For once, the Atlantic City Hilton is making headlines for all the right reasons.
No financial analysts predicting the imminent demise of the financially struggling gaming hall. No act-of-God weather event flooding one of the property’s fine-dining restaurants out of commission forever.
Atlantic City’s smallest casino will make history Friday night, July 23, when it hosts arguably the biggest “headliner” of the summer: Former President Bill Clinton.
The nation’s 42nd chief executive will become the first American president, former or sitting, to set foot in an Atlantic City casino when he takes the stage of the casino’s 1,500-seat showroom to share his views on the country and the world and field questions from a crowd that’s paying as much as $350 a seat to be part of an unprecedented event.
Traditional casino entertainment will always have its place in the industry, the Hilton’s top executive said. But with so many artists cycling in and out of the city on a regular basis, gaming halls need to broaden their horizons and search for alternative forms of entertainment in order to attract new guests while keep loyal customers happy.
“Our guests told us they wanted something different, and that’s what we’re doing with our [summer] speakers series,” said Hilton vice-chairman and CEO Nicholas S. Ribis. “This is a more sophisticated form of entertainment.”
Clinton was supposed to be the second of four high-profile, political-flavored special events this summer, but a storm prevented FOX News political analysts Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck from flying in to launch the series on June 24. That date has been rescheduled for Aug. 5.
Democratic political strategist James Carville will debate spirited conservative commentator Ann Coulter on Aug. 21, and former Vice President Dick Cheney will close out the series Sept. 19.
“We’re not taking sides, and I think we’ve put together a very balanced program,” Ribis said several weeks ago as the Hilton unveiled a $20 million property-wide makeover that included four new restaurants, including a gourmet burger bar that bares Ribis’ name.
“We’re tying to reinvent luxury in Atlantic City and redefine what the Atlantic City experience is all about,” added Ribis, who will moderate the evening with Clinton.
Entertainment doesn’t have to be a comedian or a singer or a production show. It can also be a spirited exchange of divergent views and ideas delivered by people who have had a ringside seat to history and are still on the world stage, Ribis explained.
Although Atlantic City has had its share of presidential visits over the past 150 years, Clinton, 63, will become the first to actually visit an Atlantic City casino.
Atlantic City’s last presidential visit was in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter delivered a keynote convention speech at the old Convention Hall, now known as Boardwalk Hall. Two years earlier, President Gerald Ford made a campaign stop on the Boardwalk to deliver a speech at the annual New Jersey Education Association convention.
Last year, former Vice President Al Gore was at Bally’s Atlantic City to deliver a campaign speech for then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.
President Lyndon Johnson stopped by the old Convention Hall in 1964 to accept his party’s nomination to run for the job he inherited when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The Hilton wouldn’t reveal how much it’s paying the former president for his appearance, but published reports indicate Clinton receives between $150,000 and $200,000 per speech, and sometimes more.
Although he left office in 2001 mired in debt because of legal issues ranging from Whitewater to the Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers scandals, Clinton has become a moneymaking machine.
Since 2001, the ex-president has earned more than $65 million from his speaking gigs alone. Combined with the money he earned from his autobiography, his presidential pension, another book (Giving) and wife Hillary Rodham Clinton’s income as a former U.S. Senator and the current Secretary of State, and the couple has earned in excess of $109 million during the past nine years.