An Atlantic City marketing coalition funded by the casino industry said it has every intention of bringing more conventions to town - and is putting up the money to prove it.
The Atlantic City Alliance will offer $1 million a year through 2016 as a cash subsidy to lure conventions and meetings. The incentive program was launched this year, but the alliance announced Tuesday that it is being extended for another three years.
The money is a powerful incentive and should help Atlantic City compete with Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Boston and other major cities in the Northeast for the lucrative convention business, officials say.
"The subsidy gets you in the game," said Jeff Guaracino, the alliance's chief strategy and communications officer. "A million bucks a year for the next three years gets you in the door."
One expert in the hospitality industry agreed that the incentive program should make Atlantic City more attractive to conventions and meetings in the years ahead, even as the competition grows more intense.
"I think what it does, it puts them at the same level, or part of the way, with the bigger cities who offer such funds to get conventions to book events in their city. A million dollars is a lot of money," said Peter Tyson, vice president of PKF Consulting of Philadelphia.
The Atlantic City Alliance is a private organization that receives $30 million annually from the casinos to promote and market the city. Last year, it launched the widely publicized "Do AC" advertising campaign to target tourists in key feeder markets throughout the Northeast corridor.
The alliance and its government partner, the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, have been looking for ways to boost business in other sectors of the economy amid Atlantic City's seven-year slump in gambling revenue. Conventions are in vogue as a potential moneymaker.
By dangling $1 million a year in incentives, the alliance is hoping that convention and meeting planners will give Atlantic City a closer look, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Although the Oct. 29 storm left Atlantic City's major landmarks relatively unscathed, dozens of conventions canceled their bookings because of Sandy.
"This is supposed to be mining new business and generating more room nights for Atlantic City," Guaracino said.
Under the program, priority is given to first-time conventions that agree to hold their events during midweek, nonsummer periods, when business is traditionally slower in Atlantic City. Conventions must generate at least 1,000 room nights to be eligible for subsidies.
The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, a division of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, has been out on the road pitching the subsidy program to potential conventions, Guaracino said. The ACCVA is also preparing to launch a marketing campaign to support the program.
Guaracino explained that the program can be tailor-made for a convention's particular needs. The subsidies can cover a wide array of expenses, including transportation costs, receptions, rent, food and beverage, and electric bills.
Since many conventions take years to book, the extension to 2016 assures meeting planners that the $1 million subsidy will be there well into the future, Tyson noted.
"If they only have one year's worth of money, they could eat through that with three, four or five groups. This way, they know they have it for a certain number of years and they can cumulatively attract business," he said.
The subsidies are good for conventions and meetings held at the Atlantic City Convention Center or the individual casinos, Guaracino said.
Historically, casinos were reluctant to reserve their hotel rooms for conventioneers, preferring instead to give them to gamblers. But as the city's casino slump has stretched into its seventh year, conventions have become more highly coveted.
So far in 2013, the incentive program has helped to attract three new conventions, officials said. The next one is the Society of American Travel Writers show scheduled for Sept. 9-13. Atlantic City officials hope that the travel writers show generates even more publicity for the Miss America Competition in September.
The first convention lured by the subsidy program was the June 5-7 conference of SPINCon, a gathering of meeting and event planners. A third convention receiving subsidies will be the Oct. 25-29 conference by Bobit Business Media, which produces trade publications specializing in the transportation field.
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