Waves of senior citizens arriving by the busload for a few hours of slot play once gave Atlantic City its reputation as a haven for gray-haired gamblers. But that image has become as outdated as coin-operated slot machines.

A new national survey by an industry trade group underscores just how dramatically the casino industry is being reshaped by younger customers. Of all age groups, the visitation rate to casinos nationwide is highest among people between 21 and 35 years old, according to the latest data by the American Gaming Association.

The shift toward a younger customer base reflects a change in the way people view casinos, said Holly Wetzel, the AGA's vice president of communications. She noted that the gambling industry has evolved into more of an entertainment industry, giving younger people more to do when they visit casinos.

No longer warehouse-like structures for slot machines and blackjack tables, casinos have become resort-style complexes packed with gourmet restaurants, trendy nightclubs, upscale shops and lavish spas - attractions that appeal to people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

"This generation of younger casino visitors has grown up in an era where casino gambling has lost a lot of its stigma," Wetzel said. "Going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City is more of a status symbol than a stigma. It is more of an accepted form of entertainment as it has evolved."

In some ways, younger casino customers are much like their older counterparts, the AGA found. For instance, both age groups prefer slot machines as their favorite games. However, it is in the area of nongambling attractions that deeper divisions emerge. Perhaps most significantly, younger customers tend to spend more on things such as dining, shopping and live entertainment than older people, the survey showed.

"The emphasis on the opportunities that casinos provide isn't just the gaming - whether it's spas, shows or nightclubs," Wetzel said. "The nightclub scene is one that is very attractive to young people."

Younger customers are also more likely to make repeat trips to the casinos, the AGA survey found. Ninety percent of those surveyed from the 21 to 35 age group said they planned to return to a casino for more visits, compared with 79 percent for other age groups, according to the gaming association.

Another survey of casino customers, however, indicates a higher visitation rate among older people, or those above 55. That study was conducted by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The Levenson Institute polled more than 3,000 adults in 16 markets throughout the Northeast, within 400 miles of Atlantic City.

Among the Levenson Institute's findings, nearly 28 percent of the poll's respondents 55 and older said they had visited a casino within the past 12 months. Just 18 percent of those younger than 35 had been to a casino within the same period.

Within the past five years, 44 percent of the under-35 crowd had visited an Atlantic City casino, nearly identical to the visitation rate among the 55-plus age group for that time span, according to the Levenson Institute poll.

One huge difference between younger and older customers is how casinos communicate with both groups. The gambling industry has been turning more to digital platforms as a tool for building relationships with tech-savvy younger customers.

"Many of the casino operators are using social media, such as Facebook and tweeting. They are talking differently to that younger customer than the baby boomer customer, who responds to a piece of direct mail," said Jeff Hartmann, interim CEO of Revel, Atlantic City's newest casino.

Emphasizing the growing importance of younger customers, Hartmann focused almost exclusively on millennials during a presentation in May before the East Coast Gaming Congress, an annual industry conference in Atlantic City.

"In short, they are our future. So we have to know how to reach, attract and hold onto them as the 'New Gamers,'" Hartmann said in his presentation.

Hartmann said the gambling industry must invest in technology to make the casino experience more of a "social event" for younger customers.

"They're true digital natives," Hartmann said. "Internet, Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc., are their turf."

Hartmann said he believes Revel has been positioning itself to appeal to younger customers through its heavy use of social media, its technology innovations and its array of resortlike attractions.

Internet and mobile gambling, which are emerging trends in Atlantic City and other casino markets, will also be crucial for attracting younger groups, he said.

"Provide a smartphone-friendly environment," Hartmann urged the casino industry in its treatment of the younger generation. "The casino should be at their fingertips."

Jamaal Russell, 23, and his 22-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Kelly, personify the highly coveted demographic group of younger casino customers. The couple, from Severn, Md., were enjoying their first visit to Atlantic City during a weeklong stay at Golden Nugget Atlantic City.

Both were relaxing at Golden Nugget's wireless Internet lounge, called Wine & WiFi. Russell was on his smartphone, while Kelly used a laptop computer.

They said they had decided to visit Golden Nugget for its resort-style atmosphere. They were planning to do some dining, shopping and maybe some nightclubbing, in addition to gambling. Kelly said Golden Nugget's spa was about the only attraction that didn't interest her.

"I guess you could call this more of a resort than a casino hotel," Russell said.

Russell and Kelly said the casino industry's image seems to be getting hipper, much more so than the casinos of their parents' era. They said they would have no reservations about asking their young friends to join them for a casino trip.

"They would say, 'Let's go,'" Russell said of his friends.

Recognizing it needed more attractions for younger customers, Golden Nugget opened a glitzy new nightclub over Memorial Day weekend.

"It was a segment we were missing," said Tom Pohlman, Golden Nugget's general manager.

Pohlman, however, emphasized that Golden Nugget has been adding new attractions in hopes of reaching all demographic groups. The average age of Golden Nugget's customers is older than 50, he said.

"We cater to the masses, not the classes," Pohlman said. "On weekends, our demographic is younger. On weekdays, it's the complete opposite."

Like Golden Nugget, other Atlantic City casinos have been investing in new nightclubs, bars and restaurants to draw younger customers. But Pohlman cautioned that it is more challenging for casinos to gain the loyalty of younger customers than older people, who tend to be more content with their surroundings.

"The younger person goes to wherever it's fun and hip today," he said. "The younger demographic is more loyal to the party scene and will go to where they have the most fun."

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258