Liza Cartmell is the recently named president of the Atlantic City Alliance, a new nonprofit organization that will market and promote the city using $30 million annually from the casino industry. The ACA is the "private" part of a public-private partnership orchestrated by Gov. Chris Christie to help pull Atlantic City out of a five-year tourism slump. Cartmell discusses the ACA's marketing campaign and the challenges that lie ahead.
Q: When you came to Atlantic City when being considered for the ACA position, what was the first thing you thought the ACA needed to address?
A: I think first and foremost, it's clearly about creating a sense of a city. The marketing for Atlantic City historically - because of the lack of budgets that have been available to really promote Atlantic City - it's really considered a destination of specific places. It's not an overall identity anymore, in my opinion.
It's about going to Caesars, or you go to Resorts or Harrah's, or you go to Borgata. You are not coming to Atlantic City. It's really been marketed as a destination-specific place of four walls. You might be coming to the Boardwalk, you might be coming to the convention center, but it's really not about the city. And so what we need to do is create an identity that is really unique and special and that carries a sense of pride about coming to Atlantic City. So that's really about the branding and the whole media campaign. That's really been the first priority of everything that I have been focused on.
Q: What do you think are Atlantic City's current marketing strengths and weaknesses? How do you see the ACA capitalizing on/fixing them?
A: The casino executives, while they were waiting for the ACA to be formally formed, they did a lot of market research in terms of trying to figure out what it was that was going to help encourage people to come to Atlantic City. Why did people come? Why did they not come? Who was coming currently and who were we going to hopefully get to come in the future?
A lot of that work really revolved around getting to understand what it is people need and what they do when they get away. I think one of the advantages and strengths that Atlantic City has is, nowhere else do you find this concentration of entertainment and options for a getaway in as geographically tight a space. You can go to Las Vegas for the gaming and the entertainment and the food, but let's face it, it's in the desert. And in this day and age where people are really looking for that sort of getaway experience, we have tens of millions of people within a very short driving distance who not only come and enjoy a number of different gaming experiences, a number of dining experiences, a number of entertainment experiences, but we also have, as I said, those physical assets.
If you flip to the weakness side, clearly the research indicates that among the vast majority of people who think of Atlantic City, there are two words that predominate in their thinking. The first is gaming. So our opportunity is to clearly show them that Atlantic City is about more than gaming.
The second thing that they bring up is this perception and reputation as the city being not as safe and not as clean. But interestingly enough, while there is crime here, as there is in every urban environment, and there is an issue around cleanliness, that isn't different than any other urban environment. Both are critical opportunities for us to improve upon. But the reality is that the research also shows that among the people who have come to Atlantic City, the perception is very high about the experience and the intent to visit again is also very high. But when you look at the people who haven't come to Atlantic City, there is a very low intent to visit because they have these perceptions.
Q: Will the ACA's marketing campaign promote the city as being safe and clean?
A: I think the marketing will focus on the reality, which is that it is very clean and it is very safe 99.9 percent of the time. But I would also emphasize there is an understanding of the challenges here in the marketplace - the broken-window syndrome, the homelessness, the crime activity. Yes, it does exist. Clearly, no one is trying to ignore that or sweep it under the rug. It absolutely is front and center.
I know for a fact there are very, very important and meaningful steps that are being taken to address those issues. Tom Gilbert (commander of the Atlantic City Tourism District) is very proactive in terms of dealing with those critical issues. But there are very much longer-term strategic kinds of initiatives that have to be put in place. I know both the CRDA and the city as well as the county are very much focused on how to deal with some of the long-term social services issues.
Q: The explosive growth of gambling means that New Jersey is literally surrounded now by casino states. How can Atlantic City, with the ACA's help, distinguish itself from other East Coast gaming markets in the battle for customers?
A: If you look at Las Vegas and you look at the mix of their gaming revenue versus other revenue sources, it is just one way to highlight where we need to go. Their mix is well over two-thirds nongaming revenue and really one-third gaming. If you flip and look at Atlantic City, it's dramatically about the gaming revenue. Well, clearly it can happen, and it will happen here in Atlantic City, that the more people we get to come here are not gamers because those are the people that we need to attract.
(The competitors) don't offer the amenities that the operators here in town have added over the last decade. They have been very aggressively investing in broadening their appeal, and our job is to make sure that that broader opportunity is available to the leisure traveler who is looking to make that couple-of-day getaway.
Q: When will the first marketing campaign be launched, and what is the message the ACA hopes to convey to tourists?
A: Right now, we are in the process of working with three agencies who are competing for the opportunity to put together the new plan for Atlantic City as well as the full media plan in terms of how that will be rolled out into the marketplace. We hope to have that agency selected by the end of January and then be able to get into the market, hopefully, in the beginning of March. Probably not the full-scale program, because that is a very aggressive time frame, but we would like to get some of the messaging start to get out in the marketplace, and we think that is achievable in March.
That exact message has not been developed. We don't have the jingle, we don't have the exact phrasing yet, but directionally we are starting to see where it is going to go. Clearly, with Revel opening in the spring, I would love to be able to have us come out with that broader message and then have it be followed by the big fanfare so we can really sort of leverage both big opportunities. It's sort of like the proof of the pudding, if you will, in terms of "This is the new Atlantic City."
Q: What parts of Atlantic City will be touted as attractions? Will the marketing campaign also take on more of a regional approach to promote other attractions along the New Jersey shore?
A: Absolutely, because really the casinos and everyone in town recognizes that in order to get more people to come, people who are interested in more than gaming, they have to understand what is here. And what is here is very diverse. So whether it's the ocean, whether it's the marinas, whether it's the Boardwalk, whether it's all the sports and related activities, there's clearly all the entertainment, the shopping and the dining.
But there's really so much more that you physically can do and it's worth coming for more than just a day trip. It's worth coming for multiple lengths. It's a getaway that is really very attractive, because there is such a diversity of things to do.
Q: Crime fears have escalated in Atlantic City since a fatal carjacking in September at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. That was the second fatal carjacking of an Atlantic City visitor in the past two years. How badly have the carjacking tragedies hurt the city's image?
A: I think that they have hurt. But when you put them in context, those are two very isolated incidents that, when you stack them up against other major urban environments and include also a lot of the major tourism destinations, in reality it's a very low incidence of criminal activity on a relative scale.
You are talking about a destination that draws 30 million people annually. So on a relative scale, both were tragedies. But on a scale in the world we live in today, the mitigation that goes on here against criminal activity is at a very high level.
Q: What specific goals does the ACA have for its first six months? First year? Five years?
A: Six months is about getting the brand developed and getting the media campaign launched. The idea behind getting the media campaign launched is so that we can put ourselves in a position so we can really drive the spring, summer and fall visitation, when we can make the biggest impact. We understand that there is some level of seasonality, obviously, in the visitation. So when you start looking at what we like to achieve, clearly we want to increase visitation.
We haven't come to an agreement yet among my board or my trustees as to what those specific goals are going to be. But long term, if I could get another million people to come, or another two million or three million, those are the kind of parameters we are looking at in terms of how many more people can we get to come, how many more people can we get to come back again and again, and how much can we do to get them to spend more while they are here.
Q: A year out?
A: We would like to be in a position to start to really coordinate with the CRDA and ACCVA the messaging as well. Six months to a year, we would like to be able to start to really manage the public relations and communications a lot more effectively in terms of managing through some of the negative news, but also be able to talk about the specifics of what is here. What is going on with the Steel Pier, just by way of example.
So really being able to aggressively manage a communications program to get on the radar of more travel and tourism news stories that really feed into the broader tourism marketplace would certainly be a goal. And then another piece, as we look to the year and beyond, is really to start building out a calendar of events. We are already talking about that with CRDA and ACCVA in terms of how can we create more events here in town that will also drive visitation. The most obvious example is the air show. But we probably need to do something meaningful. Our goal would be to have something meaningful every week that will bring people in, you know, week-long festivals, especially during the down season. The last piece would be to try to figure out how to help the convention center team get more business here mid-week.
Q: Five years out?
A: Well, my funding, unless I get it renewed, dies in five years. So my main objective is to make sure that we are so successful that the marketing funding continues to be committed to support the marketplace. In five years, hopefully, we have been so successful that we will begin to see incremental investment in Atlantic City by private interests. We are working with the CRDA to help them craft the master plan for the city. The central premise about making a successful transition to independence, if you will, is about getting private industry coming to Atlantic City and investing their dollars. And with 30 million people a year already coming, that's a pretty attractive pool to fish in. So it's about trying to get the story out there so that business interests are investing by that time.
Q: How involved do you see city government in helping the ACA achieve its goals?
A: They're critical. They are absolutely critical. I've just recently started participating in the mayor's strategic planning meetings. He is really in the process of soliciting what I consider to be the next wave of strategic initiatives that the business community will help with. I have a very strong opinion that Atlantic City, to really thrive and flourish, needs to be in a place where everyone embraces the fact that it is a destination and that it is about encouraging and growing tourism. The community needs to embrace that. They need to feel a part of that. They need to be supportive of it. Unless we really put out the welcome mat for our visitors, they are not going to want to come back.
Q: Atlantic City's tourism slogan currently is "Atlantic City: Always Turned On." Do you like that slogan and will it continue once the ACA begins marketing the city?
A: Everyone has asked me that question. The first thing I will tell you is that it doesn't matter. What matters to me is whether or not the people we want to draw to Atlantic City like that slogan. So part of the process we are going through with the agencies today is what is the message that will resonate with potential visitors?
Q: Personally, do you like it?
A: I think it's OK. But I have a reservation about it because I think it is a very specific reference. I feel personally, from a theoretical perspective, that slogans that leave it to your imagination are more successful because I don't want to limit what people think about for Atlantic City. I want them to feel like this is an unlimited opportunity. For me, I unfortunately take a specific reference from that slogan. It's an adult reference, and I think we offer more than that.
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