“As Atlantic City goes, that’s how the state is going to go.”

So says the head of the state’s tourism division about Atlantic City’s role in meeting Gov. Phil Murphy’s challenge to increase overall Garden State visitation nearly 26% by 2023.

“When the governor comes in and says, ‘I want 150 million visitors’, he knows it has to come from Atlantic City,” said Jeff Vasser, executive director for the state Division of Travel and Tourism, referring to the goal set by Murphy earlier this year with the release of 2018 numbers that reported statewide visitation increased 7.4% to 110.8 million. “The only way we’re going to get there is a strong Atlantic City.”

Vasser, a Margate-native who lead the now-defunct Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority for 11 years, estimated that the seaside resort’s annual visitors would have to account for nearly one-third of all tourists to meet the goal.

“Atlantic City is the most important tourism asset we have in the state,” he said, “and we do everything we can to support it.”

While non-Shore counties accounted for 52% of statewide visitor spending last year, Atlantic County experienced a 20% increase in visitor spending, spurred in large part by Atlantic City’s eventful year that included the opening of two casinos, the addition of legalized sports gambling and the first academic year of Stockton University’s city campus.

Visitor spending in Atlantic City accounted for 17% of the $44.7 billion spent statewide in 2018.

One key element of increasing visitation to the resort is the meeting and convention business, Vasser said, noting that “there are very few destinations in the state that are focused on the meetings and conventions market,” which is a “big draw for Atlantic City.”

Meet AC, the organization responsible for convention bookings and marketing, increased hotel rooms sold for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 and is on pace to do so again in 2019, said Jim Wood, president and CEO.

The increase in delegates to the city increases revenues for many businesses, which has a ripple effect on job creation and retention, taxes generated and overall economic growth, Wood said.

“We see our role as important, especially from a midweek business standpoint and the impact that it has on the casinos, the hotels, retail outlets, the restaurants,” he said. “You can always feel and see the impact. And it means someone’s here spending money.”

Wood said Meet AC is now booking events at the Atlantic City Convention Center “six, seven” years out, as opposed to two or three years in advance. Wood said those advanced bookings are critical to stability and prove that Meet AC’s marketing and communications strategies are working.

Increasing economic diversity in both the gaming and nongaming sectors is an important part of boosting the city’s profile, Vasser said. A casino gaming operator with a customer database that has not been exposed to Atlantic City before, or often, could increase visitation, he suggested.

But so do the city’s numerous restaurants, shops and other attractions coming to life outside the casinos, he said, pointing to the burgeoning “Orange Loop” businesses along Tennessee and New York avenues and St. James Place as an example.

Vasser said state data shows that feedback from Atlantic City visitors is positive and often exceeds expectations.

“So we’ve been doing a good job of showing them a good time,” Vasser said. “And the more we continue to clean up the city and take an area and make it more exciting, the more that’s going to improve.”

Attracting the international market to Atlantic City — and New Jersey — is also a central point of the Murphy administration’s tourism efforts, Vasser said. In recent years, the city has benefited from an uptick in European visitation, specifically tourists from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany.

International tourism accounted for $2.8 billion of statewide spending in 2018, a figure down from more than $3.1 billion in 2014.

Atlantic City is recognized domestically and internationally, Vasser said. A 2009 study commissioned by the state to gauge tourism’s return on investment found that 100% of respondents had heard of Atlantic City and 76% had visited the resort.

“Atlantic City is an iconic name and it’s going to bring people in,” he said.

Contact: 609-272-7222 ddanzis@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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