Casinos still a good bet

Atlantic City, feeling the competitive heat from out-of-town slots parlors, is playing up its strengths - hotels, spas, restaurants, glitzy retail - to lure gamblers. And it has an ocean, too.

Posted: May 18, 2007

ATLANTIC CITY - There's an unmistakable newness to this town. New spas, celebrity-chef restaurants and name-brand retail shops have sprouted throughout the city.

There's even a new direct flight to connect Atlantic City to that other gambling mecca, Las Vegas.

But at the core of this seaside resort are still the 11 casinos that fuel a $5.2 billion gambling industry and that remain the town's primary draw.

Although Atlantic City has been building up its nongambling attractions over the last four years, recent slots competition from Pennsylvania has forced this resort to step it up even more, particularly this summer.

There are currently two slots venues in full operation in the Philadelphia suburbs, and two new casinos on the Philadelphia waterfront may be on the near horizon - each threatening Atlantic City's biggest revenue generator: slot machines.

So the city has been busy. Call it a makeover in overdrive.

The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the city's top-grossing casino, is ramping up its A-list entertainment roster - which has become the Las Vegas-style mega-resort's signature - with Gwen Stefani to kick off Memorial Day weekend. Other acts to swing through this peak season will include John Mayer, Mary J. Blige and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Not to be outdone, Tropicana Casino & Resort, which has benefited from the huge success of its mega-retail, dining and entertainment complex, called the Quarter, will roll out Providence, a New York-style nightclub, next month that will offer bottle service and VIP lounges to draw in a younger clientele.

Harrah's Atlantic City casino began taking reservations last month for its new Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa and its 23 treatment rooms. The spa opens Memorial Day weekend and is part of a $550 million upgrade and expansion at the casino, which will include a new Olympic-size indoor pool.

And the Trump Taj Mahal - Donald J. Trump's flagship casino here - wants you to take a long stroll along its new $30 million Spice Road, which features new dining and shopping venues, with names such as "Plate" and "Candy."

While hotel rooms have been revamped at several of the casinos, including Showboat and Resorts, the Borgata, Harrah's Atlantic City and the Taj Mahal are all in the midst of adding new hotel towers over the next year and a half.

The Tropicana is negotiating to add a boutique hotel next to its property and is also undergoing a $55 million renovation to upgrade its casino floor and hotel rooms.

Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, the city's chief marketing arm, said this summer was critical because of the new slots competition. The resort's 11 casinos last month reported a 6.8 percent decline in revenue from a year ago.

"Summer is our time to shine and to show off our natural resources," Vasser said. "Everybody is rallying around the importance of making Atlantic City a full-service, year-round destination.

"Pulling a lever on a slot machine is no longer a compelling reason to come to Atlantic City," he said. "The January and February numbers recognize that the nongaming amenities are what will make the difference for Atlantic City. The new product alone is a big difference for us."

And not the least, Vasser said, Atlantic City has one other distinct advantage: "No matter what the New York Catskills or Pennsylvania do, nothing beats the ocean."

Perhaps the best judge of whether or not Atlantic City is heading in the right direction is a member of the resort's most sought-after demographic: affluent twenty- and thirtysomethings from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

"They are really building up the city with a bunch of outlet stores, more stores and restaurants at The Pier and more new casinos, even though it's taking a long time," said Chris McCleary, 27, who recently moved to Atlantic City from Lewiston, Maine. He works at Vilebrequin, a high-end French men's and boy's bathing-suit store at the nearly year-old Pier Shops at Caesars shopping mall, connected to Caesars casino on the Boardwalk.

McCleary, who is also an avid table-games player, said the changes were all for the better.

"You can't sit still," he said recently, while he stood in line with $400 worth of chips in his hands, waiting to play Texas Hold 'Em No Limit at Caesars. "Atlantic City is now competing with Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Foxwoods in Connecticut. They are all competing against each other."


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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