Margaritaville’s debut on the Atlantic City Boardwalk marks a potential reversal for Resorts Casino Hotel just two years after it launched a Roaring ‘20s makeover and lost a third of its operating profits last year.
The Jimmy Buffett-branded complex, which opens Friday, was designed to lure nongambling visitors to Atlantic City’s oldest casino. Its 160-machine slot parlor is just a small piece of a larger $35-million project that includes a year-round beach bar, coffee shop, gift store and restaurant.
“It’s not just about the slots,” said Tamara Baldanza, Margaritaville Hospitality Group’s director of new business. “It’s about the whole experience.”
A section inside Resorts quietly opened last week, while the beach bar is slated to debut Friday. Even casual Parrotheads will recognize the tropical themes: palms, pineapples and sand. Restaurant patrons can dine under perpetually sunny skies. LED accent lighting casts a neon blue haze across the slot floor. The slot machines are familiar ones, with names like Gold Fish and Double Dragon, but their metal surfaces gleam in the light. And, of course, the sound of acoustic guitar and steel drums waft through Resorts.
Mark Giannantonio, who took over as Resorts’ president and CEO in January, said the Margaritaville expansion and other projects, including new players’ lounges and hotel renovations, will turn the casino’s fortunes around.
“We’ve had a lot of construction here in the last nine months that’s clearly impacted our numbers,” he said. “But now that it’s over, or close to over, I see it in the team. They’re ready to go.”
Resorts was Atlantic City’s first legal casino, having opened in 1978, but it lost ground in recent years to newer properties.
Despite a Prohibition-era rebranding in 2011, Resorts has struggled along with the rest of the city’s casinos. Last year, its gross operating profits plummeted 35 percent to $7.9 million, while the remaining Atlantic City casinos combined fell 28 percent.
Rebranding initiatives like Resorts’ Margaritaville are a common strategy for casinos — and businesses in general — to renew interest in their product, said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, a Linwood-based consulting firm.
“What this will do, as opposed to previous rebrandings, is endeavor to capture a demographic more closely identified with the Margaritaville notion and brand,” he said.
Cocktail waitresses in Resorts’ low-cut flapper uniforms strolled through Margaritaville’s slot parlor last week, highlighting the differences between the casino’s two adopted styles.
But Pollock said those distinct themes don’t necessarily conflict. Instead, he said, Margaritaville may draw a more laid-back contingent to a property already linked to the debauched fun of the 1920s.
“It’s a brand expansion,” he said. “In Las Vegas, for example, with certain properties you have multiple brands tied to different demographic segments — it’s not unusual.”
Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, for instance, features different hotels geared to visitors of different income levels. Similarly, most Atlantic City casinos feature restaurants offering high- and low-end cuisine or different promotions for day and nighttime customers.
Giannantonio said Jimmy Buffett’s brand was ideal for Resorts due to its lasting popularity. The hope is that it will attract more visitors from the valuable 30-55 age demographic, he said.
“The concentration of Parrotheads and Margaritaville followers are right here in the Northeast — New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania,” he said. “And the closest one is in Connecticut at (Resorts’ parent company) Mohegan Sun.”
Resorts’ new direction is also indicative of a larger trend of casino properties leveraging Atlantic City’s beach and Boardwalk through beach bars such as Margaritaville’s LandShark Bar & Grill and Revel’s HQ Beach Club. Trump Plaza, meanwhile, reversed a decision made last summer to close its beach bar.
“What you’re seeing collectively is that properties are looking at the assets that make their property, and Atlantic City as a whole, distinct from other markets,” Pollock said. “The first thing that jumps out is obvious: the beach.”
Baldanza said the Margaritaville project was designed to attract a diverse group of people, “just like a Jimmy Buffett concert — from seven to 97.”
“A family can come, their kids can go out to the beach to play at the LandShark and eat a hamburger with their parents,” she said. “And parents can go in and gamble.”
Historically, Atlantic City’s beach bars have been seasonal operations, but Baldanza said LandShark will be open year-round. In winter, floor-to-ceiling insulated glass walls will enclose a portion of the beach adjacent to the restaurant.
“It’s an outdoor experience without the outdoor experience,” she said. “You can overlook the ocean in winter and be in your flip-flops all year round.”
Margaritaville Atlantic City represents a larger push by Jimmy Buffett’s company to expand into gambling enterprises. The company began with the opening of a bar in Key West, Fla., in 1985 and gradually expanded as a chain of restaurants across Canada, the Caribbean and the United States.
In 2011, Margaritaville opened a casino floor and hotel tower at the Flamingo, the famed Las Vegas resort created by mobster Bugsy Siegel. This June, it will debut a $197-million resort casino near Shreveport, La.
“We’re all about fun and, in certain markets, gambling is fun,” Baldanza said, noting that Margaritaville had operated a restaurant in Las Vegas for nine years before expanding into gambling.
Baldanza said there are no plans for Margaritaville to take over Resorts. The partners are still in the process of blending their distinct brands, she said.
In conjunction with Margaritaville’s launch, Giannantonio said Resorts has tweaked its own image.
New blue-and-gold carpeting leads visitors from the parking garage to the Boardwalk. Many of the rooms have been updated with flat-screen televisions and video on demand service.
Bellmen, cocktail servers and doormen still wear their retro costumes, but the piped-in jazz has been replaced with more contemporary tunes. And bartenders with an acrobatic flare will serve drinks at the new It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar.
Giannantonio said all the effort is aimed at reinvigorating Atlantic City’s first casino.
“We believe our best days are ahead,” he said.
As for the flappers strolling through Margaritaville?
Baldanza said they’re a function of the new project’s roll-out process. The slot parlor had an unpublicized soft opening last week while management worked out the details of operations in advance of a grand opening scheduled Friday.
“Once we open the Margaritaville-branded casino, you’ll see cocktail servers dressed a little more casual,” Baldanza said.
“We’ll get there where it’s a natural convergence,” she added, with a laugh. “I don’t know if it’ll be flowered flapper outfits or what.”
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