Booking political commentators such as Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck to speak at the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort this summer took some convincing. The speakers' reps wanted to know: Had the casino ever hosted such an event? Why was it doing it now? And in a city known more for attracting poker players than political pundits, was there even an audience?
Although it had never organized a political-type show before, the casino's first installment in its Summer Speaker Series that opens Thursday with O'Reilly and Beck didn't just sell - it sold out.
"Absolutely, it moved faster than any of the other shows we've done in our history," Hilton spokeswoman Tina Belluscio said.
By introducing a new form of entertainment to Atlantic City - a far different scene from the musical performers and novelty acts that breeze through the resort each year - the Hilton is marketing to an audience that may not necessarily gamble and is more politically attuned.
"It's a diverse crowd. It's people who haven't been to Atlantic City at all or in the last 10 years," Belluscio said of ticket buyers. "That was the goal: To bring people who normally wouldn't come to Atlantic City to Atlantic City."
With Pennsylvania adding table games this summer and other neighboring states expanding their gambling options, Hilton's strategy of growing non-gambling attractions through political discourse could be a winning campaign, said Adam Geller, a Republican pollster and CEO of National Research Inc. in Monmouth County.
"I think it's a smart thing to do," said Geller, who has done consulting for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. "Atlantic City has so much to offer. Certainly, in terms of casinos and gaming, but also for businesses and shops and going out to eat. Hopefully, people can see that (Atlantic City) has absolutely bloomed like a flower on the Jersey shore."
Besides O'Reilly and Beck, the other big names coming to the Hilton are: Former President Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to speak July 23 with tickets now on sale from $100 to $350; conservative pundit Ann Coulter and liberal pundit James Carville, who are speaking together Aug. 21 with tickets on sale now; and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrives Sept. 18 with tickets on sale in the next couple of weeks.
The casino has declined to say how much it is paying the speakers.
Geller said that with Americans' interest in politics on the rise - the voter turnout rate for the 2008 presidential election was reportedly the highest in 40 years - people want to hear from "opinion leaders," whether it's Beck on the right or Keith Olbermann on the left.
"I would suspect that when people come to see Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck, there'll even be members of the audience representing people who love those folks and people who came because they hate those folks," Geller added. "Hopefully, people will be able to have a discussion in a civil and intelligent way."
Some area residents hoping to catch O'Reilly and Beck live - the Fox News personalities have been traveling the country on their "Bold & Fresh" Tour - were shut out if they waited too long to buy tickets when they went on sale in April.
Dolores Narducci said she tried a few weeks ago to snag the $175 tickets for herself and her sister-in-law, but they were sold out. She initially decided against buying the $300 tickets, which include a cocktail reception and meet-and-greet after the show, but after changing her mind, she learned that they, too, were gone.
"I was very disappointed," said Narducci, 79, of Brigantine.
Narducci, whose regular routine includes "spin class in the morning, pinochle with friends and Fox News at night," said it would have been her first time going to the Hilton for an event. Ultimately, she has gotten over the fact that tickets sold out.
"I'm glad it did because that means there's a lot of us interested in what (O'Reilly and Beck) have to say," she said.
Patrick D'Arcy, Atlantic County Democratic chairman, plans to see President Clinton when he speaks next month. He said attracting high-profile political names to Atlantic City are a draw that other East Coast gambling towns don't offer.
"We need more of this," he added. "We need more people thinking outside of the box."
Belluscio said the Hilton has another program in the works after the speakers series. It will be announced later this summer - but won't be political.
"This is just the beginning," she said.
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If you go
Tickets are on sale for former President Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to speak July 23, and pundits Ann Coulter and James Carville, who will speak together Aug. 21. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to speak Sept. 18, with tickets on sale by July. Each of the speakers will appear at the Atlantic City Hilton Theater, a 1,600-seat venue. For more information, click on this link.