When more than 5,000 real estate agents arrived for an annual convention last week, they continued a 95-year tradition of meeting in Atlantic City. The Realtors are among the city’s most loyal conventioneers.
The Atlantic City Convention Center, however, has seen a general decrease in the number of events and in attendance in recent years.
The Convention Center booked 105 events last year — down nearly 30 percent from 147 in 2008, according to the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. Meanwhile, attendance has declined by only 13 percent, pointing to fewer, but larger, gatherings.
Conventions are considered key to increasing Atlantic City’s tourism business — particularly during off-peak times, such as the middle of the week or winter months when rooms are harder to fill — because attendees stay at hotels, eat at local restaurants and gamble in casinos. They are seen as assets.
“Most business hotels are hitting their peak in October while we’re hitting our peak in July, August,” said Brian Tyrrell, associate professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management Studies at Richard Stockton College. “It’s important business in that sense.”
In an effort to drum up more conventions in 2013, the industry’s marketing arm, the Atlantic City Alliance, has created a $1 million cash incentive program intended to lure midweek, nonsummer and first-time convention business, officials announced this week. While the funding decisions will come from the ACA, the ACCVA will help determine which new conventions would qualify, said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy officer for the ACA.
Catering to business meetings is one of the main drivers behind Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s plan to build a $135 million Las Vegas-style conference center next to Harrah’s Resort. While casino hotels have hesitated to block off rooms for conventions because they feared the effect on gamblers, that mindset has changed since Atlantic City began losing gamblers to Pennsylvania, New York and other nearby states.
In documents filed in connection with its conference center plan, Caesars said that over four years, its midweek hotel occupancy rate had declined by 16 percentage points to 74 percent in 2010. To fill the void, it and other Atlantic City casinos have aggressively begun marketing to nongaming customers, with Caesars hoping that its proposed conference center will bring in corporate meetings, product launches and other events Fortune 500 companies hold.
“A lot of these business meetings and product launches are happening elsewhere in the country,” said Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s Eastern Division President Don Marrandino, who is in charge of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City.
In many ways, other casinos in town already cater to businesses, providing a range of different ballrooms and meeting spaces at Trump Taj Mahal, Borgata and Revel. In fact, Revel built its Ovation Hall for music concerts, but also to fulfill the needs of businesses, such as East Hanover-based Achievement Incentives & Meetings, which held a gathering for one of its clients at the hall, spokeswoman Maureen Siman said.
“It’s an incredible entertainment venue, but it also has the capability to host very large meeting events,” she said. “In the last couple of months, it has been used more for meetings than entertainment.”
But Marrandino said Caesars’ conference center will be different, allowing for more than 50 different configurations and catering to large-scale business meetings that are now held in Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas, which would require attendees to fly to those destinations. If meetings were held in Atlantic City, attendees in the Northeast could drive.
“We think some of the positives are you don’t have to get on a plane,” he said.
Some industry observers said overall demand for corporate meeting space remains high and that adding to the supply would benefit the industry.
“Hotels that lack proper meeting space suffer,” Tyrrell said. “In that sense, it’s a real smart move for Harrah’s and somewhat for Atlantic City.”
Regional incentive meetings, such as those at which top sales agents are invited to a gathering where they can network and be rewarded for their performance, also have remained popular — particularly at reasonably priced destinations within driving distance, said Barbara Scofidio, editor of Corporate Meetings and Incentives Magazine, a trade publication.
“They’re looking for a high level of experience, but their budgets are more light so they are doing more regional meetings,” she said. “There will be a demand for the regional meeting far into the new year.”
Conventions, trade shows and corporate meetings also tend to benefit the individual properties that host those events, much more so than other businesses in Atlantic City. Marrandino said he would expect other casino hotels to benefit from the spillover effect, with guests unable to stay at Harrah’s checking into other properties.
While business meetings and conventions fill hotel rooms and catering halls, the benefits do not extend to everyone, such as shopkeepers on the Boardwalk, merchants there said.
“Trade shows don’t bring business,” said Asif Pasha, a store owner who sells sweatshirts and tourist trinkets on the Boardwalk.
Music concert crowds are better spenders than business people, he said. Still, Marrandino said he believed the proposed center would attract multiple-day business meetings, which would encourage attendees to explore beyond the conference center.
Among associations that use the Atlantic City Convention Center, there were mixed feelings on whether the proposed Harrah’s facility was needed.
“I think it’s going to take away from your convention center,” said Nancy Maren, executive director of the United States Sign Council, which has held an annual convention in Atlantic City for years. “I don’t think there’s a need for it.”
At the same time, the council has been satisfied with its experience at the convention center.
“The convention center is a nice modern facility,” Maren said. “The people there are easy to work with, very nice.”
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