Joel Ballesteros gives a great hug.
Even if you're not in the habit of greeting casino executives with a hug, his warm Latin manners make it seem only natural. Then, just when you're ready to break the embrace, Ballesteros holds it a moment longer, as if relishing your company.
That personal touch and warm spirit are what put Ballesteros and his longtime partner Robert Thibodeau at the forefront of the most recent campaign to market Atlantic City as a destination resort for gay travelers. John Schultz and Gary Hill, who ran the most successful gay clubs and hotels in the resort for decades, say the younger couple are "definitely following in our footsteps."
"They're doing the right thing, these guys. They have all that young blood, they're aggressive and capable," Schultz said. "They're really good on their own, they have the right instincts."
Their instincts led Ballesteros, 42, and Thibodeau, 50, to help form the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance in 2009 with like-minded gay businessmen. That same year, they sacrificed their nights off from the Rams Head Inn in Galloway Township - where Thibodeau was general manager and Ballesteros events coordinator - to host Nights OUT at the Inn, a casual get together for gay people and those who enjoy their company.
They used their new social connections to build the Alliance, Ballesteros said, and by summer 2010 offerings included sunset cruises, fundraisers and a monthly mixer at area restaurants and hotels. Before its grand opening Memorial Day Weekend, Revel - where Thibodeau now is events manager - already had approached the Alliance to arrange a May mixer at its Mussel Bar. Thibodeau, the strong silent half to Ballesteros' more outgoing personality, is known in the new casino as someone who can quickly connect the dots between casino promoters and that niche audience, Ballesteros said.
In May 2011, Atlantic City opened its first gay nightclub in a casino that flies a rainbow flag - a symbol of tolerance - on its roof. Resorts Casino Hotel - where Ballesteros is in charge of promoting the entire resort to the gay market - now has a whole floor where gays comfortably can show their affection for one another.
Resorts has brought back gay bingo - a move previously used by both Trump and Harrah's entertainment - with the female impersonators from drag revue show "Believe - Divas in a Man's World." The Divas performed a sample of their show at Philadelphia's Pride festival June 10, in front of what event organizers said was their largest crowd ever. And ProBar had a booth that was so popular, it only took a couple hours for manager Mark Dahl to run out of promotional swag.
And Miss'd America 2012, Miss Sabel Scities, was flanked by Resorts dancers as she represented Atlantic City and the Alliance in Pride parades in Asbury Park and New York City. So when RisQue Atlantic City Pride - a group organizing a local version of the tolerance festivals and parades held in most major cities - was looking for a host hotel for its July 5 to 9 event, they knew just who to come to. Ballesteros said the kick-off party will be held at ProBar on the 13th floor. And revelers are expected to flood both that nightclub and Piano Bar down the hall during the festival weekend.
At a time when there is a renewed focus on promoting non-gambling attractions in the resort, the gay community is an important market to tap into. Like many other visitor groups, gay people like to do things besides drinking and gambling, Schultz said, and they often have a fair amount of disposable income to spend at a welcoming venue.
In 2010, Ballesteros envisioned a resort where gay men would feel just as comfortable showing "appropriate" affection - such as holding hands - on the Boardwalk as their straight counterparts. But he didn't expect to see results so quickly. Now Alliance members, who partnered with Schultz and Hill to revive the Miss'd America pageant a few years ago, want to move the event back to September - possibly as the headline event for Atlantic City Pride 2013.
Lucy the Elephant CEO Rich Helfant says Ballesteros and Thibodeau brought people together who had the skills, knowledge and will to start something new at a crucial time for the resort.
"The Nights OUT at the Inn were great," Helfant said, acknowledging the regular meetings where the energetic couple staged miniplays, hosted authors, comediennes and Divas, and held fundraisers. "Robert and Joel really led the charge, they were a catalyst."
But when they moved to New Jersey from California in 2008, Ballesteros and Thibodeau didn't know anyone or anything about South Jersey. Isolated on Brigantine island with few options of venues to meet other gay people, the couple knew they couldn't be the only ones in such a predicament.
So, they got busy doing what they do best; reaching out to people and bringing them together with a purpose.
While seeking a recipient for a charitable donation from the Inn, Ballesteros found a Webpage for the South Jersey Aid Alliance and soon they were in contact with members Melanie Rice and Jeanne Chiaradio.
With Rice's entertainment contacts (she's a musician and singer who also manages and promotes other local performers) and Schultz' and Hill's social ties, word spread quickly and soon Ballesteros and Thibodeau had about 150 new friends showing up at the Rams Head on Monday nights.
"I wanted to do it once a month, because we had to do it on our night off, and I didn't want to give that up every week," Thibodeau confessed. "But Joel insisted we do it every Monday night, so it would be more consistent and people get used to it."
Kurt Knowles Jr., whose family owns several hospitality venues including Rams Head, said they originally agreed to let Thibodeau and Ballesteros use the venue to show their support. But within weeks, the event was making enough money to justify additional bartenders and paid pianist Bob Egan, of New Hope, Pa.
"These two came in from out of town and brought so many people together," Chiaradio said. "I've reconnected with so many people, I saw people I hadn't seen in 20 years. And I also met so many new people. I never knew Tom Carlucci was gay, and I worked with him at Harrah's for 10 years,"
Perhaps that's because Carlucci and his longtime partner, James Truax, are more likely to remember a friend's birthday and hand decorate a cake for it than to buy that friend a drink. They live in New Gretna and rarely went into Atlantic City for entertainment until Ballesteros and Thibodeau got casino jobs there.
When the late Dennis Gomes was looking for someone to market Resorts to gay travelers, The Nights OUT were well-known in the area and Ballesteros was at the top of his shortlist. But neither Ballesteros nor Thibodeau had any experience working in casinos, so they turned to their now-not-so-new friends for input, creating a synergy among several key agencies.
"We both feel the same way, especially in marketing: there's no such thing as competition," Ballesteros said, of his personal and professional relationship with his partner. "Everyone has to work together, especially for the GLBT community. The more people we draw from more markets, the better it is for everyone."
They use that same approach with their friends who work in other casinos, restaurants and event venues in the area. In January, Harrah's OUT in A.C. weekend coincided with the Alliance's Miss'd America pageant at Convention Hall and an afterparty with Carson Kressly and Martha Washington at ProBar. McCormick, at Trump, also was an organizer at the pageant.
Ballesteros and Thobodeau maintained their "dedication to the (Just for Kids Foundation, which donates toys to needy children at the holidays) and the community at large, not just the gay community," Schultz said. They hosted charity fundraisers at work, donating even the food and services for the catered events, and they maintained a presence on charitable and educational boards in South Jersey and Philadelphia.
On a Monday night in May, they collected a few dozen people for a Jitney pub crawl.
"We ran all the way down the Boardwalk, skipping and screaming and throwing beads," recalled Larry Fuerman-Cook, an optometrist who lives in the Lower Chelsea section of Atlantic City with life partner Dennis Cook-Fuerman, who's mostly retired from his job as a classic organist. Both admitted they would not have gone on the jaunt if not for the company, but that's $80 that wouldn't have been raised for charity if not for Ballesteros and Thibodeau.
Promoting events that draw gay travelers to places other than Resorts also is part of Ballesteros' job, he said. Because he is promoting the resort; the Greater Atlantic City Area.
"We hoped, when we started ProBar, more casinos would follow suit," Ballesteros said. "One night here, one night there isn't enough. I think what the community is looking for is more steady constant, five, six days a week entertainment options. A little of everything. Obviously Atlantic City is a big nightlife destination, but we have to be more open and welcoming to the community as far as everyone goes. It would be great to see rainbow flags at The Walk or on beaches, or stickers in windows of restaurants."
There's plenty of work ahead to put Atlantic City back on the map of gay travel destinations. But with so many friendly hands, that work is getting lighter.
"What we really need in Atlantic City is a few boutique hotels for gay people," says Schultz, who's putting his money on Harrah's being the next casino to open a gay club or bar. "The Carrisbroke Inn (in Ventnor) is good, but it's still too small. We need about 20 more like it."
Contact Felicia Compian: