a Philadelphia-based independent event manager who oversees manufacturer EP Henry’s Mid-Atlantic Hardscaping Trade Show at the Atlantic City Convention Center. O’Shea has worked with shows in the city since 2004, and has seen an improved Atlantic City Convention Center under Global Spectrum management. “Their hands-on management team is very active with the shows,” she says. “When the management first came in they invited show managers of different companies that produce shows in Atlantic City to a meeting where they introduced them to the organization.” Initially, the convention center also “asked us for feedback and actually followed up on that feedback with information on what they’ve done and plan to do based on it,” O’Shea notes. In addition, Global Spectrum negotiated new union contracts at the convention center that have reduced operating costs.
“We have a tremendous relationship with Global Spectrum; they’re a terrific partner with Meet AC as well as the CRDA,” notes Wood. Meet AC’s staff, currently numbering 26, was mostly comprised of new hires when it was formed, with a few employees of the CVA. Sales territories were changed, but O’Shea notes that they ensured her that she would continue to work with the same representative she was accustomed to. “Meet AC makes it a point to be very knowledgeable of what assets they have within the city,” she adds. “They do not play favoritism in any way; that’s been my experience.”
While Meet AC is doing much to revitalize the city’s meetings business, there are also ambitious ideas coming from the private sector. Florida developer Glenn Straub has purchased Revel, the $2.4 billion casino resort that closed last September after failing to turn a profit, for $82 million. He reportedly intends to build the resort’s never-completed second tower. “I think Revel is an interesting case study for everyone to look at,” Wood says. “They invested a significant amount of money to build the property, but they didn’t finish building it out; that’s No. 1. And they came to the market with a different approach, but obviously the strategy didn’t work for them. It’s going to reopen sometime this year, and we’re excited about its reemergence and a new brand associated with it.” But the new property is just a part of Straub’s overall vision for Atlantic City, a $500 million deal that includes an agreement to purchase the former Showboat casino from Stockton University; a proposal to reopen Bader Field as a sports complex; numerous new recreational facilities (such as an equestrian complex and waterparks); and high-speed ferries and helicopter service between Manhattan and Atlantic City.
While Straub is certainly “thinking big,” it remains to be seen whether his $500 million deal will come to fruition. In the meantime, planners can take advantage of several developments in the city that have been realized, primarily at hotels and resorts. The 507-room Claridge Hotel, whose largest meeting space is 3,800 sf, reopened last year with new restaurants and entertainment offerings at this 1920s-era property. The Twenties Restaurant, frequented by Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday, reopened in November. Here, groups can also experience the Atlantic City Ballet and the Garden State Discovery Museum. Cem Erenler was appointed as the hotel’s new GM in February.
Wood asserts, “Everybody is opening their doors to the meetings and convention market,” and a standout example is Caesars Entertainment. In August, the company is debuting the $125.8 million Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center, the largest convention center-hotel complex from Baltimore to Boston. Groups will have at their disposal two 50,000-sf ballrooms that can be divided into up to 29 individual sections, directly accessible to Harrah’s Atlantic City’s 2,500-plus hotel rooms.
Richardson, Texas-based Lennox Industries Inc., an HVAC systems provider, has held its Northeast Dealer Meeting in Atlantic City for the past 11 consecutive years. According to Kim Hentges, CMP, senior planner, events and incentives, the company has contracted the new conference center for its 2016 meeting. “Harrah’s new conference center is going to be a great fit for us due to all of our meeting space needs located together on one level,” she says. “And the size and quantity of the meeting space allows us to grow our program, while still keeping it on one level.”
New meeting space is also coming to Resorts Casino Hotel, the first casino to open in the city. Planners will be able to utilize an additional 12,000 sf of meeting space, including 11 new conference rooms, thanks to a $9.4 million expansion plan. When the project is complete this summer, Resorts will offer 64,000 sf of function space consisting of 27 rooms accommodating from 40 up to 1,350 attendees.
Last October, Chrysler held a parts and service meeting for its mid-Atlantic and Northeast Business Centers at Resorts, bringing in 500 attendees. Susan Elise McGonigle Corporate Events arranged the program for Chrysler, and McGonigle notes that Resorts was selected partly based on “how they treated us on the site inspection. We felt they could fit our needs the best and bend over backwards to make sure our event was a success.” Ultimately, Resorts confirmed that impression was correct with “an amazing attention to detail,” she says. “Even the desserts had our logo in them and they did ice sculptures with our logo — little things that build up in the end.” Attendees also enjoyed private dining in groups of 50–60 at Margaritaville, a popular Jimmy Buffet-themed restaurant at the hotel, as well as the Landshark Bar & Grill. Resorts Casino Hotel will be even more attractive to the group with the additional meeting space, particularly the new breakout rooms all on one level. “The expansion they’re doing is key; we do a lot of breakouts,” says McGonigle, adding, “We will be going back in the fall for a smaller meeting using the new facility.”
Major hotel makeovers include Tropicana Atlantic City’s $50 million resort-wide renovation featuring the addition of a multimedia light and sound show to the Boardwalk façade, a new fitness center on Brighton Avenue, North Tower hotel room renovations, a completely renovated North Tower casino floor and new retail shops. All projects were recently completed.
Also investing in upgrades is Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, with $13 million in renovations to its Borgata Buffet, men’s and women’s lounges at Spa Toccare, the Pump Room (Fitness Center) at Spa Toccare and the casino floor. Recently, the hotel announced $14 million in additions, including an outdoor concert venue, Borgata Festival Park and a new nightclub. Festival Park will debut this June, while the new nightclub is expected to open at the end of the year. Borgata has invested $50 million in redesigning its 1,566 Classic guest rooms and hotel corridors, and the room improvements continue this year with $6 million dedicated to restyle 39 Opus suites and two 5,000-sf Residence suites.
Both the Atlantic City Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall will receive more than $100 million in maintenance-related upgrades, ensuring that these facilities remain in peak condition to host attendees, whether for a meeting or entertainment, in the case of Boardwalk Hall. Also managed by Global Spectrum, the venue hosted 54 ticketed events last year, a 26 percent increase from 2013. The events included 13 concerts by major acts such as Lady Gaga, Luke Bryan, Aerosmith, Kiss, Queen, Jason Aldean and Def Leppard.
Atlantic City’s broader focus on non-gaming entertainment also will be supported by “The Playground,” a 464,000-sf self-contained entertainment venue, which rests over the Atlantic Ocean and includes high-end retail as well as eight live entertainment clubs and restaurants. The Playground also will boast a 50,000-person oceanfront concert space, bowling alley, swimming pool and the Varsity Club, a sports bar. The new venue will be fully operational by year end.
Caesars has a new venue of its own with the recently opened Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Atlantic City. The 250-seat restaurant offers an authentic English pub experience on the East Coast.
Yet another highlight is the $34 million Bass Pro Shop at the Walk, which opened in April.
One of the city’s classic attractions is also seeing investment: The iconic Steel Pier is undergoing a $100 million, three-phase makeover and will be open year-round. Phase two includes plans for a new museum, retail entertainment space and a 200-foot-high observation wheel. The third and final phase revamps the Marine Ballroom as a 2,000-seat venue suitable for concerts. The renovations are expected to be completed in this year. This spring also saw the beginning of a $50 million reconstruction of The Boardwalk from Revel to Gardner’s Basin.
Wood emphasizes that however much Atlantic City develops, its traditional attractions remain a draw. “When people come to Atlantic City they still have a tremendous Boardwalk and some of the best beaches in America,” he says. “And the gaming piece is still very popular; millions of gamers come every year.” But with approximately 60 casinos in the Northeast vying for business, “there is now a focus on diversifying the mix a little bit more, to add more non-gaming business opportunities to Atlantic City. That philosophy had emerged over the last couple of years.”
Atlantic City will display its non-gaming attractions for meeting planners next year when it hosts the 2016 MPI World Education Congress. “It’s all part of the new strategy of Atlantic City, to (bid for) some of the industry shows and showcase the city as a viable destination for meetings and conventions,” says Wood. “We’ll be working with Caesars Entertainment to host the MPI convention, which will bring in over 1,000 meeting professionals to the destination. Our preliminary plans include an opening-night party at the brand new Playground entertainment venue so people will get a taste of the true Atlantic City experience. We’re going to pull out all the stops to make the 2016 convention the most memorable for MPI.”
McGonigle has personally experienced the city’s zeal in pursuing the corporate group market. “As a meeting planner, I’ve never seen a city that was more competitive for the business,” she relates. Meet AC and Atlantic City’s hotels are all “very proactive for the business, and they show appreciation for it, unlike other locations.” The surging number of group bookings is thus no surprise, and the multitude of investments in the city’s meetings and tourism infrastructure guarantee Atlantic City will continue to have new selling points in the future. C&IT