Long a bastion of the blue hairs playing nickel slots, Atlantic City is moving beyond all that. With the help of multimillion-dollar investments, the gambling Mecca by the sea in South Jersey is springing back to life. Think young. Think up scale.
You can still see the signs of an Atlantic City from a generation ago -- or for that matter five years ago. But with a new slogan -- “Atlantic City is always turned on" - the city is working on turning it's image upside down.
“The biggest goal Atlantic City can achieve is overcoming what has been a negative stigma on our reputation as being a one-type market: the buffet customer coming on a bus trip with a roll of quarters,” said Larry Mullin, CEO of The Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, which opened nearly three years ago. “And that's what you're going to see here.”
The Borgata has a lot do with Atlantic City’s new image. It is not on the fabled boardwalk, but it is the first new property to open in town in 13 years. And with it came the Las Vegas philosophy: retail shops, name-brand restaurants and chefs and a spa.
“Las Vegas had a similar reputation: cheap buffets, and a honky tonk cowboy kind of image,” said Mullin. “And Las Vegas has done a great job transforming their image.”
CNBC: Compare the experience here in Atlantic City to what people are seeing in Las Vegas. That’s been known as the leader in the industry for some time.”
MULLIN: The Las Vegas experience is a tremendous bar to reach for. We don't hide behind the fact that we want to give that same experience here.
Last year, Atlantic City had more than $5 billion in gaming revenue -- just behind Las Vegas. But the big difference was in non-gaming revenue.
This summer, Gordon Group Holdings, lead by the father-son team Sheldon and Scott Gordon are opening The Pier at Caesars: 15 restaurants and 90 stores with many of the same luxury tenants they attracted when they built the forum shops in Las Vegas.
CNBC: So does Caesars want people at The Pier or the tables?
SCOTT GORDON: They want them circulating. They want them doing everything because the longer they’re here, the longer they’re going to be at the tables. And vice versa. It all works together.
CNBC: This is the gerbil keep them on the wheel.
SHELDON GORDON: The answer is: what happened in Vegas 15 years ago, 72 percent of revenues was gaming and 28 percent was non-gaming. Today 44 percent gaming, 56 percent non gaming in Vegas. Everybody’s doing really well.
The spas, the restaurants and the shopping along the area called The Walk were once all considered distractions by those in the gaming industry. But now they're seen as attractions designed to bring in a more affluent clientele.
Atlantic City is going beyond the core customer,” said Mike Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group. “We’re at the beginning of the trend. We’re nowhere near seeing the culmination of this trend and what this trend is – is essentially affluent adults of all ages coming for an entertainment experience. The Borgata was a clearly a pioneer and it reaped the benefits of being that pioneer. It’s doing extremely well, it’s making unheard of profits in this town and it’s opened a lot of eyes. And others will follow.”
The Quarter at Tropicana Casino is a 200-thousand-square-foot dining, shopping and entertainment complex -- and most important, it’s attracting a younger crowd. And that's why The Showboat Casino did a deal with the music nightclub, The House of Blues.
“Not only is it back, it's totally new, totally different,” said Michael Grozier, general manager of the House of Blues in Atlantic City. “What you thought you knew about Atlantic City three, four or five 5 years ago is not what Atlantic City is now. It’s almost a brand new product here for everybody.”
CNBC: Do you not want my grandfather here anymore?
MULLIN: We want your grandfather if he wants a good time and trade up the experience.. We'd love to have him. Green is green. We don’t think it goes by an age on your license.
In marketing speak: it's called a new generation of tourists. But The Borgata is relying on some of the same old attractions -- with some modern amenities – to prove again that the house is always a winner.