For all of the hype about Atlantic City’s coming demise — four of the city’s 12 casinos closed between July and September — the city still bustled on an early September weekend, albeit one when the Miss America pageant was in town. And rather than resigning themselves to media-fueled “doom and gloom,” as one executive called it, some members of the Atlantic City meetings community are guiding the destination back to its roots as an epicenter for East Coast meetings.
“It’s still a very vibrant destination,” said Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC, a newly minted DMO that works in tandem with New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA). Wood points out that AC still boasts many riches: 16,000 hotel rooms, a convention center, celebrity-backed restaurants, and miles of drop-dead-gorgeous shoreline. “It’s disappointing that we had some closures,” he said, “but we hope those hotels repurpose themselves. We don’t know what will happen, but we know there’s lots of discussions.”
WELCOME TO THE BOOMTOWN
Those discussions happen everywhere in town, from Meet AC’s office to the idle rickshaws that line the boardwalk to the newsroom of the local newspaper, The Press of Atlantic City, which devotes a section of its website to wide-ranging options for “Reinventing AC.”
“Every city has its strengths and its weaknesses. We have a great amount of strengths working for us right now,” said Wood, who came to Meet AC in June from the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he brought several high-profile events to that city. “We have tremendous entertainment every weekend, we have world-class shopping, and a beautiful boardwalk. There is a constant evolution, constant improvements to the convention center, constant improvement to hotels, and [the arrival of] new business.”
Since the 1980s, the CRDA has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in casino revenues back into Atlantic City’s infrastructure — and this year, that includes $45 million for the Waterfront Conference Center, a 125,000-square-foot facility that’s going up next to Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. (See “Caesars Educational Experience,” at left.) Slated to open in summer 2015, the center will introduce a mid-sized meetings venue into a city that already offers an airport, a 500,000-square-foot convention center, a historic theater (Boardwalk Hall), and hundreds of meeting rooms and venues spread among its hotels.
Atlantic City’s history is intertwined with meetings of all stripes — most notoriously during the height of Prohibition, when three dozen organized-crime leaders converged there for three days to powwow in the surf and on the upper floors of the Ritz and Ambassador hotels. That event, known as the Atlantic City Conference, helped cement Atlantic City’s reputation as a place to gamble and carouse.
However, gaming was only legalized in 1977, making the boom of casinos just that — a relatively recent boom, one that has hit bust as neighboring destinations have legalized gaming and opened casinos.
‘LOOKING REALLY STRONG’
Yet Atlantic City’s riches still run deep, according to Karen Totaro, general manager of the Atlantic City Convention Center. “There are certain cities where you need to bring the planner out to experience it for themselves, otherwise they have a certain perception,” Totaro said. “I think Atlantic City is one of those destinations. Once [planners are] here, they like what they see. Our goal is to really get them here to have them see what’s available.”
Totaro said that despite the casino closures, which have put an estimated 5,000-plus people out of work, the convention center “is looking really strong” for the next two years. “There’s a lot of negative press, but we don’t really feel that locally, in terms of it being the end of the world,” said Totaro, who moved to Atlantic City nine months ago from Cincinnati. “Revel and some of the other buildings might get rescued, and the CRDA is still putting millions into the city.” The 17-year-old convention center will be undergoing a design overhaul in the next two years, she added, to introduce “more of a coastal feeling.”
“I love old cities,” Totaro said, “and for me, AC is one in a line of those older cities that are finding themselves again. It’s not all doom and gloom.”