Atlantic City casino executives and tourism officials are facing a dilemma: How do they get customers to start gambling again without appearing insensitive to the plight of hurricane victims?
Most casinos seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. They have held off announcing any post-Hurricane Sandy promotional giveaways or say they are not going to offer any.
However, Golden Nugget has broken from the pack, offering free parking, half-priced buffet meals and a cruise sweepstakes to get customers to return to the quiet Atlantic City market.
“Although we have to be sensitive, we are a business, and just like every other business, we have to do things to stay in business,” said Tom Pohlman, general manager of Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
The Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing coalition that promotes the city, is discussing a number of ways to attract customers back. On Monday, the alliance plans to resume its $6 million “Do AC” fall advertising campaign, which was suspended after the hurricane closed down the city’s tourism market.
Jeff Guaracino, an alliance spokesman, said the ads are part of broader plans for a tourism recovery campaign. The campaign will combine the resources of the alliance, the Governor’s Office and state tourism officials, but some of the details are still unfolding, Guaracino said.
“We want to be sensitive because some of our feeder markets were hit,” Guaracino said of the widespread hurricane damage in New York and parts of North Jersey.
The alliance has been trying to counter inaccurate news accounts that large sections of Atlantic City were devastated by the hurricane. The casinos, for instance, suffered only minor damage, but had to remain closed for five days while the entire city was under Gov. Chris Christie’s evacuation order.
Guaracino said the alliance plans to launch a study, in concert with the New Jersey-based Russell Research, to gauge public perceptions of Atlantic City. The alliance is worried about the lingering effects of false news reports that “Atlantic City is underwater and the Boardwalk was destroyed,” Guaracino said.
Meanwhile, Golden Nugget wasted no time in letting its customers know that the casino “has weathered the storm.” Golden Nugget began emailing customers promotional offers on Nov. 1, the day before the governor lifted his evacuation order and allowed the casinos to reopen.
Among the perks, Golden Nugget will allow customers to park for free in November and December. Pohlman said Golden Nugget originally planned to offer free parking through November, but extended it to December.
Other promotional deals include half-priced meals for New Jersey residents in Golden Nugget’s buffet, discounted room rates starting at $79 per night and a $50,000 drawing for cruises.
Pohlman said the cruise sweepstakes actually was planned before Sandy struck, but noted that customers will have an even better chance of winning now that business has slowed down in the hurricane’s aftermath.
“Where maybe there would be 500 customers in a drawing before, now there are only 100,” he said.
Pohlman explained that not all of Golden Nugget’s customers were affected by the storm and are simply “looking for things to do.”
“People are definitely out there gambling, although not in the volumes they were,” he said.
Overall, customers have been slow to return to Atlantic City. Gambling revenue at the 12 casino hotels plunged 20 percent in October because of the hurricane shutdown. Some casino executives are predicting it will take weeks or months for the market to ramp up to normal business levels.
“It’s going to be a long winter,” said Steve Callender, general manager of Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Tropicana is not offering any special post-Sandy giveaways, Callender said. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Resorts Casino Hotel and the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel also said they were not planning any post-hurricane promotions. Revel and the two Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. casinos did not respond to requests for comment.
Caesars Entertainment Corp., owner of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos, said it would initially focus on efforts to rebuild the community before considering any customer giveaway programs.
“We need to take care of the community first — get the employees who were displaced back to work, get the community what they need to help rebuild,” Caesars Entertainment spokeswoman Katie Dougherty said.
Last week, Caesars Entertainment presented a check for $150,000 to the Southern Shore Chapter of the American Red Cross for its relief efforts. Caesars also donated $100,000 toward a fund to assist the company’s employees in recovering from the storm.
Other casinos have announced programs to support hurricane-relief efforts. Pohlman said Golden Nugget has made donations of food, clothing and money to food banks, shelters and the Red Cross.
Borgata established a relief fund with a $50,000 donation. Borgata also said that proceeds from a poker tournament and a book signing by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck will benefit the Red Cross.
Tropicana is donating items to its employees in need, including gift cards, towels, sheets, linens, cleaning supplies, paper products and carpeting and furniture from the hotel.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: