ATLANTIC CITY — The Claridge has had a fair share of luminaries — Al Capone, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco among them — stay as guests during its 86-year history as an oceanfront hotel.
“I heard John F. Kennedy stayed here, too,” Cem Erenler said.
Considering the rumored romance between Kennedy and Monroe, one can only wonder whether the president and the Hollywood bombshell ever had a secret liaison at the Claridge.
That’s the type of salacious gossip and trivia Erenler hopes present-day guests will find intriguing. As the Claridge’s new general manager, Erenler wants to combine the hotel’s history with its modern-day amenities to establish it as Atlantic City’s must-see attraction.
“If it happens in Atlantic City, it happens at the Claridge Hotel,” he said of a new marketing slogan he concocted that is a not-too-subtle takeoff of the famous “What Happens Here, Stays Here” tourism campaign in Las Vegas.
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Erenler, 44, has taken his first job in Atlantic City after helping to run posh hotels in New York City and elsewhere since the late 1990s. The native of Turkey came to the United States in 1993 with no money, no place to stay and knowing little English.
“It was a big risk,” he said, recalling his early days in the United States.
He later earned his master’s degree in international business management to solidify his place in the hotel industry as a top executive and consultant.
Although new to Atlantic City, he has experience at the Jersey Shore as the former general manager of the Reeds at Shelter Haven in Stone Harbor and the Berkeley Hotel in Asbury Park.
Erenler said he recognizes the challenges Atlantic City faces following the closing of four casinos last year and the steadily declining number of tourists as competition intensifies from gambling markets in surrounding states. But he expressed confidence in the city’s strategy to rebuild the economy by adding upscale shopping, restaurants and entertainment to complement the casinos.
“There are a lot of initiatives to turn the city into a destination resort. That’s a great start,” he said.
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In the meantime, the Claridge is feeling the pressure of the city’s tourism woes. Over the slow winter months, average weekday occupancy at the 500-room hotel has been just 10 percent, although it shoots up to between 70 percent and 85 percent on weekends, Erenler said. Last weekend, the Claridge was booked solid with guests drawn to town for the Garden State Film Festival and Beer and Music Fest.
Erenler already has his sights set on the peak summer tourist season. He characterized summer as the “laboratory” that will test the pulling power of the Claridge.
The Claridge has been reborn as a boutique, noncasino hotel after spending more than 30 years as a casino hotel — first as a stand-alone casino and then as part of the sprawling Bally’s Atlantic City complex. Bally’s parent Caesars Entertainment Corp. sold the Claridge to Florida-based hotel operator TJM Properties Inc. last year for $12.5 million.
TJM, the initials for company head Terrence J. McCarthy, has been transforming the hotel with a series of upgrades, including remodeled guest rooms, two new ballrooms, new restaurants and a new fine art gallery that will open Saturday.
The red-brick Claridge, with a distinctive cupola perched atop its 24 stories, was a luxury hotel when it opened in 1929 and became known as the “Skyscraper by the sea.” Its architecture was patterned after New York City’s Empire State Building.
Following the advent of Atlantic City gambling in 1978, the hotel was reincarnated as a casino in 1981 but later struggled as a small casino operating among giants in the gambling industry. In a $65 million bankruptcy sale, the Claridge was folded into Bally’s in 2002. The Claridge once offered three floors of gambling but downsized over time, ending its casino operations altogether in 2012.
Despite its different iterations over the years, the hotel has retained its 1920s charm. Ornate chandeliers, the lobby’s marble floor and old black-and-white photos of Atlantic City are just some of the historic touches. Erenler described the melding of the hotel’s historic features with its new amenities as “a bridge linking the Claridge with yesterday and tomorrow.”
“The guests are telling me they are so excited about this place,” he said. “Everyone wants this place to succeed. Everyone is so attached to this hotel.”
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