ATLANTIC CITY — The greater Atlantic City region benefited from record-setting tourism numbers in 2018, and the goal, according to experts, is to maintain that momentum through 2019 and beyond.
Visitation to New Jersey increased 7.4% to 111 million people in 2018 over the prior year with tourists spending $44.7 billion, the state Division of Travel and Tourism said Thursday.
Gov. Phil Murphy said he wants to increase visitation in New Jersey to 150 million by 2023.
“The results released today make clear that New Jersey’s natural landscape, picturesque cities and towns, and abundant shoreline are in a class of their own, and attracting more visitors than ever,” Murphy said in a news release. “In the years to come and as this critical industry continues to grow, I look forward to joining families from around the world in enjoying what New Jersey has to offer, supporting the businesses and communities that make our state special.”
A panel of tourism, business and casino industry experts expressed optimism Thursday morning for local increases in visitation, employment, gaming and nongaming revenue during the 11th annual Jersey Shorecast hosted by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University.
Rummy Pandit, executive director of LIGHT and moderator of the Shorecast, said that “2018 (had) been a very exciting year for Atlantic City,” citing growth in several key economic indicators for the region and highlighted by the openings of two casinos (Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort), Stockton’s city campus and South Jersey Gas’ new headquarters.
Sandi Harvey, vice president of sales for Meet AC, said conferences and conventions accounted for 371,996 room nights booked last year and first-quarter results for 2019 were “phenomenal.”
“2018 was probably the best year we’ve ever had,” Harvey said.
Jim Ziereis, vice president of hotel sales for Tropicana Atlantic City, said there was uncertainty last year about what impact the addition of two new casino properties would have on the market.
Ultimately, the property saw an “uptick” in meeting and convention bookings and was the second-highest gaming-revenue producing casino in Atlantic City.
“It was a pretty successful year for us,” Ziereis said.
However, the dual openings of Hard Rock and Ocean created a shortage of workers throughout the region.
Mike Tidwell, director of sales and marketing for Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township, said “labor was a big problem” last summer.
“When the new casinos opened, it just sucked the air out of the market,” he said.
Atlantic City’s nine casinos employed more than 30,000 people last year for the first time since 2014, when 12 properties were operational.
Oliver D. Cooke, an associate professor of economics at Stockton, said the regional unemployment rate continues to trend down and is about 5.4% in Atlantic City.
Ziereis said Tropicana had difficulty reaching 100% occupancy in 2018 because hotel staff “couldn’t keep up” with turning over rooms quickly enough.
Brian Tyrrell, a tenured professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at Stockton, said an improved national economy has aided New Jersey’s tourism market. A combination of a bullish stock market and tax cuts, among other variables such as increased consumer confidence and wage gains, has contributed to more spending power for travelers, he said.
“Disposable income is so important to tourism,” Tyrrell said.
Ziereis said the expectation for this summer is continued growth, noting an additional Saturday in August and a number of high-profile entertainment acts coming to the resort, including the nearly sold out 25th anniversary of the Vans Warped Tour on June 29 and 30.
“It’s helping everybody,” he said of the increase in gaming and nongaming attractions citywide. “We’re all in this together.”
Pandit said that in order for 2019 to meet expectations or exceed the results of last year, Atlantic City needs to continue offering more nongaming options for visitors.
“Diversification is indeed the key; there’s no two ways about that for success,” he said.
Mark Callazzo, CEO of Alpha Funding Solutions and investor in the Orange Loop development, said smaller projects, such as those already in place or opening on Tennessee Avenue, are designed to spur a “live, work, play” atmosphere in Atlantic City.
“The idea was to give people a reason to live in Atlantic City,” Callazzo said. “We’re trying to create a go-to Main Street for the city.”