In 2018, New Jersey attracted nearly 111 million visitors, up a healthy 7.4% from 2017. The next milestone could result from Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of attracting 150 million visitors by 2023—and state officials are looking to Atlantic City to drive what would be a nearly 26% increase.

“When the governor comes in and says, ‘I want 150 million visitors,’ he knows it has to come from Atlantic City,” Jeff Vasser, executive director for the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, told the Press of Atlantic City. “The only way we’re going to get there is a strong Atlantic City.”

Behind meetings momentum and increasing product diversification, the destination is well equipped for the job.

Smart Strategies Drive Group Market Gains       

It’s official—meetings mean solid business for Atlantic City.

Quoted in the same Press of Atlantic City story, Jim Wood, then president and CEO of Meet AC, stated that room nights tied to meetings and conventions are on pace for a fifth year of consecutive growth in 2019. Additionally, Meet AC is now booking events at the Atlantic City Convention Center six to seven years out as compared to around just 18 months in 2014.

According to Wood, “Those advanced bookings are critical to stability and prove that Meet AC’s marketing and communications strategies are working.”

Pivotal moves include harnessing major show power to showcase Atlantic City to decision-makers and participants. This strategy had a banner year in 2016 when Atlantic City hosted MPI’s World Education Congress. That success, along with the influential Trade Show News Network (TSNN) Awards and Health Professions Network, gave the destination a lasting reputational boost.

Another 2016 game-changer was TEAMS Conference & Expo, the premier showcase for sporting event planners. That show aligned with the spearhead strategy of creating the Atlantic City Sports Commission in 2015 to expand the city’s strong sports market.

Other successes during Wood’s tenure include nearly $1.9 billion in economic impact generated by 1.8 million-plus room nights.

As Wood moves on, the LEED Gold-certified Atlantic City Convention Center enjoyed another eventful year in 2019. Diverse bookings included the Police Security Expo; Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference; Northeast Spa and Pool Association’s Atlantic City Pool & Spa Show; and Drone Expo International’s Drone Expo East.

As Vasser noted, “There are very few destinations in the state that are focused on the meetings and conventions market,” which is a big draw for Atlantic City.

Positive Atlantic City Brand Attracts Groups

With increasingly positive brand recognition, Atlantic City is highly visible on the visitor and group radar. According to the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, the destination generated 17% of $44.7 billion in statewide visitor spending in 2018.

Drivers certainly include gaming. Reversing a long-running trend of anxiety over pressure from neighboring states and regional players, Atlantic City’s casinos flexed their muscles with strong overall 2018 revenue growth.

“These results show there is a great deal of customer interest in Atlantic City’s offerings, and operators have made strides adjusting in a competitive environment,” James Plousis, chairman of the Casino Control Commission, told the Press of Atlantic City.

Other regenerators include a resurgent job market and expanding economic base in sectors including education and alternative energy.

This winning effort includes rising recognition of Atlantic City’s diversified, experience-based appeal.

[Related: Trends Reshaping the East Coast Gaming Scene]

New Boardwalk Experience Strengthens Atlantic City’s Event Offerings

Physically divided between the Boardwalk and Marina District, Atlantic City’s resort-casinos have historically been less than cohesive in promoting the overall destination brand.  

Launched in June 2019, North Beach Atlantic City smartly reverses this siloed trend. Partners including the neighboring quartet of Resorts Casino Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Ocean Casino Resort and Showboat Atlantic City are working together via regular live event programming to collectively promote the Boardwalk’s northern stretches and extended beach blocks.

Guitar Ceiling at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City
Guitar Ceiling at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Credit: Jeff Heilman

Other allies include two historic group-capable fixtures, the Steel Pier and Absecon Lighthouse, and four F&B-driven enterprises anchoring the three-block urban renaissance project dubbed The Orange Loop.

Lining reenergized Tennessee Avenue, this group-ready quartet comprises Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, MADE Atlantic City Chocolate Bar, and siblings The Iron Room and Rhythm & Spirits.

The latter two come from real estate developer and restaurateur Mark Collazzo, a primary backer of the Orange Loop initiative.

Named for Tennessee, New York and St. James Avenues, the orange streets of the Monopoly board game (created in and based on Atlantic City), this ongoing effort is a vital first step in smoothing perception of Atlantic City’s rough-edged off-Boardwalk blocks while expanding visitor options.

Atlantic City Resort Casinos Continue to Win

It’s also been a most eventful 2019 for Atlantic City’s resort casinos.

This June, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City celebrated its one-year anniversary with weekend programs that included a parade on the Boardwalk. I caught the nighttime action from the outdoor event deck at Hard Rock’s DAER nightclub. The joint was rocking as a sea of people on the Boardwalk below enjoyed the spectacular fireworks finale. Earlier this year, I danced the night away at Lionel Ritchie’s sell-out performance at Hard Rock’s 7,000-seat Etess Arena.

Nearby Ocean Casino Resort is also celebrating its first year in business with cautious optimism. With a subtle name change from Ocean Casino Resort to emphasize its gaming offerings, the former Revel also comes loaded with attractive event spaces and dining, retail and wellness options.

Ocean Casino Resort
Ocean Casino Resort. Credit: Jeff Heilman

From May to August 2019, New Jersey’s sports betting numbers surpassed Nevada’s in every month save June. Ocean is among the casinos driving this unprecedented run. Others include Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which opened its new $12 million Moneyline Bar & Book and adjoining Level One Cocktail Bar & Lounge this June.

Another market leader, Resorts Casino Hotel, debuted its innovative 5,000-square-foot event capable DraftKings Sportsbook in December 2018.

Further down the Boardwalk, Tropicana Atlantic City features the 180-seat William Hill Sportsbook and diverse group venues that include restaurants from celebrity chef Jose Garces. The sprawling resort is owned by Eldorado Resorts. The Reno, Nevada-based operator is extending its reach via a $17.3 billion merger with Caesars Entertainment.

Set to create the nation’s largest gaming company, the deal, announced in June 2019, went before a shareholder vote last month.

Caesars Atlantic CityMarking its 40th anniversary this summer, Caesars Atlantic City is one of three Caesars’ properties in town. The company’s impactful investments in recent years include the $126 million Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center.

(Photo: Caesars Atlantic City. Credit: Jeff Heilman)

Capital improvements such as the $30 million renovation of Harrah’s 450-room Bayview Tower and $56 million renovation of the 507-room Coastal Tower have also boosted Atlantic City’s group appeal.

For anyone still doubting that Atlantic City is back in business, think again. Marking my own Atlantic City anniversary this month—30 years since first visiting in 1989—the revival is real and on solid footing for the foreseeable future.

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Top Tastes of Atlantic City

As Atlantic City continues to market itself as an impressive group destination, its restaurants and bars have upped their game. Following are our top picks for group dining.

Il Mulino New York

Hard Rock’s restaurant Il Mulino New York was voted “Best U.S. Casino Restaurant” in the 2019 USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards. This outpost of the famed Greenwich Village flagship offers customizable menus and a 50-capacity private dining room, with two 30-capacity private spaces at the more casual Trattoria Il Mulino.

Landshark Bar & Grill

Resorts Casino Hotel’s Landshark Bar & Grill added Fins Bar this May. As Atlantic City’s only year-round beachside full-service bar and restaurant, the versatile complex accommodates 500-capacity events.

Okatshe

At Tropicana, 80-seat Okatshe is star chef Jose Garces’ ode to the Japanese izakaya. Enter via the mock Japanese candy storefront into the evocative street-like interior, where the visuals are matched by delicious small-plate cuisine, sushi, sashimi and Japanese whiskys. Garces also pays homage to his native Ecuador at neighboring seafood-driven Olon. With Bar Olon in between, both offer event space.

Popular New Group Venues

Newcomers to the group food and drink scene in Atlantic City include Little Water Distillery, Biergarten Atlantic City and Bungalow Beach Bar. The latter two are lively open-air Boardwalk-facing siblings by Tropicana.

Energizing Offsites in Atlantic City

Atlantic City offers more off-agenda pursuits than ever. Here are some exciting ways to have fun and feel good before and after the meeting.

Golf

It’s a triple play for golfing groups with the nation’s largest indoor TopGolf Swing Suite and two historic courses located within Ocean Casino Resort. The former offers immersive experiences including panoramic ocean views for up to 400-capacity events.

Groups can hit the scenic links and book banquets and events at the nationally acclaimed Atlantic City Country Club in nearby Northfield, New Jersey. Founded in 1898, the “Birthplace of the Birdie” is one of America’s oldest and most esteemed golf clubs.

Some 10 miles from Atlantic City in Galloway, New Jersey, the newly reimagined 296-room Seaview, A Dolce Hotel is a 1914 treasure offering the championship Bay and Pines courses along with 27,000 square feet of flexible space and other amenities.

Private Charters

Private charters with Atlantic City Cruises are a great way to experience panoramic views of the destination’s fetching coastline. Departing from Historic Gardner’s Basin, excursions aboard the company’s 150-capacity U.S. Coast Guard-certified Cruisin 1 vessel include narrated tours, dolphin watching, corporate outings and celebrations.

The Basin Experiences

Set in a protected back bay channel, “The Basin” also features event-capable venues such as the Atlantic City Aquarium and Back Bay Ale House. Don’t miss the hotcakes at circa-1946 Gilchrist Restaurant, which has a laid-back outpost at Tropicana’s new Chelsea Tower.

Adventurous attendees can go airborne with Atlantic City Parasail, also departing from the Basin. Launching from the end of the namesake landmark, Steel Pier Helicopters offers dramatic shoreline, city and Marina tours. Groups can also take a spin in The Wheel at Steel Pier, standing 227 feet tall and offering 40 climate-controlled gondolas.

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