Even before the Tourism District was created, lawmakers and state officials pointed to boosting Atlantic City’s convention market as one of the most obvious ways to increase tourism to the city.
Today, however, more than halfway into the state’s plan for revitalization, the Atlantic City Convention Center has made minimal strides to increase convention business and hasn’t come close to hitting the state’s original goals.
The center booked 91 conventions, trade shows and public shows in 2013, down 15 percent from the 107 booked in 2010, just before the state’s infiltration of Atlantic City. Officials tout a modest increase in the number of people who attended the events as a sign of progress. In 2013, more than 324,000 delegates attended events at the center, up about 4 percent from 2010.
Yet that progress is a far cry from the high bars set for the city in the 2010 Governor’s Advisory Commission report on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment. Also known as the Hanson Report, for commission Chairman Jon Hanson, the study called for increasing the meeting and convention business in Atlantic City by “at least 30 percent per year for the next five years.”
Convention business could be a crucial driver for the resort and is not being ignored, officials say. Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director John Palmieri blames the lack of progress, in part, on overall economic struggles that caused some groups to cut back on travel. The resort’s convention business also took a hit because of Hurricane Sandy.
“I don’t know where they got the number,” Palmieri said of the expectations set by the Hanson Report. “That might have been a goal that might not have been based on any sound analysis of opportunity.”
Along with the slow movement to bring new carriers to Atlantic City International Airport has come slow progress for convention business. Travelers need to have a direct link to the resort for Atlantic City to begin booking major conventions currently opting for destinations such as Las Vegas, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said.
“That’s what we’re missing. You go to Las Vegas for a convention. You land at the airport, and you’re right there,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland. “We need that badly for Atlantic City.”
Today, officials say the opportunity is real, even if a 30 percent increase in business in a single year can’t be accomplished.
But making those changes has proved challenging due to the legal maneuvering it has involved. Gov. Chris Christie flagged the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority years ago, saying the agency whose primary function included convention sales was inefficient and ineffective.
As a result, Tourism District legislation called for the ACCVA to merge into the CRDA, but that took nearly two years to complete, due to a complicated bond transfer process involving the ownership of the Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall.
With the merger complete, the state again has plans to shake up convention sales efforts by creating a new not-for-profit entity charged with improving sales. The entity will likely take on the former ACCVA sales force, as well as make additional hires, although details aren’t clear.
Palmieri said the move is crucial for sales efforts because as a state entity, the CRDA is bound by state regulations regarding bidding procedures and travel. That could hamper the city’s ability to be aggressive in attracting new business, said Palmieri, who noted that similar moves have been made in other successful convention jurisdictions.
“It’s what all successful convention center jurisdictions do, and it’s about time that we do it here,” Palmieri said. “They can be more aggressive and innovative in executing plans for the vision and the enterprise within the city.”
Yet again, it’s a process that takes time, and discussions to create the nonprofit did not begin until recently, Palmieri said.
The authority also touts the new Convention Center operator, Global Spectrum, as a sign of progress. A contract awarded to the Philadelphia-based management company late last year marks the first change in management at the facility since it opened in 1997.
The operator change was also subject to delays. Before the merger with the CRDA, the ACCVA attempted to award the same contract to Global Spectrum in December 2012. Former operator SMG, however, disputed the award, and a mediator later found the process had to be restarted, with months wasted.
The CRDA conducted the same process in 2013 and returned the same result, with Global Spectrum taking over operations of the Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall this month.
The Atlantic City Alliance also has plans to boost convention business, with $1 million in incentives in place each year to attract new conventions. The subsidy lured three conventions to Atlantic City in 2013, though the alliance has declined to say how much of the total funding was spent.
“Without this kind of money, Atlantic City would have a hard time competing with larger regions like Philadelphia and Baltimore,” alliance President Liza Cartmell said. “It’s critical.”
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