Long before the slot machines and blackjack tables turned Atlantic City into a gambling haven, the seaside resort was known as a vacation getaway for millions of tourists.
A new poll, however, suggests that the city may be shedding its modern, casino-centric image to recapture its old-fashioned glory as a vacation retreat. Visitors listed "vacations and getaways" as the main reason for coming to Atlantic City, pushing gambling to No. 2.
Officials are encouraged by the results, saying they underscore the city's recent efforts to attract a more diverse group of visitors, not just gamblers.
"I think it reflects that gambling is not the No. 1 reason that people are coming to Atlantic City. If you want the getaway, that's what Atlantic City offers," said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
The Stockton Polling Institute compiled responses from nearly 700 Atlantic City visitors who live within 200 miles of New Jersey, primarily in areas considered feeder markets for the town's tourism and casino industries.
Ninety-three percent of the respondents said their most recent trip to Atlantic City was not their first, showing a high level of repeat visitors. Of the people who had visited in the past 12 months, most of them, or 51 percent, said they had come once or twice.
What surprised Posner the most was that "vacations and getaways" eclipsed gambling as the primary purpose for visitor trips. Among the respondents, 38 percent listed vacations and getaways as the chief reason for their visits this year, up from 22 percent in a similar poll that Stockton conducted in 2012.
In the new poll, just 27 percent said they visit Atlantic City primarily for gambling. In last year's poll, gambling was mentioned as the top draw by 33 percent of the visitors, Posner noted.
"It's clear that visitors are coming here now to do other things, whether it's for the restaurants, the retail or the entertainment," he said.
As competition from casinos in surrounding states further erodes the gambling dollar, Atlantic City has been emphasizing nongambling attractions to lure a broader-based group of tourists. The widely publicized, $20 million "Do AC" advertising campaign has been portraying the city as an upscale tourist destination that offers an array of nongambling attractions - in addition to the casino action.
The Atlantic City Alliance, the casino-funded marketing coalition that created the "Do AC" campaign, says the Stockton poll results match some of the research data that the alliance has collected from visitors.
"Overall, the goal of the city and the (Do AC) campaign is to have a more-rounded image," said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy and communications officer for the alliance. "That's exactly where you want to see the destination go."
The "Do AC" campaign has been targeting tourists primarily in the Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore feeder markets. Guaracino said visitors from those markets have been changing their perceptions of Atlantic City as being strictly a casino town.
"What we're seeing in our key markets over time, in terms of people's perceptions, is that they are seeing us more as a getaway trip," Guaracino said.
Although older adults, particularly ones in the 55-64 age group, represent the biggest chunk of Atlantic City's visitors, the Stockton polling results indicate a significant increase in the number of families with children visiting the resort. Posner believes that is another sign that tourists are increasingly coming to Atlantic City for getaway vacations instead of gambling trips.
Overall, 18 percent of the poll respondents said they take their children to Atlantic City, up from about 9 percent two years ago.
"In just two years, you've more than doubled," Posner said of the jump in family visitation.
The Atlantic City Alliance focuses its research on visitors 21 years old and above, so it does not track data on children, Guaracino said. However, Guaracino said there are enough kid-friendly attractions to make the city appealing to families.
"With the Steel Pier and aquarium and things like that, it seems that there are a lot of families coming here now," he said.
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