With revenue up 3.7% to $43.6 billion in 2019, the U.S. gaming industry was on a five-year hot streak before the COVID-19 freeze. East Coast properties were major contributors, with Massachusetts leading all states and New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all experiencing record payouts.

While the pandemic iced the carryover into 2020, the thaw appears to be on.

“Our industry is on a steady path to recovery, as more than 60% of America’s casinos have reopened, with many reporting higher-than-anticipated demand,” stated American Gaming Association President and CEO Bill Miller this June.

That includes East Coast gaming properties, where the rebound includes group business. From advanced technology to centuries-old savvy, resorts are plotting agile strategies to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.

Atlantic City: Shore Bets

Sports betting and internet gaming helped New Jersey gain nearly 20% in total gaming revenue for its highest lift in a decade last year. It was also a banner year for Atlantic City’s nine casino-resorts, which passed the $3 billion mark in gaming revenue for the first time since 2012. With all properties reopened in early July, the destination is focused on getting groups back along with gamers.

“Meet AC’s continuous focus on client engagement from a connection, confidence, contribution and competence standpoint is vital in the COVID-19 crisis,” said Sandi Harvey, vice president of salesC.

Long-established relationships with annual clients, many of which view Meet AC as “a vital extension of their organization,” is allowing creative solutions to thrive.

“Flexibility is the secret sauce,” Harvey continued. “We have adjusted group sales room night goals and revised our incentives, ads and travel budgets to support our emergence from this fluid situation.”

Specific actions include finding alternate dates and room blocks for moving spring groups to the fall. Meet AC has also rolled deposits from 2020 to 2021 for 75% of convention center groups and eliminated cancellation penalties through its Spectra and resort partnerships. New dynamics include revised floorplans, creative social distancing signage and sponsorship of PPE. 

Virtual showcases are also maintaining connections and awareness.

“We are providing short videos highlighting the destination, Atlantic City Convention Center and our meeting facilities, which allows planners to conduct site visits from home,” Harvey said. “In addition, we are customizing ways to support hybrid meetings by enhancing our photo gallery and offering promotional items to assist in attendance and engagement.”

Caesars Reshuffles the Deck

Eldorado Resorts sealed its $17.3 billion acquisition of Caesars Entertainment Corporation this July after the New Jersey Casino Control Commission provided the final required approval for the deal. The new entity, Caesars Entertainment, becomes the largest casino and entertainment company in the U.S., with gaming operations in 16 states and more than 2 million square feet of total meeting space.

Caesars Atlantic City ext Porte Cochere Horses COURTESY Caesars Entertainment
Photo: Caesars Atlantic City ext Porte Cochere Horses; Courtesy Caesars Entertainment

This latest chapter in Caesars Entertainment’s 41-year Atlantic City history begins without Bally's Atlantic City Hotel & Casino, which the company had to sell as part of the merger. Announced in April, Twin River Worldwide Holdings is purchasing the property.

Acquired by Eldorado last year, Tropicana Atlantic City joins Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah’s Atlantic City in the new lineup. The deal also requires the new company to invest $400 million in upgrading the three properties.

[Related: Atlantic City Is More Equipped Than Ever for Meetings and Events]

“These are exciting developments for the brand and for Atlantic City,” said Lisa Messina, Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas-based vice president of sales. “While we are still working out details and timelines, these further enhancements build on our significant investments in Atlantic City over the last several years.”

These revitalizations include the $30 million full renovation of the 450-room Bayview Tower and $56 million renovation of the 507-room Coastal Tower at Harrah’s, where the $126 million Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center anchors Caesars Entertainment’s leadership and leverage position in the East Coast group market.

Harrahs Resort Atlantic City COURTESY Caesars Entertainment
Photo: Harrahs Resort Atlantic City; Courtesy Caesars Entertainment

Offering two 50,000-square-foot ballrooms and the versatility of at least 300 space configurations, it’s the largest hotel conference center from Baltimore to Boston. Already enjoying good momentum with Fortune 500 and blue-chip firms, the venue is proving to be an agile performer in the pandemic.

“By design, the venue attracts a large percentage of drive-in groups,” Messina added. “That was foundational, given Atlantic City’s access to the I-95 corridor and the corporate and association strongholds of New York and D.C. Now, with companies that need to meet but are reluctant to fly, drive-in becomes a key advantage.”

Unexpected positives have come from Las Vegas, no less.

Lisa Messina“We have had customers booked or contracted for Vegas that knew they would have challenges with fly-in attendance,” Messina said. “We offered to alleviate their cancellation fees if they booked Atlantic City instead. That’s been a win-win in several cases.”

(Photo: Lisa Messina, Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas-based vice president of sales)

Another saw a Fortune 50 tax corporation relocate its Vegas convention to Atlantic City in the fall after the pushback of this year’s income tax filing date.

“We have been following the evolving regulations and industry best practices since the start of the outbreak,” Messina said. “Everything was theoretical until Atlantic City started reopening in early July. Since then, we are welcoming smaller groups under the currently mandated 50-person cap. We are learning and adapting every day and using this experience to model how we will scale back up once the regulations are relaxed.”

Messina heralds the spirit of “common ground and shared purpose” with customers. “We are truly in this together,” she said.“Relationships are a core resiliency factor.”

With $200 million in property-wide upgrades since 2010, Tropicana Atlantic City adds significant dimension and versatility to Caesars Entertainment’s running “one contract, one point of contact, multiple venues” strategy.

“Jim Ziereis, who started at Tropicana in 1989 and rejoined the resort in 2014 after nearly seven years with Caesars Entertainment, brings a wealth of Atlantic City knowledge and customer relationships to his new role as vice president of hotel sales for the property,” Messina noted. “I am currently working with Jim and my other reports on assembling a destination sales team for Atlantic City. We are confident about the merger and optimistic about the post-pandemic road ahead.”

[Related: The Orange Loop Launches Exciting Event Options in Atlantic City]

Playing It Safe With Technology

Mohegan Sun-managed Resorts Casino Hotel made major safeguarding investments as part of its comprehensive Play Safe, Work Safe plan.

Mark Giannantonio“The health and safety of our guests and team members is our top priority, which is why we have spent over $1 million on the best disinfecting and air purifying technology available today,” said President & CEO Mark Giannantonio.

(Photo: Mark Giannantonio, President & CEO)

These solutions include:

  • Disinfecting areas throughout the property, including guest rooms, with PurpleSun’s mobile Ultraviolet (UV) light technology. Deployed in the nation’s top hospitals, the UV light works quickly with 99.9% efficacy. 
  • Sterilizing UV-C light on all escalator handrails.
  • Purifying the air across the entire casino floor, lobby, restaurants and food court with AtmosAir’s patented bipolar ionization technology, proven over 99% effective in neutralizing COVID-19, according to the company.
  • Continuously sanitizing elevator buttons with light-powered NanoSeptic oxidizing mineral nanocrystals.
  • Sanitizing the casino with professional cleaning company SERVPRO’s patented electrostatic spraying process.
  • Sanitizing air handlers using Fresh-Aire UV, the world leader in UV light disinfection for HVAC systems

The resort’s socially distant meeting package includes housing all conferees on the same floor and synchronized breakfast delivery one hour before the meeting.

“Returning attendees will experience the exceptional level of care and service that they have come to expect at Resorts Casino Hotel,” Giannantonio said.

MGM International’s “Seven-Point Safety Plan” covers all of the company’s domestic properties, including market leader Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City.

Designed in consultation with leading epidemiologists and biosafety professionals, the seven points comprehensively address:

  • Screening, temperature checks and employee training
  • Mandatory masks and personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Physical distancing
  • Handwashing and enhanced sanitization
  • HVAC controls and air quality
  • Incident response protocols
  • Digital innovations (including contactless check-in and digital F&B menus) 

Melonie JohnsonThis summer, Melonie Johnson became Borgata’s new president and COO. Most recently in the same leadership role at MGM National Harbor, she is the first Black woman to run an Atlantic City casino.

(Photo: Melonie Johnson, Borgata’s president and COO)

Implemented across Hard Rock International’s global portfolio, the “Safe + Sound” reopening plan at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City includes thermal temperature checks and mandated masks for guests and employees. Clean Team members continuously sanitize the resort, concentrating on high-touch surfaces and common areas.

With its signature live entertainment programming on hold, the resort is presently accommodating smaller mid-week groups for outdoor dining and social functions.

Shelley Williams, vice president of sales, sees a new reckoning ahead for meetings.

Shelley Williams(Photo: ​Shelley Williams, vice president of sales)

“Until the risk of the virus is less than the ROI of the meeting, in-person events will be slow to return to scale,” she said. “Building back our beloved industry with trust and confidence requires good leadership, national guidelines, compliance and the will to host live meetings safely.”

With “some clients looking to us and even lobbying the governor’s office for guidance,” Williams finds unexpected potential in the hybrid model. 

“For now, hybrid is helping organizations to attract delegates, deliver content and stay relevant,” she said. “As the conversation evolves around creative meeting solutions, hybrid events are galvanizing new communities and interest groups. It will be interesting to see how this widening reach could strengthen and grow live meetings in the future.”

Connecticut Meets the Crisis Head On

Meetings business is looking up at Connecticut’s two tribal properties, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

“With 150,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, Foxwoods has plenty of room for safe physical distancing,” said Karen O’Connell, executive director, resort sales. “We’ve worked closely with our chief medical officer, Dr. Setu Vora, to develop protocols in accordance with guidance from the CDC and the State of Connecticut. With clients from various industries expressing a strong desire to meet safely in person again, we are pleased with how the process is working so far.”

[Read our eHandbook: Navigating the New Meetings Landscape]

Booking options and incentives for 2020 events include flexible attrition, minimums and cancellations. As of early August, attendees can access 20-plus food and beverage outlets and over 1,000 hotel rooms under the resort’s phased reopening process. 

Pennsylvania’s Pandemic Pivots

Amid strict state-mandated controls, Mount Airy Casino Resort is staying agile with tailored safety and meeting solutions for groups.

Mount Airy Casino Resort
Photo: Mount Airy Casino Resort; Courtesty Mount Airy Casino Resort

“Whether it is being overly flexible with timelines, contracts, or group size, we are continuously catering to groups while maintaining the service excellence that Mount Airy is known for,” said Vice President of Marketing Glenn Cademartori.

Notably Pennsylvania’s first AAA Four Diamond casino property, the resort’s most recent expansion, unveiled in May 2019, boosted key count to 284 with 100 new upscale rooms. The multimillion-dollar investment also increased total multifunctional indoor space to 20,000 square feet with a new 16,000-square-foot event center designed by the world-renowned Perlmutter Group.

Pennsylvania presently limits indoor gatherings to 25 people. For outdoor events, capped at 250 people, Mount Airy is utilizing its 27,000-square-foot concert pavilion and the 60-capacity outdoor patio at its nationally recognized 18-hole golf course.

Located across from Valley Forge National Historical Park some 20 miles west of Philadelphia, Boyd Gaming-owned Valley Forge Casino Resort is charting a comparable road ahead.

“Our sales team has been working diligently with our large-scale groups to postpone their 2020 events during the pandemic, without penalty,” said General Manager David Zerfing. “Client relationships come first.”

Along with implementing “Boyd Clean” protocols, the property has revised its floor plans and menus for delegates.

“Prioritizing health and safety, we are continuing to host smaller groups in our spacious meeting rooms that can hold the current 25-person limit for indoor gatherings,” Zerfing said.

Managing the Mandates in Massachusetts

The Bay State led all U.S. gaming jurisdictions in 2019 with a 163.1% increase in total commercial gaming revenue. Drivers included the opening of Encore Boston Harbor  and first full year of operations at MGM Springfield.

While gamers are back, groups must wait. In early August, Massachusetts tightened Phase 3 of its reopening plan, limiting indoor and outdoor events to 25 and 50 people, respectively. Springfield’s hotel remains closed and Encore, classified as a large-scale venue, must wait for Phase 4—which requires a vaccine—to resume meetings and events.

“With our industry leading Health and Safety program in place, Encore Boston Harbor will be the safest place for new and unique meetings when the crisis passes and we are able to welcome guests back,” said Kassi Weist, executive director of hotel sales and catering.

Developed in consultation with medical professionals from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, the plan includes a commitment to the greater good.

“Wynn Resorts was the first company to share our Health and Safety plan across the industry,” Weist said. “These challenging times are not about one company succeeding, but the survival of the entire industry. We are now focused on bridging back to normal as quickly as possible, with continuing guidance from medical and scientific experts.”

The resort is also working with customers in the spirit of mutual openness and flexibility. 

“Companies still need to reach out to their audience base, which makes hybrid meetings mission critical for now,” Weist said. “For the next business cycle, though, that face-to-face connection will ultimately assume greater importance. Accordingly, we are working closely with groups to confirm their meetings for 2021 and beyond as demand for those dates becomes compressed.”   

Atlantic City’s Al Fresco Advantage

Wide-open spaces and plentiful outdoor venues are giving Atlantic City room to breathe as New Jersey tightens the restrictions on indoor gatherings.

“Our key drivers include sporting and social events,” said Meet AC Vice President of Sales Sandi Harvey. “We are seeing more leads from these markets because of our diverse outdoor resources.”

For now, small groups can go the “distance” at these seasonal fresh air venues:

  • Outdoor options at Tropicana Atlantic City include the Blue Parrott Pool Bar, overlooking the Boardwalk and beach from the sixth floor of the North Tower, and poolside dining from the Chelsea Five Gastropub at the Cabana Five Pool Deck.
  • Hard Rock venues include the Beach Bar; DAER nightclub’s outdoor deck; Hard Rock Cafe’s Boardwalk patio; and Fish and Co.’s bar and deck.
  • Borgata groups have the Borgata Beer Garden; Borgata Street Eats Food & Beer Trucks; and Sunbar at adjacent sibling The Water Club.
  • Flexible al fresco options at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City include “Gordon Ramsay Steak Under the Stars” at the resort’s outdoor pool deck.
  • Resorts Casino Hotel offers the outdoor Fins Bar at LandShark Bar & Grill and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville’s Wet Willies Daquiri Bar. Plus, outdoor dining at EastWind and Mukashi Sushi Bar.

Landshark Bar & Grill
Photo: Landshark Bar & Grill; Courtesy Resorts AC

  • Ocean Casino Resort offers the scenic Sky Garden; Outdoor Lobby Bar; and Bites + Brews Food and Beer Trucks on the Boardwalk.
  • Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall in the near-Boardwalk Orange Loop is seating spaced tables of eight for outdoor gatherings.

Mohegan on the Move 

With an East Coast foothold that includes Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City and Mohegan Sun Pocono in Pennsylvania, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment is extending its reach with a casino operating partnership at the upcoming Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

The Mohegan Tribe is also setting the industry standard for COVID-19 management at its Uncasville, Connecticut, flagship. John Washko, vice president, expo and convention sales, explains how the property is uniquely positioned for group success in the pandemic.

Meetings Today: What pillars support Mohegan Sun’s pandemic pivot?

John WashkoJohn Washko: As our strong regional drive market base of meeting, convention and expo groups knows, we are dedicated to facility upkeep and maintenance. The day we closed us down, our leadership team began developing our reopening plan.

(Photo: John Washko, vice president, expo and convention sales)

JW: Dating back 13 generations, the Mohegan Tribe’s long-term vision includes continuity for everything we do. Founded on the centuries-old “Spirit of Aquai” and guiding principles of Welcoming, Mutual Respect, Service and Relationships, that includes how we train our staff, operate the resort, and strategically address challenges.

As a Tribal Nation, having our own Tribal Health Department, EMS, Fire and Police departments is a unique benefit. At a time where safety is paramount, our ability to leverage these medical, scientific and other resources has allowed us to implement an effective plan for welcoming back guests.

MT: Groups included?

JW: Absolutely. Our vast spaces, including the 38,000-square-foot Uncas Ballroom in the Sky Convention Center and 20,000-square-foot Earth Ballroom in the Earth Expo & Convention Center, allow for adaptable room sets and compliance with physical distancing requirements.

We have already hosted a hybrid event for a corporate supply-chain company. Twenty drive-in attendees connected with four other regional gatherings via Zoom for two days of education and recognition.

In August, we hosted delegates from Connecticut and three other New England states for the annual Mrs. America & Miss for America pageant. We have at least 10 group bookings for September and more beyond.

Mrs. Connecticut Orientation; Courtesy Mohegan Sun
Photo: Mrs. Connecticut Orientation; Courtesy Mohegan Sun

To help planners visualize their own opportunities here, we created a dedicated page (meetings.mohegansun.com/planners/meeting-safely/) that details our action and safety plan.

MT: What is the plan for moving forward?

JW: The future has many unknowns, and not adjusting to this uncertainty would be tone deaf in the current context. We are committed to working with our valued customers and are mirroring the industry at large by offering total flexibility on attrition, cancellation fees and F&B minimums to any group moving forward with their events in 2020. We have also successfully rescheduled nearly all groups that chose not to meet from mid-March on, without cancellation fees. We will continue to embrace flexibility. 

An exciting new direction is leveraging the assets of our Integrated Entertainment Resort for more SMERF and sporting opportunities. This includes being chosen over two national top-tier destinations for a historic live sports series and broadcast residency at the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena. Health and safety protocols include an NBA-style bubble.

We are also creating a broadcast center with ViacomCBS that will rotate weekly between mixed martial arts (MMA) fights from Bellator MMA and SHOWTIME Sports boxing matches. It is a great revenue generator from guest rooms, F&B and Arena rental.

Read Next: Back-to-Business Meetings Incentives for Planners