Sand sculpting, wine tasting, surfing, art displays, film festivals — all things associated with … California, perhaps?
Nah. Think Atlantic City. Yes, Atlantic City, the casino capital of the East Coast.
Hoping to broaden the city’s image, the Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing coalition, plans an array of tourism events this year that have nothing to do with slot machines or blackjack tables.
Officials with the alliance say they want visitors to really believe the diverse theme of their publicity campaign: “Do Anything, Do Everything, Do AC.”
To that end, the alliance will spend $30 million in 2013 to promote, market and beautify the city. Last year, it launched the multimedia “Do AC” campaign to lure visitors from throughout the Northeast. The advertising campaign will continue in 2013 amid signs that it has rejuvenated interest in the city as a getaway destination.
“The nice thing is, we’re not seeing any fatigue in the campaign. We continue to see improvements,” alliance President Liza Cartmell said.
Getting tourists to visit Atlantic City is half the challenge. Once they’re there, the alliance hopes to keep them in town for extended stays.
Expanding its role as a marketing and promotions organization, the alliance will fund a series of tourist-friendly attractions that make use of the beach, Boardwalk and ocean.
Cartmell said the idea is to get visitors out on the Boardwalk, underscoring its importance to the tourism industry. Atlantic City is trying to counter exaggerated news accounts that the Boardwalk was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
“People would meander the entire Boardwalk to show that it is still here,” Cartmell said.
Although schedules are still being worked out, the special events will begin this spring and continue through summer and fall. They are expected to include a wine-tasting festival, a sand-sculpting championship, professional volleyball games, surfing contests and offshore powerboat racing. A film festival and a chalk-art competition are other possibilities.
The alliance will also help to promote the city’s annual airshow, which is being moved from its traditional August time slot to June this year. Based on crowds in previous years, hundreds of thousands of spectators are expected to pack the beaches and Boardwalk for the June 26 event.
One alliance-inspired attraction, the nightly 3-D light shows that illuminate Boardwalk Hall in brilliant colors and whimsical imagery, will continue this year. Cartmell said a survey found that 20 percent of the city’s visitors have seen the light shows, proving they are a popular tourist attraction.
The alliance was created to help revitalize the city’s tourism economy, now mired in a six-year revenue slump. It is a private, nonprofit organization that annually receives $30 million from the casinos.
Through a partnership with a government agency, the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the alliance is financing a handful of public arts projects to transform barren land into showpieces.
Two arts projects were completed last year on property overlooking the Boardwalk, including the former site of the Sands Casino Hotel. A third project, costing $2 million, is expected to debut Memorial Day weekend. It will rise on a now-empty lot next to Boardwalk Hall between Florida and Bellevue avenues.
“Art and culture are a strong lure in the leisure segment,” Cartmell said.
But the alliance is looking to attract more than leisure customers. In December, it announced it will offer a $1 million incentive this year to bring new conventions to town. Priority will be given to midweek, nonsummer and first-time conventions or meetings as a way to fill in gaps during normally slow times of year.
So far, the program has helped to land a small group of meeting planners, although organizers for other conventions have expressed interest, Cartmell said.
One debate that has unfolded over the past several months is whether to tap the alliance as a funding source for new airline service to Atlantic City.
“I think it’s one possibility, among many,” Cartmell said.
Not only is air service being talked about, but the alliance is also considering subsidies for rail or bus programs. Discussions continue as to whether air service would include flights from major cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and New York or smaller hubs such as Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., or the Ohio cities of Akron and Columbus, Cartmell said.
Wayne Schaffel, a public relations consultant and former Atlantic City casino executive, argued that air service “would ultimately be the only solution” for pulling the town out of its downward spiral.
With many of Atlantic City’s former bus passengers and drive-in customers now lost to casinos in surrounding states, the focus should be on air travelers to boost casino profits and hotel occupancy, Schaffel said.
“If you could bring in a million air passengers, it would be worth 14 million bus passengers,” he said.
Schaffel contended the alliance is wasting its money by marketing to tourists who live within 250 miles of the city. Those tourists are now driving to casinos closer to home instead of taking trips to Atlantic City, he said.
To replace them, Schaffel said the alliance should spend its money on airline service that would bring in customers from farther away.
“At the end of the day, the convenience gambling is taking customers away faster than any of the individual casinos can bring them back. So when you look at ways to expand the market, you must reach beyond a 250-mile radius,” Schaffel said.
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