As Resorts Casino Hotel co-owner Dennis Gomes attempts to revitalize the city's oldest casino, he is experimenting with different strategies.
His latest tactic: attracting gay customers. In March, Gomes hired Joel Ballesteros as the first director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT or GLBT) marketing at an Atlantic City casino and charged him with that mission. The opening of the Prohibition Club, the city's first gay casino nightclub, is the beginning of the plan to make Resorts a gay-friendly destination.
In The Press of Atlantic City's debut "A conversation with ...," Ballesteros talks about what those plans are, and much more.
Q: Tell me first just a little bit about what it is you do here at Resorts?
A: I'm the director of LGBT marketing here at Resorts, I was brought on a couple months ago by Dennis (Gomes), who had the vision to do this whole nightclub, the shows and to market to the LGBT community. I was fortunate enough to be asked by him to come on to the team to help him out in making that vision come to life. It's been incredible, it's been a journey and I'm having a great time doing it.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background.
A: I actually worked for the airlines for many years. I started as a flight attendant, and from there I went on to be a flight-attendant manager. I then moved here after the airline that I worked with was no longer operating. I moved here for a job opportunity at the Rams Head Inn in Galloway as special events manager.
Q: At Rams Head, were you specifically targeting the same community that you're targeting here?
A: No, actually I wasn't. When I moved here, my partner and I moved here for the job opportunity. ... We, as a gay couple who have been together for many years, arrived here in town and realized there weren't many options in the community for us to do as a couple that were gay-themed. There weren't many clubs, bars, restaurants, you know, in the area. So, we saw that there was a need for it. The Rams Head Inn had been closed on Monday nights for several years, so we decided to open up on Monday night and do a night called "Out at the Inn" for the LGBT community. We started off that night with a big show and the response was overwhelming. We had probably 250 to 300 people there that showed up the first night, and this was solely by word of mouth. We did no advertising at all. It is still going on today.
Q: How long were you there before you moved on to Resorts?
A: I was there about two years, two-and-a-half years. In that time, I actually became part of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance, which I'm actually the vice president of now. As you know, we do the Miss'd America Pageant as one of our signature events, and that is actually how I met Dennis Gomes. Resorts was kind enough to be a sponsor of the Miss'd America Pageant, so that's how we met and that's how I came to be at Resorts.
Q: How did the actual job proposition come about?
A: It was actually really funny. I received a phone call from Dennis' secretary saying that he would like to set up a meeting with me. I said OK and I figured that, being on the board of the alliance and I had heard rumors here and there that he wanted to do certain things with the LGBT community, I thought that it was just simply kind of an information session, maybe him kind of asking some questions about the community here in Atlantic City. It turned out to be an interview. And, so, here I am.
Q: Was there any concern about leaving where you were? Obviously, you were very successful at the Rams Head.
A: It was 100 percent ‘I'm ready to go'. And it was a million times ‘I'm ready to go' after I met Dennis Gomes. The way that he treats people, and in the short amount of time that I got to spend time with him, his genuine concern for the community, is really what brought me here. Obviously, he's a business man and it was about money, but it was about his genuine concern for the community that really pulled me in.
Q: Do you feel like you're a trailblazer, if you're setting up the possibility for positions like yours to start springing up at other casinos and for more people to start targeting the gay community as potential, specific clientele?
A: Again, I'll go back to the fact that Dennis is a trailblazer and he put me in the position to be a trailblazer. I only can hope that it sets up the opportunity for other people, not only in Atlantic City, but around the country to actually do what I'm doing. In the industry, I think that it can only benefit everyone.
Q: Why do you think it took so long to see this kind of thing start happening in Atlantic City?
A: That's been a big question for me since I moved here. Not being from here, and only being here a couple of years, when I moved here I learned the history of Atlantic City going back had a huge gay market. It was extremely gay-friendly. That all went away, for whatever reason I'm not sure. So, why the fear when it already was a gay-friendly destination at one point? I saw that there seemed to be a fear of putting it out there.
Q: What makes you say that there was a fear?
A: There was a fear because you would hear of this happening at a certain venue that was an LGBT-related event or these venues or events popping up throughout the city, but they weren't highly advertised. You kind of just had to hear about it word-of-mouth, or you didn't hear about it. There was never anything in the papers, there was never anything on a billboard, there was never anything in The Press regarding these events that were going on throughout the town. So, that led me to believe that there was some sort of fear in actually putting it out there.
Q: Are you aware of any other casino towns, like Vegas, where they have people with positions like yours that are set out solely to target the gay market?
A: With a position like mine, I'm not. I'm not saying that there isn't any out there, I'm just not aware of any. As far as venues such as ours, I know there are possibly a couple there in Vegas. Not any that I'm aware of on the East Coast. But I know in Vegas that there are a couple, but, again, a lot of them are targeted toward a night here and a night there. They're not a full-time venue.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your priorities here. Was establishing this club first on the list to get done?
A: No, it wasn't. Actually, one of my first priorities here was actually to reach out to our LGBT community within our property to find out what the needs and wants were of our employees and the people involved in the property. One of the things that I really wanted to do was make sure that we had benefits for our domestic-partner couples here or our civil-union partners here. We now have that. That was one of the things that Dennis and I discussed early on, and Dennis felt very strongly about us implementing that here. One of the other things that we did is we joined the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. They have a program that is called the "Tag Approval Program." So, we had to do various things, some sensitivity training, just different things to make sure that - not only within our organization - our employees felt comfortable, but our guests that were coming on to the property that were of the LGBT community would feel comfortable coming here. So, we've met all of those guidelines and we are now Tag approved.
Q: Do you have any concerns about the sort of old-time-style gamer that might not agree with the lifestyle being turned off from the establishment?
A: I don't. It's been discussed, it's been thought about, but I really don't have those concerns. The articles have come out about the club and there's really not a lot of negative that has come out of it. At least the positive outweighs the negative, and that's really what we here at Resorts want to focus on is the positive.
Q: How do you think, just in general, that Atlantic City can be more gay friendly?
A: There's so many ways. Again, by doing what we're doing here, I hope that we see other things pop up across town that will kind of unite us as being a gay-friendly travel destination for the community. I think that by making people feel welcome on our beaches, on our boardwalks; one of things that we've done recently here that to my community, the LGBT community, the rainbow flag is our symbol. We now are flying the rainbow flag on top of Resorts and for our community. That's huge. And I would like to see some of the other properties or businesses in town place the symbol in their windows or fly the flag outside their businesses to show support. That's something that, to the community, is a huge gesture.
Q: You talked earlier about what things were like here when you first came to town. It hasn't been that long, but what do you think about the current state of Atlantic City's relationship with the gay community? Are there any positives outside of what you guys are doing here?
A: Oh, absolutely. I can speak on behalf of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance and Resorts. Because of the efforts of the alliance and the efforts of Resorts and the other properties that have done special events here in town, the outreach outside the community has been incredible. We're working on a couple of large events here. I know that the alliance has some things in the works. And there are organizations and promoters or certain people or organizations that would not have reached out had we not done what we've done here.
Q: Have you experienced any prejudice from people at the property here or anything like that?
A: I have not. Since I've been here, from the staff to the people coming here to spend the weekend, I have been welcomed with nothing but open arms, and it's been actually incredible.
Q: Who chose the title of the club?
A: The name of the club? Dennis.
Q: How do you plan to market the club? Are there any specific details you can talk about that might be different from other types of marketing efforts?
A: The way we're marketing it is we are going to have special events here. We're going to have different entertainment throughout the summer. I can't share that information with you, but I guarantee it will be very exciting. We have dancers, we have DJs, we're bringing DJs from Philadelphia, from New York and around the country. There's just so many things. Every day we're looking at different things to keep it new and fresh and keep it exciting. I think that reaching out to these different entertainers will bring more people into town.
Q: When do you think you'll know that (the club) is a success?
A: I think that, actually, when we opened our doors on Thursday for the very first time and within a couple of hours this place was packed with people and the smiles on the faces and energy in the room, I think we knew we had a hit on our hands immediately.
Q: So you're there.
A: There's always room for improvement, there's always room to grow, which we will as it grows. But I couldn't be more happy with the success of the opening weekend.
Q: What's different about operating a gay-centric club as opposed to operating any sort of nightclub? Are there a lot of differences?
A: There really aren't. And the one thing I really would like ... to say is we are a gay club, but we're open to everyone. That was one of the other things about this opening weekend is the mix of people that we had. We had old, young, gay, straight. I mean, people from every walk of life here. That was really what made it exciting and fun and everyone having a great time regardless of gender, race, age, anything like that. It was just a great place to come and have a good time.
Q: Do you see what this club's role is at Resorts, in terms of its Roaring '20s-style theme? Is there a role for it?
A: If you look around, it sort of has a 1920s feel. And when we talk about the club we kind of bill it as a 1920s sort of speakeasy. When we got together and put this idea together, I did a lot of research on the history of Atlantic City, and in the 1920s there was, right off of New York Avenue, there was ... an alley called Snake Alley, and there was a club there called the Entertainer's Club back in the '20s. So, we really kind of did a little bit of our homework as far as the history in the 1920s and keeping with the theme of Resorts. When you come in you'll see that our staff is in 1920s costume. Our drinks that are on the menus, we have some 1920s-themed drinks.
Q: What makes Resorts think - and you think - that this concept is going to be successful inside a casino?
A: Well, if you look at the statistics alone, the fact that the LGBT community contributes $63 billion annually to the tourism market across the country, I think that alone speaks for itself. I'm not one of these people that likes to throw statistics around, but they really do speak for themselves. The LGBT community tends to have a longer stay than the average visitor. Again, I could go on and on with the statistics, but I think they speak for themselves. That's the business aspect of it. For me, and I know for Dennis as well, and for a lot of the other employees here, it's a personal thing. It's time. With everything happening with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," with the civil unions and marriage issues, it was time for something like this to happen, and for us to do it, I'm extremely proud of that.
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