ATLANTIC CITY — The continued shutdown of the Atlantic City Rail Line is a headache for more than just commuters. Some conventions in the city are seeing fewer attendees, according to multiple expo leaders.
“We never really gave much thought to the value of the train until it was gone,” said Jon Henderson, CEO of Good Time Tricycle Productions, which will put on this year’s Atlantic City Beer and Music Fest later this month.
Atlantic City’s Convention Center tends to draw industries from a more regional pool than other convention destinations, according to Meet AC CEO Jim Wood.
The effect of the shutdown of the rail line to Philadelphia on convention attendance is tough to quantify, but those who run some of the biggest events in the resort have taken notice since the line’s shutdown in September of last year.
Michael Cohan, director of the New Jersey Education Association, saw a clear drop in attendance numbers at his organization’s yearly conference for educators in November.
“The reduction in attendance in 2018 was directly attributable to the train,” Cohan said.
Attendance dropped eight percent from the year before, he said. He looked at their drop and daily ridership numbers from the year before and felt comfortable correlating the two, given his past experience.
“We know that people used to pour in from the train station when the trains arrived,” Cohan said.
There were talks to run additional buses to the city but they fell apart.
“Working together with MeetAC, we attempted to put some buses on to at least replace some of the seats lost by the suspension of the rail line,” he said. “But I think by the time we were able to communicate that out to our members, they had already made their decision. They were either gonna drive … or they were not coming.”
Last week, NJ Transit chief Kevin Corbett announced the line would be up and running by May 24, after public pressure from Gov. Phil Murphy, who appointed him to the agency’s top spot after taking office in January 2018.
Some conventions will be held before that re-open date, like Beer Fest. And Henderson is bracing for impact.
About 3,000 people came by train last year, he said. Enough people arrive by rail, he said, that he remembers being offered extra rail cars in the past.
The Beer Fest is an event where alcohol flows freely, and attendees need to get home afterward — that’s the “safety aspect” of the shutdown’s effects, Henderson said.
“We’ve got attendees trying to be responsible, and willing to pay NJ Transit to get there safely,” he said. “And they’re not opening the rail line.”
So while it may be early to call it, he expects a drop.
“People might probably pull back and say ‘Hey, I really want to imbibe and have a good time but not if I can’t be responsible doing so,’” he said.
At the Progressive Insurance Atlantic City Boat Show that ran from last Wednesday to this Sunday, show manager Jon Pritko said attendance numbers were up, which has been the trend for the last few years, but the line’s closure has had some effect.
“That said, we did receive attendee feedback that (some previous attendees) skipped this year’s show due to the suspended train service,” Pritko said, “and our dealers and exhibitors remarked that several of their Philly clients did not make the trip.”
Jay Silberman, president of GPK Auctions, which produces the Atlantic City Auction & Car Show every February, said it is hard to notice its effect because they saw a significant jump in advance ticket sales this year, and the floor was visibly crowded, but he is accustomed to seeing tons of people pouring out of trains for the show.
“Can I say for sure that we didn’t lose people because of the train?” Silberman said. “It’s hard to say.”
He theorizes that since the line has been shut down since September, some of those affected may have figured out other ways to get here.
However, the train remains important to attendance numbers, he said.
Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the effect of the shutdown on their 2018 conference in November was more nuanced.
Rail riders opted for the bus that commuters have relied on since September, he said. But attendees had to figure out the jitney service and how to get from the terminal to the center and hotel.
“It’s throwing people off. It’s kind of awkward,” Darcy said. “But it’s not like it’s going to mean that we’ll have fewer people attending the conference. It’s more of an inconvenience at this point than a real harm.”
Convention organizers are split on that point, it seems, but all agreed that the train was an essential part of attracting visitors here.
In January, Wood was asked about directing funds to market the train’s utility at a meeting to announce Meet AC’s 2019 Marketing and Sales Plan.
“In terms of investing dollars into subsidizing transportation, there’s nothing set aside right now,” Wood said. “Is it needed? I mean, yeah, there’s a great debate about that. It’s probably for other groups to have that conversation, than really what we’re licensed and charged to do.”
And Corbett was asked in February about the possibility of increased frequency of rides on the Atlantic City line in the future. The agency has to “walk before (we) run,” he said. And it would require greater funding, he said, but he liked the idea.
After the agency handles more pressing matters, “Then … the fun part of my job will be expanding service,” Corbett said. “There are a number of opportunities in Atlantic City; we’d love to expand service. But that is a financial issue: Where do we expand? When?”