surviving winters
Jennie Louie of Little Falls takes part in Money Machine Madness at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort Friday.

ATLANTIC CITY — Hotels.com lists room rates for the Atlantic City casinos that sound like a throwback to the 1970s.

At the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, rooms start at just $55. Not low enough? Then what about $44 per night at Harrah’s Resort?

But the bargains get even better. Showboat Casino Hotel is offering a $39 rate. And the cheapest rooms can be found at Resorts Casino Hotel — a mere $31 a night.

Casinos are desperate to draw customers in the dead of winter. They have gone into survival mode, hoping that their sprawling gaming floors and soaring hotel towers do not go empty in January and February.

“The key is to get through winter, to keep the rooms full,” said Don Marrandino, president of Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s and Showboat, all of which are owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp.

The sour economy and competition from casinos in neighboring states have put additional pressure on Atlantic City in what is a notoriously slow time of year. Even during the prerecession years, casinos would struggle in winter.

Hotel bargains, meal discounts and other promotional giveaways are part of the gaming industry’s marketing efforts to attract cost-conscious consumers who would otherwise stay home. Entertainment, quirky promotions, gambling tournaments and other special events are other ways casinos are hoping winter will not be financially frigid.

“I think we definitely market differently in the winter months. It’s all about value,” said Kathleen McSweeney, senior vice president of marketing operations for the three casinos owned by Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. “You have to give them a reason to come down, pay the tolls and visit us.”

Closings and layoffs

Casinos also rely on cost-cutting measures to cope with winter. Restaurants often are closed or operate on limited schedules. For the third year in a row, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa will close some rooms at the posh Water Club boutique hotel during the slow midweek period.

“We’ve made efforts to maximize the efficiency of our operation during the slower months over the past several years — and that will continue,” Dave Coskey, Borgata’s vice president of marketing, said in a statement. “We’ll have limited availability midweek at The Water Club and, as in the past, that availability will be controlled by demand.”

Bob Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment, cautioned that casinos risk offending customers if restaurants and other amenities are shut down. He said his company will not be closing any attractions this winter at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, and Trump Marina Hotel Casino.

“Our belief is, quite frankly, you have to have things open for people to want to come here,” Griffin said. “Our focus is what we’re going to do to make customers come here instead of retrenching.”

Casinos usually lay off workers in winter in response to lower business. In December, nearly 500 jobs were eliminated industrywide, dropping the total casino work force to 34,145, New Jersey Casino Control Commission employment statistics show.

Andrew Zarnett, a gaming analyst for Deutsche Bank, said labor costs are huge for the casino industry. Casinos are trying to manage those expenses by deploying more workers on busier days and cutting back when they are not needed, he said.

“You have to have a flexible work force to work on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and be off on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Zarnett said.

December’s casino revenue figures illustrate just how grim things can be for Atlantic City’s 11 gaming halls in winter. Revenue generated by slot machines and table games plunged nearly 13 percent to $237.2 million compared with the same month in 2009.

Yet Atlantic City’s rivals are getting stronger. Boosted by the new SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, slot revenue at Pennsylvania’s 10 casinos jumped nearly 13 percent in December to $174.7 million, while table games revenue was up 14 percent to $44.1 million.

As competition grows, Atlantic City’s casinos must become full-service “21st century megaresorts” that offer upscale dining, retail shops and nightclubs to supplement the gambling action, one analyst said.

“Atlantic City is in the process of reinventing itself as a full-scale entertainment resort,” 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 city is evolving strategically as a destination in the way Nashville, Las Vegas or Orlando did.”

While the casinos may not have Orlando’s Disney World-like magic, they plan to take advantage of their entertainment venues, restaurants and thousands of hotel rooms to make it through winter.

Caesars Entertainment also is targeting winter conventions to boost hotel occupancy. In the past, the casino industry was reluctant to give conventioneers hotel space that would otherwise be reserved for more lucrative gamblers. Now, the business-starved casinos are courting conventions to fill midweek lulls.

“The key is the entertainment, concerts and conventions,” Marrandino said. “We think that will drive nongaming revenue. We have to use the amenities — the convention facilities and banquet halls — that competitors in other regions don’t have.”

More entertainment

Pop superstar Lady Gaga’s Feb. 19 concert at Boardwalk Hall will be one of winter’s biggest shows. Although there is no casino sponsor for Lady Gaga, the Boardwalk gaming halls should get some spillover from her concert.

“Entertainment is still a big deal. Having Lady Gaga in February is huge for the city,” Marrandino said. “It will almost be like a summer weekend.”

Three holidays, Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day and Chinese New Year, will give the casinos another opportunity to make winter less dreary. Casinos traditionally package their hotel rooms with special events to capitalize on each holiday.

Resorts will host the Bay-Atlantic Symphony for a Feb. 12 concert of Valentine’s Day love songs and ballads. A performance by a 35-piece orchestra is one way Resorts, now under new ownership, will experiment with types of entertainment normally not seen at the casinos.

“We’re looking to have something new and unique. That is what is needed to get the trips down here in the dead of winter,” said Sherry Amos, vice president of marketing for Resorts.

Borgata, known for its lively club scene and big-name acts, will bring in stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld on March 19 to close out the winter entertainment schedule. Borgata also is holding its annual Winter Poker Open, which puts more than $8 million in prize money up for grabs, including the $2 million championship event Jan. 30 to Feb. 4.

Winter events at Tropicana Casino and Resort include the Festival Carnivale celebration Friday. The Latin-themed party will feature shopping discounts, live music and professional dancers teaching line dances and the salsa.

The Trump casinos will give away $100,000 in bonus slot dollars every Saturday in February. On Feb. 27, one customer will win $1 million in bonus slot dollars or have the option of taking $100,000 in cash, said McSweeney, the Trump marketing executive.

One promotional oddity is the Money Madness Machine at Trump Taj Mahal. Gamblers stand inside a phone booth-like structure as $3,500 in cash whirls around like a miniature tornado. They have 60 seconds to grab as much money as they can.

Casinos also will roll out their usual marketing gimmicks that serve as the bread and butter of winter promotional programs. Billboards on the Atlantic City Expressway beckon customers with offers of free slot play, cheap buffets, low-stakes blackjack and the occasional car giveaway.

In the spring, summer and even early autumn, Atlantic City can tout its beaches and Boardwalk. With winter’s frigid temperatures chasing everyone inside, casinos must be more resourceful to tempt customers in January and February.

“We are, of course, a beach resort. It is more challenging than in the warmer months,” McSweeney said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

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