As the calendar turned to 2021, numerous associations started thinking about their annual conferences, hoping that the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown of most venues in 2020 would be history by the time this year’s meetings were being planned.
One of the places high on the list for planners is Atlantic City, which has long been a popular place for hosting thanks to incredible venues, fun nightlife, the beach and boardwalk, and the excitement of the gaming tables. Plus, it’s situated just a few hours’ drive from nearly 33% of the nation’s population and 20% of the country’s business addresses, so it’s convenient for a lot of people to get to by car — important in the immediate post-COVID world. Overall, Atlantic City is a great way to get big city amenities in a small-town feel.
Not surprisingly, Atlantic City’s conference business was hit hard by the pandemic — the city lost an estimated $2 billion — as venues weren’t allowed to host large gatherings and many associations turned to virtual events as an alternative. At the height of the pandemic, indoor events in the state were limited to just 10 people and outdoor gatherings were reduced to 150 guests, though New Jersey weather in the winter pretty much made that possibility unattractive already. But things are on the upswing as the Atlantic City Convention Center (ACCC) recently hosted ImportExpo, the first face-to-face convention in the city since the lockdowns were implemented. Gov. Phil Murphy lifted many restrictions in late spring, and expects to lift most or all of them by mid to late summer.
Millions of dollars in revenue have been forfeited this year without the New Jersey Education Association’s and New Jersey State League of Municipalities’ annual conventions, which both switched to virtual events due to COVID-19 concerns. Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and regional president of Caesars Entertainment Inc, is one of many who reached out to state legislatures to open things up. “We need meetings and conventions,” he says. “We feel pretty passionate that we can do this, and we can do this well.”
Basil N. Mossaidis, executive director of the Order of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), hosted the organization’s 2018 international annual convention at the Harrah’s Atlantic City’s Waterfront Conference Center. “I had about 1,200 people in total come and visit us while we were there for a week. We planned and hosted dances, meetings and dinners. The food, service and location were perfect,” he says. “It was perfectly placed and very convenient to use. Lots of spaces, lots to do and great attractions in and around the hotel.” Over the years, Mossaidis has also hosted the event at the ACCC, and is always excited about coming back to the area. “Atlantic City is a great destination for those who like the sun, surf and fun,” he says. “It is a short drive from many large population centers and not expensive.”
Shawn Johnston, CMP, meetings director for the American Fisheries Society, hosted a conference at the ACCC just prior to the pandemic lockdowns, reserving the entire convention center and Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, as well as a large block of rooms at Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel & Casino, The Claridge – A Radisson Hotel, and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City to accommodate the overflow. “We typically have 1,600 attendees at our meetings in the East,” he says. “The convention was a huge hit, and we will have a hard time outdoing the networking events we had, with fireworks on the beach at Bally’s Beach Bar and a buyout at the Steel Pier and dinner in the Hard Rock ballrooms.” This was the third time he’s brought the annual convention to Atlantic City. Johnston regularly works with CVBs and calls Meet AC one of best he’s dealt with in the 15 years of organizing meetings. “They went above and beyond to assist with our entire meeting, including running permits and working with the hotels for our needs, and checking in daily to see how things are going and what we may need.”
He notes the overall package offered by Meet AC was second to none, and the location was perfect for the American Fisheries Society’s members. “There are many options in Atlantic City for fun that our members enjoy,” Johnston says. “Checking out the boardwalk, taking a break on the beach, various restaurants, outlet shopping — there’s no sales tax on clothing — checking out the views from The Wheel at Steel Pier, trying your luck at the casinos, an early morning jog on the beach, both high-end and casual food options, and when we were here, the airshow was in town, which was very popular.” Additionally, by offering both gaming and non-gaming properties, the event appealed to everyone.
James C. Morris, vice president of client development at Impact XM, an event and experiential marketing company, notes while Atlantic City has seen its fair share of challenges over the past decade, it has remained top of mind for events. “With almost a half million square feet of exhibit space, significant hotel space, coupled with top-notch restaurants and nightlife, Atlantic City continues to be an ideal destination to attract attendees for conferences and congresses,” he says. “From casinos to fishing excursions in the Atlantic Ocean, AC has something for everyone.” Plus, being located outside of Philadelphia and not far from New York City, Atlantic City is attractive to attendees and brands alike.
Jon Pritko, vice president of Northeast shows for the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), plans the Atlantic City Boat Show every year. The 41-year-old event started at the old Boardwalk Hall and switched to the Atlantic City Convention Center in 1997. “The NMMA purchased the show in 2003,” Pritko says. “It’s a great show for Atlantic City because boats could come by water and we could just pull them out and bring them to the convention center, which cuts down on expenses for some of the larger boats.” Being a regional show — inviting boats from all over the mid-Atlantic, Atlantic City is the perfect place for the annual boat show as it’s convenient to so many. The marine industry in New Jersey has more than a $6.6 billion impact, so that makes the show extremely important.
Last February, immediately prior to the pandemic lockdowns, nearly 42,000 people took part in the event. Pritko appreciates Atlantic City as a great host due to all of the amenities that are available to attendees outside of the show itself. “Atlantic City is a resort town, and we come at a need-time for the hotels and casinos. Our demographic is one that they like because people will stay, most gamble and eat at the high-end restaurants,” he says. “What’s great about Atlantic City is Meet AC is a great partner and helps us solve any problem. Other markets aren’t as accommodating or willing to help.”
Lisa M. Daly, associate director of the New Jersey Prevention Network, a public health agency working to prevent substance abuse, addiction and other chronic diseases, says the organization hosts an annual conference in Atlantic City, though last year’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic. “We host ours in the convention center, which has so much versatility,” she says. “They have huge warehouse areas and have 18 wheelers that can be sold, and the ability to make it intimate for a setting like mine, that only has 1,500 people at the conference. We set up our warehouse area more like a rock show.”
That means a full stage, plenty of banquet tables, vendors supplying plated food and everything it needs to put on a first-class event. “The versatility of the convention center and the expertise of the management team help coordinate access to all the city-wide vendors, which is exactly what makes working in Atlantic City so easy,” Daly says. “They connect us to the hotels, they have premium shopping all within walking distance, and some of the best restaurants in the tri-state area are around. So, when your people are not at your event and need something to do, Atlantic City gives them all of that.”
Atlantic City is also world-famous for hosting some of the biggest artists in the entertainment industry, and the hotels regularly bring in the hottest names in music, comedy and theater. “There are just amazing shows for attendees to check out,” Daly says. “No matter what genre you listen to, there’s something happening every single night with a major act. Plus, comedians and other fun acts.” Then of course, if your event is held in the summer, like the New Jersey Prevention Network’s is every year, the beach is right there off the boardwalk. “You have this beautiful boardwalk that’s been around forever,” Daly says. “There’s a great culture there and people just love the beaches. And it’s cleaned up so much for those who haven’t been there in a long time. They’ve made such a great effort with tourism. There are aquariums, parks, pristine beaches, and there are just great amenities for people who come to your conference.”
So, while Daly is in control of everything that happens inside the convention center, and knows from past experience that it’s going to be a winning conference during show times, she can be assured that there’s plenty for people to do outside those hours as well. “When they are out of my convention center, I want to know that people are in a safe, easy-to-access and fun environment, and that’s what Atlantic City offers,” Daly says. “It’s really a cool place.” The New Jersey Prevention Network show is 15 years old now, and it’s also been held at the Sheraton in past years, which is adjacent to the conference center. That’s still where many of the guests of the show stay. “Because of what we do dealing with substance abuse, some of my presenters need to be in a facility that does not connect to gambling or alcohol,” Daly says. “Having a hotel adjacent to the convention center that is not a casino gives me that versatility. I can have my other presenters, who want to gamble and enjoy the nightlife, stay at another hotel.” Before the event each year, Daly hosts a pre-conference show at the Sheraton for about 500 people, and notes it’s a great facility for what she needs.
Transportation options are also strong for people coming from all over the country. For instance, the Atlantic City International Airport has expanded a great deal over the years, and has many low-cost carriers flying in from all over. More international flights can also go into Newark or Philadelphia, which are both less than 45 minutes away by car. “It’s very easy to get to, and we see people from Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware usually driving because it’s close to the turnpike,” Daly says. “It does have fast access to get into the city, and you usually don’t have much traffic.”
For planners looking to entice attendees who enjoy golf, Atlantic City was recently named one of the Top 10 Golf Cities in America by ForbesTraveler.com, thanks to its 25 courses offering a challenge to novice and advanced golfers alike. Many courses are championship caliber, designed by some of the top course consultants in the country. Atlantic City’s oceanside location also provides a generous opportunity for day cruises, sailing, fishing, boating, and canoe or kayak rentals. Nearby local, state and national parks, such as Lake Lenape Park East and Lake Lenape Park West, and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, also offer things to do during conference off hours.
In total, Atlantic City offers nine casinos and event facilities, such as the ACCC, Sheraton Atlantic City, Showboat Hotel Atlantic City, The Claridge and Courtyard by Marriott Atlantic City Beach Block, representing more than 1.8 million sf of meeting space. The ACCC provides 486,600 sf of exhibit space, as well as 45 meeting rooms featuring an extra 109,100 sf, ample pre-function space and plenty of amenities.
Atlantic City hotel resorts also offer some of the finest places to host conferences and meetings. Take Resorts Casino Hotel for example, which spans 21 acres on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, giving guests prime oceanfront views and easy access to the beach. Resorts’ two hotel towers combine to offer a total of 942 guest rooms, along with an 83,000-sf casino, two theaters, six restaurants, an indoor-outdoor pool, a health club, spa, salon and retail shops.
Heather Manzano, director of PR for the hotel, notes, in 2015, Resorts unveiled an advanced all-digital conference center adding 12,000 sf of meeting space and 12 more conference rooms. In total, Resorts offers four ballrooms and 24 meeting rooms — 17 on one floor alone and 14 with natural light and ocean views — comprising 64,000 sf of function space. “The showpiece of the Resorts Conference Center is the Atlantic Ballroom, a 6,500-sf function room with a multi-use, pre-function area, and four sets of operable walls,” she says. “The center offers wireless connectivity of multiple devices for up to 500 attendees simultaneously.”
Among the organizations and associations that have held meetings at Resorts over the past 24 months are the New Jersey Association of Housing Redevelopment Authorities, New Jersey Association of Veteran Service Officers, the New Jersey College and University Public Safety Association, the Air Traffic Control Association and the N.J. State Branch of the National Association of Postal Supervisors.
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has 30 meeting rooms and more than 150,000 sf of meeting space. Meanwhile, Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena can stage general sessions of 7,000 people or 300-plus-booth trade shows and expo events.
Then there’s Ocean Casino Resort Atlantic City, which boasts 160,000 sf of flexible meeting space, complete with a fully equipped business center and an on-site technical support team.
Another favorite venue for meeting planners is the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which features 70,000 sf of meeting space, and is home to The Water Club for conferences, which has 18,000 sf of contemporary and inventive space loaded with advanced technology. “Borgata has just a beautiful casino and one of my favorites,” Daly says. “You can have spa treatments, and great food as well.”
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center is the newest, largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility in the area, offering approximately 100,000 sf of meeting space.
With the vaccines, there’s every reason to believe that things will be somewhat normal by later this summer, and that should mean that meetings, conventions and events can get back to being held in-person sooner rather than later. Still, Mossaidis thinks it may take a little time for people to want to travel by plane or go someplace unfamiliar, which is why he will once again be planning something for Atlantic City and Harrah’s next year. “I think it will rebound quickly and easily,” he says. “With Atlantic City, because people can drive and not fly, they will feel safer, and I feel our next conference there will be as strong as our last one.”
Daly made the decision to transfer this year’s show to a virtual event, but is looking forward to next year and getting back to the excitement of the city. “The hotels and casinos are safe, and we know there are lots of folks hosting with appropriate numbers, but our conference is just a bit too big to hold right now,” she says. “We’ll be back though. We’re already booked for May 2022.”
Pritko also had to cancel this year’s show, but he anticipates bringing the show back for 2022, and thinks some of the effects of the pandemic will be over by the time the show runs in late February, enough so that people will come out again. “We don’t expect everything to be back to normal just like that, but this show is a big ecosystem for our industry, and when the show doesn’t happen, it’s a big hit for everyone,” he says. “We were fortunate to just squeak through in February last year before things started shutting down, and it was one of our best shows ever. This is a tradition for so many, and we hope to continue that in Atlantic City for many years to come.” | AC&F |