ATLANTIC CITY — The casinos are adding more staff with seasonal employment. The city’s major venues — Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center — are coming off strong attendance over the past year. And restaurant and hotel bookings have benefited from popular promotions.
With momentum gaining, the upcoming tourism season in Atlantic City has the makings of a sweet summer — or at least one that’s better than last year’s, tourism officials say.
“There’s been such cooperation between properties and organizations that we are optimistic for 2010,” Jeffrey Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, said Tuesday. “We’ve especially tried to improve our nongaming operations. You can’t count on the gaming segment to fill all your rooms in the summer like you used to.”
Some hotel and lodging operators are already anticipating a better turnout after an unimpressive 2009. At the end of last year, the casinos’ occupancy rate averaged 82.5 percent, down from 87.4 percent in 2008, according to figures compiled by the Casino Control Commission.
“Over last summer, people didn’t know where the economy was going. We didn’t know if we had seen the worst of it,” said Howard Bacharach, executive director of the Atlantic City Hotel & Lodging Association. “Now, they realize it’s coming back.”
Hugh Chandler, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott on Pacific Avenue, said bookings were up the first quarter of 2010 from last year. For the weekend of July 9, the 206-room hotel will be at capacity, he said, thanks to the North American Bengali Conference at the convention center, which will host about 7,000 people. Popular attractions this summer, such as the Atlantic City Airshow “Thunder Over the Boardwalk” and headline acts, including Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, are expected to help fill rooms.
“There was a doom and gloom aspect that kept people from traveling, but we think that’s changing,” Chandler said.
At the Carisbrooke Inn on Little Rock Avenue in Ventnor, a partnership with the Steel Pier in Atlantic City has kept owner John Battista busy. He is offering a “Sky’s the Limit” package — ranging from $318 to $695 during the summer — in which guests will be whisked away by a luxury car, taken on a helicopter ride at the Steel Pier and provided dinner at Morton’s The Steakhouse at Caesars Atlantic City.
“This year, I’m already booking them two months in advance of when I started booking them last year, and I’m getting calls every day,” Battista said.
People were waiting until the last minute to book rooms at the Carisbrooke last summer, he added. But for this July, he is already 60 percent booked.
“I’m not delusional. I think the economy is still in rough shape and there are still a lot of people feeling it,” Battista said. “But on the flip side, people do want to get out and have a vacation. They’re definitely coming.”
The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority said seasonal hiring among some of the casinos is a sign that they are still anticipating the crowds.
Harrah’s Entertainment, which operates four casinos in Atlantic City, will boost its hiring by 22 percent. That’s due, in part, to the opening of its beach bar at Bally’s Atlantic City, which opens Memorial Day weekend and will feature former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar. The company’s gaming halls also will be hosting the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival from July 29 to Aug. 1.
“Summer 2010 in A.C. is going to see more entertainment offerings than ever before, and we’re looking forward to welcoming new and returning guests to experience it all,” said Don Marrandino, eastern division president for Harrah’s.
But regardless of how the summer fares, Atlantic City can’t let up during the nonpeak months — especially with increased gaming competition from neighboring states, said Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.
Figures from the South Jersey Transportation Authority already show a steady decline of visitors since 2005. There were about 30.4 million visitors to Atlantic City in 2009, down 4.5 percent from 31.8 million in 2008.
“We’ve got to take this same momentum that we’re building during the summer and be talking about what the fall initiative will look like, what the winter and the spring will look like,” Kelly said. “It’s a good trend to continue through the other times of the year.”
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