Atlantic City Eyes More Events as Two Casinos Decide to Fold ‘Em

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Atlantic City, NJ – Atlantic City’s drive to increase its meetings and exhibitions industry was underway well before the Jersey Shore was rocked by the news that two of its Boardwalk casinos were closing.

The July 14 announcement that the Trump Plaza was closing in September was made just a few days after Caesars Entertainment decided to pull the plug on the Showboat Atlantic City at the end of August.

The news likely came as a shock to the hundreds of casino employees who would be losing their jobs. However, the city’s leadership was aware the gaming scene was rapidly losing steam, largely due to increasing regional competition. The city has been energizing its convention marketing in the past few years.

“This trend of increased (gaming) supply and competition isn’t a surprise to Atlantic City,” Mayor Don Guardian told reporters on July 11. “But we are making significant progress in our transition to a destination that relies less on casino gambling and more on a comprehensive mix of attractions to draw tourists to the Jersey Shore.”

The Summer vacationer crush is an obvious choice for the seaside town that has been a getaway for more than a century. But the city has also been a long-time player in the trade show industry and is eager to increase its share of the market. “We are continuing to diversify our offerings, attract new investment and maximize our material assets. Atlantic City will grow stronger for having experienced its recent challenges,” Guardian said.

ROOMS TO GROW

Atlantic City’s optimism is based in large part on the infrastructure available for conventions, meetings and trade shows.

The Atlantic City Convention Center has 500,000 square feet (sf) of prime exhibit space and 109,100 sf of meeting space. It is ranked No. 30 on the latest Trade Show Executive World’s Top Convention Centers.

Even assuming that the Trump Plaza and Showboat never re-open, Atlantic City’s total event space will have contracted by 50,000 sf plus a couple of 10,000 sf ballrooms. At the same time, the main convention center hotel, the 502-room Sheraton Atlantic City, has 27,000 sf of meeting space – and Atlantic City still has nine hotel-casinos operating.

And on the horizon is a $126 million convention hall being built in the city’s Marina District by Harrah’s, a division of Caesars Entertainment. The property covers 200,000 sf and includes 100,000 sf of event and meeting space. The new building is slated for completion late next year.

“This will vastly increase our capacity to accommodate meetings and conventions,” said Liza Cartmell, CEO of the Atlantic City Alliance. “There is a huge opportunity to grow our convention room nights, especially during the mid-week and non-summer periods.”

The heavy lifting part of generating new trade show and other group business is being handled by Meet AC, a newly formed not-for-profit marketing organization created by combining the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority with the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA). Meet AC this Summer hired Jim Wood, former president & CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, as its CEO.

Cartmell told reporters that while room nights generated by meetings were up sharply in recent years, they accounted for 6% of Atlantic City’s total room nights compared to about 25% for its regional competitors.

So, with fewer visitors showing up solely for the action in the casinos, Atlantic City has the advantages of both a major convention center and ample hotel inventory available to show organizers and meeting planners.

Guardian dismissed the idea that the demise of the Showboat and Trump Plaza would trigger a domino effect among Atlantic City’s remaining casino-hotels, which would slash room availability. The mayor noted that eliminating or downsizing the casino area of a hotel would slash operating costs and payroll to the point that they could turn a profit like any other hotel in a major convention or tourism city. “They can run a hotel and still make a buck on the rooms and restaurants and the conferences,” he said. “This is a new chapter in Atlantic City that is just now gearing up.”

“Within Atlantic City, non-gaming revenues have increased by more than $160 million in just the last two years and are now approaching $1 billion annually,” said CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri. The CRDA has attracted more than $700 million in capital investment — with more than $290 million already in process — to continue to grow the market’s non-gaming amenities, Palmieri said.

Reach Liza Cartmell at (609) 348-7534 or lcartmell@atlanticcityalliance.org