Larry Sieg, president and CEO of Meet AC, Atlantic City’s CVB, is optimistic about the future on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The meetings and conventions business in Atlantic City is back. Our clients and their attendees are happy to return to safe, face-to-face networking and educational opportunities, and we’re thrilled for the continued investment and redevelopment occurring throughout Atlantic City as we move our destination forward.”
With new investment, he adds “comes new business opportunities for the meetings and events industry. We applaud our casino and non-casino properties as they continue to reinvest in their products. We’re eager for an eventful … [recovery].”
Caesars Entertainment Inc. is making major investments in its Atlantic City properties — Harrah’s Resort, Tropicana and Caesars Atlantic City. “Caesars Entertainment is spending more than $400 million,” says Jim Ziereis, Caesars vice president sales – Atlantic City region. “The Atrium Tower rooms at Harrah’s are completely remodeled. We also [started] on the Waterfront Tower, which will be completed [later] in 2022. Nobu Tower and the Nobu restaurants have been announced. Additional restaurants and entertainment options are also open, with more to come later this year. We’re optimistic that all the new product and amenities will provide even more for planners. Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center is the largest hotel conference complex from Baltimore to Boston, with two 50,000-sf, pillar-less ballrooms perfect for large conferences and events.”
Ziereis says corporations and associations have returned to in-person meetings. “Our business levels are back to where we were in 2019. 2022 and beyond are really strong,” he says. Ziereis adds that large association groups have returned, including the NJ State League of Municipalities, a city-wide event with about 8,000 in attendance, which moved back to its normal fall pattern. “Our staff is really happy to be back at work and taking care of customers. Our company rolled out Family-Style service this year, which is the foundation of providing personalized service,” Ziereis says. “Caesars Entertainment properties are open for business, and we’re thriving.”
Atlantic City is an ideal destination for association groups based in the region. “We’re a New Jersey-based association, so we like to hold our annual convention in New Jersey,” says Lauren Hagan, director of meetings/events with the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey. “Atlantic City has the hotels large enough to host our group of approximately 950,” she says, adding that the abundance of high-end restaurants in the city is a plus. Registration numbers for the in-person event were only down by about 10%, Hagan says, attributing that in part to stringent health and safety protocols in place.“I feel like the hotels are really doing their best to keep everything as clean as possible. Our group consists of heavy highway road contractors. They’ve worked throughout the pandemic, so I think everyone was just excited to see each other, and all felt safe,” she adds.
Hagan’s group was based at Tropicana Atlantic City for last fall’s event. “I have to say, even with the labor shortage in New Jersey, the banquet staff at Tropicana was absolutely fantastic. I know they were short staffed, but none of our attendees noticed, which is a wonderful thing. Also, the food at Tropicana was top-notch. We had to switch our menus around a bit because of the astronomical increase in the price of certain foods, but I was very pleasantly surprised with the menus that the chef and his staff prepared for us, while keeping it within our price range.”
That said, she advises planners to look ahead when planning a meeting in Atlantic City, particularly in terms of what hotels can and cannot provide. “The major thing I would look into ahead of time is on the hotel operations side,” she says. “With the labor shortage, certain things are not available, which is understandable, but it’s better to know that going into the situation so you can prepare your attendees.”
The New Jersey Special Investigators Association held its annual anti-fraud training conference and summit at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City Hotel & Casino last fall with about 250 in attendance. The meeting was fully in-person. “We are a New Jersey-based organization,” says Scott Keesal, president. “Therefore, our meetings and our annual conference are always held within the state. However,” he adds, “we have members and attendees from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New England. Atlantic City has easy access whether driving or flying.”
Keesal points out that the organization’s pre-COVID conference attendance was typically more than 600. “We have found that Atlantic City is our best option to provide a mixture of hotel rooms and conference space at a single location,” he says. Attendance last year was only about a third of the past few conferences, Keesal says, but that was mostly related to current company restrictions rather than to fears about health and safety in Atlantic City. “Many of [our attendees’] companies still had travel restrictions in place. We were completely confident that the Caesars staff would do everything possible to provide the necessary health protection to our attendees, and that turned out to be the case,” Keesal says. “They were able to provide the necessary social distancing space for those requesting it, the necessary food and beverage protections were in place, and it was very obvious the necessary sanitizing and cleaning protocols were being followed. Those who were able to attend felt completely safe during their time at the conference and during their hotel stay.”
Harrah’s is able to provide everything the group requires in one spot. “Harrah’s Conference Center is large enough to provide us with the multiple breakout rooms needed for our training sessions, as well as the space to hold general sessions. It provides us with ample vendor space and is able to feed 600-plus people in one seating. The conference center is laid out perfectly for our needs — flow of traffic for our vendors and ease of movement to various meeting rooms and the registration location. It’s still relatively new,” Keesal points out, “and kept exceptionally clean. The hotel is constantly updating its hotel rooms, and provides our attendees with great amenities, including a fabulous variety of restaurants, evening entertainment and a fitness center. Our attendees need not ever leave the hotel and conference center during their stay.” That said, Keesal adds, “Atlantic City offers many other options, including the Boardwalk, if our attendees decide to venture outside.”
Keesal says his group has had a positive experience with Caesars staff over multiple years. “The Caesars staff has been amazing to work with over the years, from their executive management team and food & beverage staff, to the front desk and housekeeping. They bring representatives from each of these departments to our planning meetings so they can all hear our needs and concerns and assure they will be addressed. They are always accommodating and have been incredibly flexible during this pandemic.”
Planners and groups “should push forward with their events in these unprecedented times,” Keesal says. “Atlantic City is a great locale to hold a conference, and our organization plans on remaining in Atlantic City for many years to come.”
Robert Carachilo, principal and event producer at Roberts Event Group, a Hosts Global member, couldn’t agree more. Based in Philadelphia, the company works frequently with associations and other groups meeting in Atlantic City. He says there are many reasons to choose Atlantic City. “Atlantic City is the seaside gaming and resort capital of the East Coast — hosting over 27 million visitors a year — making it one of the most-popular tourist destinations in the United States. It offers a central and convenient location for association groups to meet and host their events.” As for lodging, he says, “Atlantic City hotels and resorts offer a wide variety of amenities, while being inclusive for a multitude of budgets. Amazing views, fine dining and luxurious lodging are the norm here in Atlantic City. With almost 18,000 hotel rooms to choose from, Atlantic City has what you need when it comes to housing accommodations.”
He says whether a group chooses the Marina District or a spot right on the renowned Boardwalk, Atlantic City provides exceptional meeting opportunities and facilities. “Atlantic City offers meeting space overlooking the Atlantic Ocean or situated on the world-famous Boardwalk with the newest, largest, most technologically advanced meeting facilities from Baltimore to Boston. Atlantic City offers flexible meeting space, not only boardrooms and ballrooms, but a wide variety of outdoor spaces from rooftops to beaches. There are meeting facilities to meet every need.”
As a location, Atlantic City is hard to beat in terms of convenience. “It’s located within one-third of the nation’s population, with a wide variety of transportation options available,” Carachilo says. “The Atlantic City International Airport is located 12 miles outside of the city, and the Philadelphia International Airport is just 60 miles away. Atlantic City is also easily accessible by air from Newark and JFK airports. Transportation via shuttles, taxis and trains is both accessible and affordable.”
Carachilo points out that Atlantic City also offers an appealing combination of historic and new, state-of-the-art facilities. “Historic Boardwalk Hall, formerly known as Atlantic City Convention Hall, is Atlantic City’s first convention center, and an iconic landmark built in 1929. Home of the Miss America Pageant, it played host to the city’s growing convention industry. Boardwalk Hall has hosted an amazing list of dazzling entertainers and knockout sporting events throughout its 85-year history,” he says. “The Atlantic City Convention Center is conveniently located and provides 486,600 contiguous sf of exhibit space, as well as 45 meeting rooms featuring an extra 109,100 sf, ample pre-function space and all the amenities you would expect, including free Wi-Fi, an on-site A/V provider, food service for everything from snack bars to banquets, media and an on-site business center.”
And both facilities continue to make improvements and upgrades, Carachilo points out. “The Atlantic City Convention Center and Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall became New Jersey’s first convention center and arena to achieve GBAC STAR facility accreditation,” he says. “Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall also went through a $10 million renovation in the lobby/atrium, featuring the Atlantic City Experience.”
Perhaps more than anything, Atlantic City is known for its entertainment value, which can definitely be a draw for attendees — and it’s not just about the gaming. “The city’s world-class entertainment facilities and venues offer a variety of performers, acts, shows and concerts. The Boardwalk Hall routinely hosts popular talent and great sporting events. Various public shows are hosted at the Atlantic City Convention Center, and the casino hotels and comedy clubs showcase an assortment of acts, too,” Carachilo says.
The beach, he adds, sets Atlantic City apart from other gaming destinations, and along with the Boardwalk, provides an amazing venue for team-building activities, or for attendees to tour or relax on their own when meetings end. “Millions of guests stroll, ride a bicycle or tour the Boardwalk on a distinctive rolling chair,” Carachilo says. “The first permanent boardwalk was built in 1870 as a way to keep sand off of hotel carpets. Today, the boardwalk is more than 5 miles in length and 60 feet across at its widest points. The present structure is seated on concrete and steel pilings, constructed of thousands of two-by-fours. Beach Olympics is a popular team-building activity for groups, as are high-tech scavenger hunts.”
In addition to playing some of the city’s popular games, there are other attractions. “You can climb into a temperature-controlled gondola and ride on the 227-foot-high Ferris wheel for breathtaking views of the ocean and the famous Boardwalk,” Carachilo says. “Atlantic City’s unique coastal location provides for many great leisure activities, from boating and fishing excursions, to beautiful golf courses. The variety of conveniently located eateries, including the many celebrity chef-operated restaurants, makes it easy to offer dine-arounds and wonderful culinary experiences.”
What everyone seems to agree on is that meetings and events in Atlantic City are clearly rebounding. “Hotels and casinos are bouncing back, and visitor numbers are gradually increasing since [last] summer,” Carachilo says. “Caesars is investing $400 million into remodeling its three resorts, while newer venues like the Hard Rock & Casino Atlantic City and the Ocean Casino Resort continue to do well.”
Looking forward to the rest of 2022 and into 2023, he says, “I’m optimistic about seeing people come together once again and enjoy meeting and socializing in person. Atlantic City has the beach and Boardwalk for unparalleled outdoor experiences, and spacious rooms for large or small meetings.”
In addition to the convention center and Boardwalk Hall improvements, the city has made other investments, including completing a $4.7 million tourism district renovation project. There are also multiple new restaurants and new venues at some of the city’s hotels and casinos for planners and attendees to discover.
Atlantic City is back and ready for business. The one possible downside for planners? Space for the rest of 2022 and into 2023 is already filling up — a solid sign that the meetings industry is on the upswing. | AC&F |