Turning Point for Atlantic City

You could feel the excitement and pride at a press conference today announcing the grand opening of Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Sure, the head executives at the property, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City, were buoyant, but the local community and Caesars executives were also clearly thrilled.

“This is a game-changer for Atlantic City,” said Mayor Don Guardian. “It’s exactly what we need, and will bring in visitors like never before. It’s how we will make a great city, not only now, but 20, 30 and 40 years from now.”

The new conference center expands Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City meeting space from 20,000 sq. ft. to 170,000 sq. ft. because two 50,000-square-foot ballrooms and two 25,000-square foot reception/social areas have been added.

Michael Massari, senior vice president of national meetings and events for Caesars Entertainment, was a major catalyst in getting the conference center approved.

“Our market in Atlantic City grew for 30 consecutive years, mainly by attracting leisure visitors,” he told Smart Meetings in an interview after the press conference. “But in the last four or five years, our numbers were shrinking. So, we needed to figure out what we could do to change the situation. I figured that we needed to expand our meetings facility for meetings and events.”

Rather than have Atlantic City remain basically a leisure resort destination for people from nearby areas, Massari envisioned a thriving meetings and events city attracting groups from throughout the world.

Gary Loveman, chairman of Caesars Entertainment’s board of directors, said that the idea initially faced opposition.

“It wasn’t an easy sell, and it would have been easy for us to take a pass on it,” he said. “But Michael and his team have absolutely delivered on what they said they could do.”

Perhaps the best evidence that the plan was successful is in the numbers. Last year at this time, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City had 7,000 guest rooms booked for the next 12 months. This year, more than 97,000 rooms are booked during the next 12 months. And meetings are booked through 2019. The conference center is scheduled to host some huge events, including Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress next year.

“It was risky, but the least risky option,” Massari said.

Atlantic City accounts for less than 1 percent of meetings business in the New Jersey-New York-Pennsylvania region, which annually generates $16 billion. Massari thinks that the new conference center and possible additional new conference centers in Atlantic City could substantially elevate business.

“But it takes a village to do anything,” he said. “You can’t do anything great in life by yourself.”

Loveman hopes that competitors will follow Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City’s lead.

“We need to keep on building more and more conference facilities in Atlantic City–not just our own company, but our competitors, as well,” Loveman said.

Stephen Sweeney, the Senate president of New Jersey, sees this as a moment of opportunity for Atlantic City.

“We’re not dead; we’re just starting over,” he said.

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