ATLANTIC CITY — Besides safer and cleaner surroundings, add easier and broader access to the wish list of things the city’s top casino executives want for the seaside resort.
Several of Atlantic City’s top casino executives said increasing visitation and convention business through more convenient and reliable transportation options, specifically air travel, is an important component for the resort to thrive. They spoke during a recent panel hosted by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.
Increasing air travel to Atlantic City International Airport from a wider range of markets was cited as a necessary catalyst to spur visitation, which started to decline when nearby jurisdictions opened casinos.
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Atlantic City once welcomed in excess of 35 million visitors annually. That figure has dropped to an estimated 22 million recently, according to industry data.
“I think, if we had air service, it would make a big difference,” said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and senior vice president of Eastern regional operations for Tropicana Atlantic City’s parent company, Eldorado Resorts.
Callender said there have been commitments between the industry and Spirit Airlines, the lone commercial carrier at Atlantic City International, to get air passengers from locations such as Boston and Chicago, but “we need Atlanta, we need Charlotte.”
“We need places where people don’t have to fly to go to a casino now,” he said. “We have an opportunity to grow this market because we have enough rooms now (with the 2018 openings of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort). ... So, if we can get some flights in here and do some more conventions, I think we could probably get there.”
In 2018, Meet AC, the marketing and sales branch of the Atlantic City Convention Center, reported a total of 238 meetings and conventions booked, some as far out as 2022. It was the organization’s fourth consecutive year of increased convention and meetings bookings.
Conventions and industry meetings help the casino hotels with occupancy during the midweek and off season.
But, with primary feeder markets such as Philadelphia and New York both expanding their own casino options, convincing potential visitors to bypass closer casinos is becoming a harder sell.
Marcus Glover, president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, said convenience, or rather the lack thereof, “is really what crippled this market and took it from a $5 (billion) market to right around a $3 billion market.” He added that while diversifying the city’s non-gaming amenities was a key component to overcoming those losses, the “convenience factor is equally critical, in my opinion.”
“It’s really hard to grow the market if you don’t have a convenient means for people to get here,” Glover said.
The Atlantic City airport is operated by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, although discussions are taking place in Trenton to possibly place the airport under the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
According to data from SJTA, the total number of passengers on both scheduled commercial and chartered flights decreased 2.6% in 2019 compared with the year before. In 2018, total passengers at Atlantic City International increased 5.7% after a drop in 2017, when air passenger totals decreased by 8.7%.
Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel, said he likes the idea of the Port Authority operating Atlantic City International, since it already operates five others, including Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International.
“When you think about what could happen here ... the idea is, through excess, to maneuver some of that traffic down without doing much of anything at ACY, and bring in aviation maintenance and those kinds of things,” he said. “That, coupled with our efforts where we can engage these airlines, I think would be a catalyst to bring some air service our way.”
Increasing air service to Atlantic City has been talked about for years. Commercial airlines, including Delta, United and Air Canada, have offered service in the past, but they ultimately left after lackluster results or when operating state subsidies expired.
Anthony Marino, a local analyst and former deputy director for the New Jersey Expressway Authority, the precursor to the SJTA, questioned what level of commitment the casinos would make toward increasing public transportation options to Atlantic City.
“I’ve been around for 40 years and I’ve heard many promises by casino executives, but I’ve seen many of those promises go unfulfilled,” said Marino, who sat in on meetings with former casino executives about the very topic during his time at NJEA. “If they really want air service and they really want rail service, are they prepared to sit behind closed doors with the current political leadership of the area and hammer out how they’re going to help, rather than undermine air service by continuing to run their own charter airlines into town?”
Glover, during the executive forum, said SJTA Executive Director Stephen Dougherty has addressed the casino association about efforts to increase air service, but he acknowledged getting a financial commitment from the casinos could be difficult.
“I think they’re trying,” Glover said of SJTA. “The tough thing is, the airlines come in and they want us, on top of overspending already, to underwrite or guarantee flights. And for all of us, we can help out some, but that’s a tough proposition to overcome.”