Million-dollar giveaways. Cash buried in the beach. Trips to tropical paradise. Shopping sprees. Guarantees that no one loses at the slot machines.
This summer, the casinos are being quite generous with their promotional offers - commonly known as "comps" - to draw customers to Atlantic City.
The car giveaways, cheap buffets and slot bonuses that have been a staple of casino promotions in the past are being overshadowed by new mega-sweepstakes amounting to millions of dollars in prizes.
Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine, said a casino marketing war has broken out in a fierce battle for customers. Marketing wars are nothing new to Atlantic City during the slower months, but this time around the fight is taking place during the summer, when casinos normally don't have to work as hard for business.
"Yes, it is unusual. There are some very aggressive promotions in a season when you usually sit back and let customers walk through the door," Gros said.
Wayne Schaffel, a casino analyst and public relations consultant, argued that the huge giveaways are simply a sign of how desperate the casinos have become in a slumping market. Atlantic City is in the midst of a seven-year revenue decline caused by the sluggish economy and competition from casinos in surrounding states, particularly Pennsylvania. Schaffel contended the casinos are hurting their profits by giving away so many comps and lowering their hotel rates.
"I have maintained that even in the face of continuing declines, the casino industry will not only not back away from these ineffective strategies, but will ramp them up to ever greater and absurd levels," Schaffel said.
Gros, however, believes the lavish giveaways are helping the casinos to rebuild business lost to other gambling markets in recent years.
"I think it's good for people who haven't been here for three, four or five years to get them to come back," he said.
A ride down the Atlantic City Expressway reveals just how extravagant the promotions have become. Billboards beckon with million-dollar sweepstakes at the Caesars Entertainment casinos, a "Christmas in July" shopping spree at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and a "$1 million grand prize tropical treasure game" at Resorts Casino Hotel.
Resorts is promising to send its winners to Hawaii or Key West, Fla. Taj Mahal ran a promotion for a trip to England's sprawling Highclere Castle estate, the main filming location for the British television period drama "Downton Abbey."
The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, which has rebranded itself as a low-cost casino offering "the best deal in town," is using humor on its billboards to grab attention - as well as business.
"If you can't laugh at their crappy comps, we'll do it for you," an Atlantic Club billboard says while mocking the competitors.
A spokeswoman said what really sets Atlantic Club apart from other casinos is a promotion that allows customers to use their comp dollars to buy things at local businesses.
"In most casino properties, player comps, or earned rewards, are restricted to use only on property for rooms or meals or contests, prizes and occasionally goods and services from select retailers on a promotional basis," Atlantic Club spokeswoman Cathleen Kiernan said. "Atlantic Club's Club Local program is the only player rewards program in Atlantic City that provides players with the ability to use their comp rewards at local businesses, restaurants and retailers throughout the region every day, every week, all year long; and they don't expire."
Other casinos are getting creative, too. Conjuring images of Blackbeard's legendary treasure, the Taj Mahal will give customers the chance to find $200,000 in cash buried in the beach during a "Big Dig" promotion Sept. 1.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a $100,000 giveaway featuring 10 winners over 10 weeks. Golden Nugget Atlantic City has a NASCAR-themed promotion that lets customers pick their favorite drivers and watch them compete in "virtual races" that unfold on the slot machines.
Caesars Entertainment, owner of the Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's Resort and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City, is promising to make at least four of its customers rich in the "Millionaire Maker" promotion this summer. Patricia Sheik, a recently retired schoolteacher from Lakewood, Ocean County, got lucky and became one of those millionaires during an elaborate ceremony at Harrah's over Memorial Day weekend.
"I knew my ship would eventually come in. I just didn't think it would have been that big of a ship," Sheik said of her $1 million prize in a statement issued by Caesars Entertainment.
Tropicana Casino and Resort is also looking to be a millionaire maker. Tropicana has started a "Hot Hand" promotion, running through Oct. 4, that gives customers a chance to win $1 million. In another promotion June 1, Tropicana refunded slot losses ranging from $100 to $2,000 for members of its Trop Advantage club.
Revel Casino-Hotel expanded the idea of slot refunds by introducing its "You Can't Lose!" promotion through July. Gamblers who lose between $100 and $100,000 on slots will have their losses refunded to their player's cards for future play. Revel has launched another initiative that promises to match the slot promotions offered by other Atlantic City casinos.
Revel once touted itself as an exclusive, high-end resort, but that image was blamed for scaring away customers and contributing to the property's financial troubles. After it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, Revel rebranded itself as a casino-centric property. The casino's restructuring is built around a "Gamblers Wanted" theme.
Revel's ultra-aggressive promotional strategy has put pressure on other casinos to up the ante. However, Randall Fine, who oversees Revel's marketing programs, said Revel doesn't believe it has sparked a marketing war.
"We're certainly not attempting to do that," Fine said. "We're trying to tempt gamblers."
Revel's "Gambers Wanted" theme is becoming ubiquitous. It is featured in TV, radio and newspaper ads, in addition to being plastered all over billboards. Revel trumpets the theme on a large sign on a bridge that spans the Atlantic City Expressway.
"I think it's not a bad idea for Atlantic City as a whole to show gamblers that we want their business," Fine said. "The slogan 'Gamblers Wanted' should not just be for Revel. 'Gamblers Wanted' should be the slogan for Atlantic City as a whole."
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