A.C. casinos ramp up the risqué

The goal is a younger, and perhaps more free-spending, class of patrons.

Posted: June 13, 2011

ATLANTIC CITY - Miss America and her tiara are gone, replaced by lingerie-wearing blackjack dealers, beverage servers in bustiers or fishnets, a million-dollar steakhouse/gentlemen's club, and soon a "Naked Circus."

Three casinos have bikini beach bars on the sand. Outside the gambling halls, there are a half-dozen strip clubs and a sex swingers/voyeurs club; (Coming up: "Men's Shirt and High Heels Night," the suggested attire for women.) The famous New York strip club Scores wants to put a branch in a casino here.

It's all part of an effort to attract new business and fight off competition from casinos in neighboring states. The emphasis on sexiness is designed to appeal to a younger - and more free-spending - crowd.

Since gambling started in the nation's second-largest casino market in 1978, Atlantic City has been torn over whether to market itself as a family resort or as Sin City East. Guess which side is winning?

"In our industry, the casino and entertainment and hospitality business, you want to provide things that are pleasing and exciting and fun," said Dennis Gomes, co-owner of Resorts Hotel Casino. "One of the things that most people find pleasing, exciting, and fun is sex."

His casino is testing the boundaries of Atlantic City, which for all its history as a bawdy vice destination at the turn of the century - witness the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, about crooked politicians, brothels, and speakeasies - has been rather tame when it comes to sex as a marketing tool. The low-cut flapper dresses Resorts is making its female beverage servers wear have already generated two lawsuits from older women who say they were fired for being judged insufficiently sexy in them.

Resorts raised eyebrows, and the ire of New Jersey's public transit agency, with a billboard featuring a dancer's bare bottom to promote a stage show. And next month, Gomes promises, the casino will host a nightly "Naked Circus" in a parking lot tent.

The Tropicana Casino & Resort, Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, and the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa all dress beverage servers and even some dealers in lingerie or similarly revealing costumes. Bally's Atlantic City has its iCandy Burlesque dancers at a casino lounge.

The Diving Horse, a $1 million-plus gentlemen's club/steakhouse, opened two weeks ago with Las Vegas in mind. "The Diving Horse is bringing the Las Vegas-style gentlemen's club to the Northeast," spokeswoman Shannon Niland said. "Vegas does that type of entertainment for a reason: Sex sells."

Atlantic City has had to walk a fine line in promoting itself as an edgier resort without alienating more conservative customers. Its current motto is "Always Turned On" - not quite "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas."

"We've always looked to promote Atlantic City as a sensual destination, and we started to push the envelope a little more," said Jeff Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But you have to balance it. At the end of the day, we are still a community that existed long before it was a casino town. We could never get away with 'What Happens Here Stays Here.' "

Marc Meltzer, 37, who runs a marketing agency and several gambling/travel websites, is encouraged that Atlantic City is trying something different. Before moving to Las Vegas in November, he would visit Atlantic City every six weeks, favoring Harrah's Resort and the Borgata, whose scantily clad "Borgata Babes" were a highlight.

"The eye candy was top-notch," he said. "It's what attracts a 20- or 30-year-old guy. . . . I enjoy rolling dice with the old men and looking at a good-looking girl. That's a good combination."

Bonita West, a human-resources manager from Orange County, N.Y., says sexy casinos can't hurt.

"I hope they do polish up the ladies a little more, give me a run for my money!" she joked. "Give me some ideas I might want to use to stimulate my husband of 27 years."

Not everyone agrees.

"Any time we objectify women, see them as part of the furniture or the decor, we put all women at risk of the type of behavior that objectification brings, like rape, domestic violence, and sexual abuse," said Erin O'Hanlon, an official with the Women's Center just outside Atlantic City. "These are someone's mothers, wives, cousins, sisters, daughters. Some of them are undoubtedly doing this in order to support their families. It sends the message that women who are dressed this way are commodities."

One of Resorts' promotions pits customers against a costumed female employee in a game called Chick-tac-toe. Customers are encouraged to try to "beat the bimbo."

Last summer, in announcing a plan to help rescue Atlantic City from its more than four-year downward spiral, Gov. Christie said he envisioned a more family-friendly place, with Ferris wheels and amusement parks to complement the casinos. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment last week.

The world-famous Steel Pier has rides and games, and there are mini-golf and an arcade on the Boardwalk. But there's decidedly less for families and children to do than there is for adults.

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