TEXT OF STORY
Kai Ryssdal: Atlantic City, N.J., is looking to break a four-year losing streak. Fewer gamblers are heading to that would-be Vegas by the sea, a slowdown only made worse by the recession and financial crisis. Empty casinos and spare hotel rooms have tourism officials looking to attract a more conventional customer.
Joel Rose reports.
Joel Rose: For the first 30 years of legalized gambling in Atlantic City, revenues only went up. They peaked at more than $5 billion in 2006. Since then, they’ve fallen by a quarter.
Cory Morowitz is a gaming consultant in New Jersey.
Cory Morowitz: Our days as a place where people have to go to get gambling are over.
New casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York have seen to that. But the sudden decline in Atlantic City’s gaming numbers does have a silver lining. For the first time, Atlantic City has lots of empty hotel rooms in the middle of the week — perfect for conventions. On a recent Tuesday, hundreds of candy makers gathered at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
Mike O’Connor of Asher’s Chocolates shows me around his booth at the Philadelphia National Candy Gift & Gourmet Convention. The highlight is a chocolate Easter bunny that’s bigger than my arm.
Rose: That’s a big bunny.
O’Connor: That is a 25-pound bunny that retails for about $150. We have many retailers who buy that to make a statement in their store.
Despite the name, this semiannual tradeshow has been held in Atlantic City for the last few years. The show’s chairman Francis Cox says his conventioneers like it here.
Francis Fox: Even if you don’t want the gambling, you have multiple choice of restaurants; series of hotels you could stay at, so you’re not locked into one. There’s a lot to offer, even if you’re not into gambling. And some of them do like to gamble, so they have that extra benefit.
As conventions go, this one isn’t huge, with attendance in the low thousands. But this is exactly the kind of business Atlantic City officials need to attract. Governor Chris Christie has set a goal of growing the city’s convention business by 30 percent in the next five years.
Jeffrey Vasser is the president of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.
Jeffrey Vasser: What we need to do in Atlantic City is basically change from a gaming-centric customer to a convention and a leisure customer.
Back in the boom times, Vasser says casinos were more interested in filling their hotel rooms with gamblers than convention visitors.
Vasser: Now that their rooms are emptier because of the economy, the convention market is becoming more and more attractive, because we don’t see that casual gaming customer coming back.
So Vasser focuses on pitching Atlantic City’s virtues to meeting planners: The restaurants, the beach, the shopping and a growing slate of live entertainment options, like this Lady Gaga show last year.
Atlantic City tourism officials know they don’t have enough hotel rooms or meeting space to compete with top-tier convention destinations, like Las Vegas and Orlando. But they think Atlantic City can fill the rooms it does have with smaller, regional conventions. That may not sound like a big deal. But gaming consultant Cory Morowitz says it could be critical to Atlantic City’s future.
Morowitz: A lot’s at stake here, because if we could drive higher occupancies and higher room rates in Atlantic City, you could bring these casinos back to profitability. If you do that, that could change the mindset of the financial community and really ignite investment in the city.
If that doesn’t happen, Atlantic City’s losing streak could just be starting.
I’m Joel Rose for Marketplace.
As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.
Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.
Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.