Curtis Bashaw may be the New Jersey shore’s ultimate innkeeper.
As a youngster, he literally grew up in his grandfather’s hotels, serving as a bellhop, bus boy, waiter, front-desk clerk and manager. The Ivy League-educated developer now owns such landmarks as the historic Congress Hall hotel in Cape May and the hip Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City.
Bashaw is also one of the state’s leading tourism advocates. He organized a series of tourism summits while formerly serving as executive director of the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
In this week's A Conversation With ... Bashaw discusses his hotel empire and New Jersey’s tourism industry.
Q: First, tell us all of the hotels that you own and manage through your Cape May-based companies, Cape Advisors Inc. and Cape Resorts Group.
A: We have, here in Cape May, the Virginia Hotel, the Star Inn, Congress Hall, the Sandpiper and the Beach Shack. In Atlantic City, we have, of course, the Chelsea. And in New York City we just completed the Mondrian Hotel. It opened in March this year.
Q: Hotel bookings are a barometer for the summer tourism season. What are you seeing so far this season?
A: Our advance bookings are way up this year across the board, particularly in Cape May. What we are seeing is that people are booking further in advance. During the depths of the downturn, people were making decisions much closer to the time of their stay. So, this year compared to last year, we're probably about 45 percent higher in our advance deposits than we were last year at this time.
Q: Is that both for Cape May and Atlantic City?
A: More Cape May. Atlantic City has a very short booking window. We will fill the Chelsea on Fridays and Saturdays, but most of those reservations we will take on Thursdays. It's a pretty short booking window compared to (Cape May), where people are booking six months in advance, three months in advance.
Q: Cape May and Atlantic City have completely different personalities in terms of the tourism trade. How do you market your hotels to take advantage of two vastly different resort towns?
A: Our positioning here in Cape May is sort of the classic American resort. Our five properties are within walking distance from each other. It's very much like a resort campus. We have three restaurants here, the Ebbitt Room, the Blue Pig and the Rusty Nail. So our guests enjoy what I would call some of the simple pleasures of being in a very safe and secure beach resort with a backdrop of this wonderful architecture.
There is a ton of repeat business and it's become very much like a family with the relationship we have with our customers here. So there's a very intimate kind of communication we keep going.
Most of our new business comes from word of mouth. It's very interesting to watch our ZIP codes change each year. You can see one person on Madison Avenue in Ridgewood last year and this year you will see two addresses on Madison Avenue in Ridgewood. It's that word of mouth that people are sharing what we do here in Cape May with their friends and family members, and that is really what is building it.
Atlantic City is a little bit more of a commodity. It's a younger crowd there coming to party. They make up their mind more at the last minute. Atlantic City is a little more whimsical. That said, we do get some advance bookings for bachelor and bachelorette parties and you'll see groups of people. The tactics of how we stay in touch with them are similar. You try to capture email addresses and tell their friends that you want people to book on our own website and not use a third party. If they first get to us through a Travelocity, you want to at least build enough of a relationship so the next time they choose to come to the Chelsea. We opened the Chelsea four years ago this July. We have customers in the database that have stayed there 12, 13 times. So there is definitely a loyalty. But the average length of stay in Atlantic City is 1.1 days, where in Cape May our average length of stay is like 2.7.
Q: In Atlantic City, you are well known for creating the Chelsea Hotel in 2008 by combining two former old hotels into one upscale property. In the process, you spent about $112 million on the project, right before the recession hit and just as the Atlantic City economy was sinking. It's no secret that the Chelsea has struggled, as well as other Atlantic City properties. How has the Chelsea been faring lately?
A: It's really been a difficult time in Atlantic City and obviously distressing to those who live there, work there and invest there. I had served on the CRDA in '04 and '05 and I believed that the town was just at the tipping point to get to the next phase. After I finished my tenure, I thought 'What a neat town to establish a hotel in.' The Chelsea has established itself as sort of the premier nongaming hotel in the market. We've worked through reworking the whole relationship with the lenders and stakeholders in the project, so the Chelsea is going to be around for a long time.
How and when and if the market in Atlantic City recovers remains to be seen. But the Chelsea is full every weekend. Mid-week is a little tougher. It's hard to compete when the corporate casinos are giving rooms away for $29. It kind of makes it hard to operate a nongaming facility. But it's a really fun party atmosphere at the Chelsea every weekend. We have dedicated employees there who are working hard to make it an experience worthy for people to return to.
Q: At one point, the Chelsea was seen as a candidate to become one of the new generation of smaller-scale casinos allowed in Atlantic City under a new state law. However, the original legislation was changed to require that the smaller casinos would have to be brand-new hotels, which eliminated existing hotels such as the Chelsea from contention. Do you think the Chelsea would have made a good boutique-style casino?
A: Absolutely. I think it's very well-positioned for that. It's a town that, really, at the end of the day, is controlled by the corporate gaming interests. So if you can't beat them, maybe you should join them -- because they were certainly beating the pants off of us when the market collapsed.
Harrah's was giving away free rooms for a while, if you recall. So it's very hard ... to compete in a declining marketplace without a gaming floor. Because they will give away the food and they will give away the rooms. So how do we do what's our business model in the face of that kind of competition? So when Senator (Jim) Whelan suggested that perhaps that boutique casinos would be a good idea, we definitely jumped on the bandwagon. And we were disappointed. I think the trade unions thought there would be a whole lineup of new developers to come in to build new casinos. So why should we waste one of these licenses on a rehab, which is going to create less work than doing a ground-up building? I have to say I haven't seen a lineup of people, other than the Hard Rock project, begging to build a new building in Atlantic City, and that's sort of the status now.
Q: Gov. Chris Christie has established a new state-controlled Tourism District that will oversee the casino zones, Boardwalk and beaches in Atlantic City. What are your feelings about the Tourism District, and what is needed to make it a success?
A: Well, look, I have been out of that arena for a few years now. I certainly applaud the initiative to clean up the city and make it safer and add a component where the town has a budget in which to market itself. It's a little like the Nike slogan: "Just do it." We have been talking about it for years and years. I hope and I think the governor's heart is in the right place with this.
But I do hope it's a district that's controlled by people who have the city's interest at heart and not by the corporate gaming interests. I think that is very important. I hope that they're willing to invest in getting some fresh leadership that can really raise the bar. You have a lot of people, who have been there for a long time, that see things. It's sort of the same old lunch crowd. We need to reinvigorate it. I think it needs to have some visionary leadership to really take it to the next level. We need to make sure that the prospective economic development is such that it's not just helping the corporate gaming, but that it's helping the town as a whole.
Q: You served as executive director of the CRDA. One of your big successes at the CRDA was a $100 million program to renovate storefronts and other buildings on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. What inspired you to undertake the program, and what else needs to be done to continue to spruce up the Boardwalk?
A: I had a wonderful time in those 18 months at the CRDA. It was terrific to get to know a town with such deep roots and a wonderful history. Obviously, my grandfather's first church was in Atlantic City. The Chelsea Presbyterian Church is still there. The Boardwalk was always a summer stop. It saddened me to see the decline of Atlantic City from the '70s to the '80s. The gaming marketing spin of what gaming would produce had filtered down to the town as a whole. When you have a company like Disney coming to our state ... and building a fake Boardwalk in Florida and having our Boardwalk just fall into disrepair, it's like we are missing the forest from the trees.
So to me, the Boardwalk revitalization project is precisely what we should be doing with Atlantic City economic development funds. And I am proud of the legacy. We tried to establish some design guidelines during my tenure there so that we didn't have big, windowless boxes taking up Boardwalk frontage -- which the gaming interests had sort of plopped down along that strand -- and instead bring back some of the design elements. I don't know how many blocks have been finished, but it looks great and it's a huge improvement from what was there.
You had some of the slumlords on that Boardwalk who were collecting big rents but not reinvesting in the properties. It was a little like herding cats to get people to participate in the grant program. But my colleagues there have carried that on and executed it pretty well. I think there are some real results up there that are beneficial to the town and Boardwalk.
Q: What still needs to be done to make the Boardwalk a tourism showpiece?
A: It needs to be authentic and fun and celebrate what made it a wonderful showplace in the first place. There were carnival games and rides, extravagant activities, diving horses and it was this egalitarian melting pot -- the fancy guests and the fancy hotels and the working-class folks that came down as daytrippers. They were all having fun together, with lights like Times Square and fancy buildings and a variety of shops and stores. We have got to diversify what is up there a little bit. You just can't have massage parlors, fortune tellers and 99-cent stores.
Q: Another one of your major programs at the CRDA was a tourism summit that tried to tie together New Jersey's shore towns as a regional market. Would you judge it as a success?
A: I totally believe that the Jersey shore is a very powerful brand that is completely unharvested by our state. It saddens me that there is provincialism. It's hard to break through that, and it's been hard to see any real lasting state initiative to help support that brand. I think that the shore summits that we did in '04 and '05 really highlighted and raised awareness, and there was a real crying out to do this. But when the Legislature passes a room tax and promises to reinvest it in tourism promotion and then takes it to the general budget, it doesn't really promote tourism. It's hard to see a brand develop.
I still believe the Jersey shore brand is low-hanging fruit for our state. It drives a huge amount of visitation from out-of-state visitors who are paying sales tax here. I hope that this Atlantic City Tourism District serves as a model, assuming it gets the right leadership and it's not dominated by one corporate interest and that the marketing initiative is successful for Atlantic City. Hopefully, it can be inspirational to really promote the Jersey shore as a whole.
Q: How would you characterize the state's tourism industry in general?
A: I believe New Jersey tourism has probably benefited from the down economy a little bit, meaning that it is a close-to-home driving destination. During a time of economic uncertainty, people are going to be less extravagant, but they still need a break. Atlantic City was hit with a tsunami of events. That market fell off the map.
Here in Cape May, we were flat in '09 and in '08 maybe a little bit of a dip. We've been roaring back to life because we are providing that simple pleasure -- it's lemonade, American flags and simple times. It feels wholesome. It feels safe. And I think the Jersey shore brand, if it was managed correctly, could be a real asset during times of economic uncertainty for the state.
Certainly, we hope the economy improves for everyone. We can see it. When gas prices spike, our reservations do pretty well because people aren't going to fly or drive as far. That said, if people think they are going to lose their job, no one is going anywhere. So it's still a tender time, but I think that we have an opportunity as a close-to-home destination to leverage that in a way that could build our brand and stabilize our industry.
Q: Lately, Atlantic City has been looking for more niche markets to expand the tourism base. One of them is catering to gay and lesbian travelers. As an openly gay man, what do you think of Atlantic City's push for more LGBT tourists?
A: Regardless of my own orientation, I think it's a great market to try to attract. Typically, you have dual-income partnerships, often without children. They have more disposable income. They like to travel and explore. I think it makes a ton of sense to recruit as many demographics as possible to enjoy what the town has to offer. I think it's great that (Resorts Casino Hotel Owner) Dennis (Gomes) ... is targeting that market. I hope it is successful. I think it helps round things out. It becomes another demand generator to make Atlantic City's economy more robust.
Q: In the future, will you continue to concentrate on Cape May and Atlantic City or look for more opportunities in other areas?
A: We are definitely looking beyond the New Jersey borders, although we are looking at some shore towns north of Atlantic City. We've developed a great relationship with our customers. They like our products. We like the idea of looking at staying in the Mid-Atlantic region and looking at some other resort opportunities.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: 609-272-7258 DWittkowski@pressofac.com