In the past few years, Atlantic City has seen many changes as new hotels have opened, infrastructure improvements have been made and significant renovations of a number of properties have been completed.
“Jim has been a driving force in continuing to position Atlantic City as a top destination for the meetings and conventions market. We wish Jim and his family the best in the future.” Matt Doherty
Perhaps no change has been more notable than the announcement last fall that Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC, would be leaving the organization at the end of 2019. Wood had been with Meet AC since 2014, serving as its first CEO and very successfully driving convention business to the city. Under his tenure, the city saw year-over-year growth in meetings and conventions even as the gaming industry struggled.
Matt Doherty, executive director of Atlantic City’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and chairman of the Meet AC board, had this to say about Wood and his legacy: “Jim has been a driving force in continuing to position Atlantic City as a top destination for the meetings and conventions market. We wish Jim and his family the best in the future.”
Meet AC has not yet made any announcements about a new CEO, but the organization itself will continue to serve the meetings industry just as efficiently and effectively as it has the past six years.
There have been several flag changes at the city’s hotels in the past couple of years. In mid 2018, Revel re-opened as Ocean Casino Resort Atlantic City with 1,399 guest rooms, a Topgolf Swing Suite, fitness spa and expansive, flexible indoor and outdoor event space. At the same time, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City opened in the former Taj Mahal Casino space, following a $500 million investment.
True to the brand, entertainment is a focus, but that doesn’t mean meetings, dining and gaming take a backseat. It’s all there, plus a high-appeal factor for planners and attendees.
Speaking of appeal, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City completed a full renovation of its 597-room Coastal Tower, and is now focused on a $24 million investment in updating the 416-room Marina Tower, which will be known as Laguna Tower when the refresh wraps up. Completion is scheduled for this spring.
That’s all part of the $300 million investment Caesars Entertainment has made in the past four years across all three of its Atlantic City properties, which include the Harrah’s, Bally’s and Caesars brands, plus the Waterfront Conference Center.
Ron Baumann, Caesars Entertainment’s regional president, says the company will be “thrilled” to introduce the new Laguna Tower to guests, noting that Caesars Entertainment has spent more than $86 million over the past three years just on upgrades to rooms and suites.
Tropicana Atlantic City has also been on a renovation roll. Following the major renovation of its North Casino Tower and Havana Tower, the hotel just completed a major renovation of the South Tower Casino.
Tropicana also purchased the former Chelsea hotel, renovating it to serve as the property’s fifth tower. Then, construction started on a skybridge to connect the main hotel to the new Chelsea Tower. The skybridge is now complete and, in less than five years, the Tropicana has been transformed.
Planners who haven’t seen Tropicana Atlantic City in the past couple of years haven’t seen the Tropicana Atlantic City.
Atlantic City may not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking about sustainability, but the Atlantic City Convention Center (ACCC) should convince planners and their groups to change their thinking. Last year, the center, which completed a $9 million renovation project, achieved LEED Gold certification, thanks to changes in lighting, preventive maintenance and plumbing, among other areas.
In addition, an expansive recycling program was launched. Groups dedicated to meetings with sustainable elements should definitely consider Atlantic City.
And there’s much more that’s new to consider. The famous Atlantic City Boardwalk now runs for a continuous 7 miles. Along the way, groups can have a year-round Beach Bar experience at Fins Bar, which recently opened at Resorts Casino Hotel as an addition to the property’s Margaritaville LandShark Bar & Grill. It adds 150 seats to the space. The new bar’s biggest draw may be its 2,300-sf boardwalk deck, to say nothing of the new portable stage for live entertainment.
Also on the boardwalk is one of the city’s beloved historic venues, the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. It recently underwent a $10 million renovation that’s now complete, giving groups yet another updated space in which to host events and functions.
And then there’s the Orange Loop, a thriving area of new restaurants, live music venues, coffee spots and more that might make attendees feel like they’ve wandered onto a life-size Monopoly board. The Orange Loop is defined by Tennessee Avenue, St. James Place and New York Avenue, familiar streets to Monopoly fans and colored orange on the game board. Fun fact: Monopoly was invented in Atlantic City. The Orange Loop is located close to the beach and Boardwalk.
In spite of all the growth and many millions of dollars in investment, Atlantic City remains an incredibly affordable destination for meetings, and offers planners and groups hotels to match any requirement and budget.
For Deb Wheelehan, senior manager of Melillo Region Administration with restaurant group Texas Roadhouse, Hard Rock Atlantic City has much to recommend it. Last summer, the senior manager for one of the company’s Regions brought the executive team to the hotel for a quarterly business meeting.
“The location is within driving distance for about 75% of the Region’s team, which made it an attractive venue. The casino and good restaurants added to the attraction,” she says.
The casino, in fact, was very much a factor in the decision to meet at Hard Rock Atlantic City. It provides a great entertainment option but the group found the casino a big draw for another reason: “Those on the team who are smokers — we are in the restaurant industry after all — appreciated that Hard Rock AC’s casino offered more options than all other casinos in the area, yet none of the areas smelled ‘smoky,’” she says.
The staff, too, gets high marks. “The staff is easy to work with and very accommodating,” she adds. “I feel like whenever I have a meeting at this location, they go above and beyond what others do in their position at other resorts and hotels. They’re easy to communicate with, quick in their responses and extremely accommodating of our requests as we tend to be high maintenance.”
She gave the hotel high praise. “Meeting spaces were great, staff was awesome and hotel rooms were very nice. Having the casino close by was a great feature, and having restaurants nearby for breakfast and a couple of dinners was great, too. In addition, some of my team utilized the pool area and cabanas and loved them. Finally, having the Boardwalk just steps away was also convenient,” she says.
The group had daily meetings during which lunch was provided, and Wheelehan notes that they used the provided A/V as well. “The A/V team was easy to work with and gave great service, and everything was to our satisfaction. My team enjoyed the catered lunches, which makes me happy as I have to choose it for them.”
It’s not unusual for meetings to have some challenges, but that was not the case here. “We had no issues at all and I will be contacting them again for some of our meetings this year,” Wheelehan says.
Hard Rock Atlantic City’s ability to accommodate Wheelehan’s requests and needs sets it apart in her mind. “Other gaming properties have not been nearly as accommodating, and I have booked several over my many years with the company; as many as four per year at times,” she says.
She thinks planners considering the Hard Rock Atlantic City will likely find the same experience she has. “If you choose this property, you should not have any issues at all,” she says.
Larry Huttinger, CMP, owner and director of Destination Philly A.C., a destination management company, has used many of the city’s casino hotels for client meetings and events, including Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Harrah’s and Hard Rock Atlantic City. But it’s the city’s affordability that he considers a top selling point for groups.
“Meetings in Atlantic City overall are very affordable and offer some of the best pricing with hotel room rates, and food and beverage costs,” he says. “Compared to areas such as North Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia markets, the value in Atlantic City is there in all aspects, including low prices and complimentary meeting space.
He adds, “All the casino hotels, along with the larger hotels, offer four- and five-star rated accommodations; yet, compared to downtown Philadelphia hotels, Atlantic City is about 30% to 40% less.”
Just as important, the city is easy to reach. “The airport most used is Philadelphia International, though a local airport — Atlantic City International — serves numerous markets as well,” Huttinger says.
The Philadelphia airport is only about one hour away, which Huttinger says compares favorably with many U.S. cities, even those with closer airports when you factor in traffic and its resulting added travel time.
But the main thing Huttinger wants meeting planners to know is that Atlantic City has diversified greatly in recent years. It’s not just about casinos and hotels. Most corporate groups want a full experience, Huttinger says, “and that often means experiencing the outdoor spaces during weather-friendly months. In Atlantic City, we have many months during which the weather really adds a wonderful backdrop and helps to create a memorable event. Between April and October, the opportunities are generally solid to get outdoors to explore.”
And though he notes that the months of March and November can, at times, allow for groups to be outdoors, it’s not something planners can count on. “March and November can be dicey,” he cautions.
The city offers multiple options for groups beyond the hotels and casinos, and Huttinger encourages planners to explore them. “Depending on the expectations and contract with your hotel partner, getting your group beyond the four walls of the hotel can really lift the spirits and add excitement,” he says. “These experiences can include local bars in the newly established Orange Loop, or heading to the city’s local distillery, which is located right in town.”
He advises trying at least a couple of different local places to give attendees a true sense of place. “Go to two local places, with one being on the Boardwalk for ax throwing,” he says. At the other, “consider learning the secrets of making chocolate, then pairing it with infused cocktails.”
The fact is, as Huttinger points out, Atlantic City today offers a wide range of experiences that can engage attendees. “Consider body, mind and soul by going to a local yoga studio for a customized session for all your attendees,” he says.
The experiences recommended here, he points out, are ideal for smaller sized groups — those no larger than 15 to 20 attendees. But that doesn’t mean larger groups can’t benefit from Atlantic City’s diverse offerings. Rather than these groups going out to the providers, Huttinger suggests, the providers can go to the larger groups.
Team building is another group option in today’s Atlantic City, and can serve as a way to get groups out and exploring the destination.
“Taking groups into a team-building setting to see the sights and explore the city can be done in a number of ways,” Huttinger says. “One popular format we use is creating customized races and engaging all attendees as they travel to different parts of the city to see, taste and drink their way into a memorable time in a competitive environment.”
And, of course, there’s corporate social responsibility (CSR). Huttinger advises planners to consider giving attendees the chance to work on a CSR project “when taking a break from a grueling meeting schedule. We have offered this with groups coming to Atlantic City who want an opportunity to do something during break times, and we’ve also offered it to planners during FAM programs.”
One popular option, he says, “is to complete the tasks necessary to create hygiene kits, travel kits and basic winter kits for cold weather. All of these will support individuals who lack basic items in their current living situation. This can be set up near morning or afternoon breaks and also as an activity during receptions.”
Finally, Huttinger says, planners should ask hotel partners which features and spaces their groups might be able to use during the course of a meeting. “All hotels in Atlantic City can accommodate groups small or large,” he says. “But each also offers unique features beyond the meeting space. For example, most can offer use of lounges, restaurants and even theater space when they are not in use by the public.” C&IT