As Atlantic City's casinos fend off their first competitive challenge from a nearby gaming market, entertainment is looming even larger as one of the most important marketing weapons in its arsenal.
Barring some sudden reversal of fortune, the casino industry here is facing its first year-to-year decrease in revenues since the gaming era began nearly 30 years ago. Pennsylvania's new slot parlors, including two in suburban Philadelphia, have cut into Atlantic City's casino revenues by an average of 5 percent a month, with the majority of the bite coming from slot revenues. One slot casino -- Philadelphia Park -- has even begun offering occasional headliner shows.
Casino executives agree that Atlantic City needs to aggressively market itself as a regional destination resort to set it apart from other areas that offer casino gaming.
"A slot machine is a slot machine ... it's what you surround it with that makes the difference," says Larry Mullin, president and chief operating officer of Borgata. "People need to have more to do than gamble, and that's where Atlantic City is headed. We're developing more non-gaming attractions so people will want to stay."
Visitors to Atlantic City this fall will have a variety of entertainment options from which to choose. Not surprisingly, the two youngest venues -- Borgata and House of Blues at Showboat -- are leading the way with a talent roster that skews across the demographic spectrum.
Analysts will be closely watching House of Blues, which is now being operated by Showboat. The casino, owned by Harrah's Entertainment, recently worked out a unique license agreement with HOB's parent company, Live Nation.
Ironically, prior to the Showboat takeover earlier this month, Live Nation was essentially competing against itself. Live Nation, the world's top concert promotions company, also booked the majority of shows into Borgata and occasionally it presents shows at other casinos.
|Rachael Ray at Caesars this spring.|
Under Showboat's management, shows will be booked into HOB's 2,300-seat Music Hall that still appeal to the younger clientele that the casino is trying to develop. But there will also be plenty of entertainment opportunities for the casino's more mature customers, who have carried the property for years.
For example, traditional casino acts like comic-actress Roseanne Barr (Oct. 6) and country singer LeAnn Rimes (Oct. 13) are on the House of Blues schedule. But so are rapper, singer and actress Queen Latifah (Oct. 19) and the alternative rock band Dashboard Confessional (Nov. 10).
"Showboat realized that some of the rap and hip-hop acts that House of Blues was booking were chasing away some of the [senior citizens] customers who had been coming there for years," says one entertainment booking agent. "The schedule they're putting together now still appeals to the younger crowd but [the artists] are not as hard-core. And they're balancing that with some shows that the [older customers] will enjoy. It's going to be an interesting experiment."
Borgata is focusing on edgier contemporary acts that appeal to a younger audience with disposable income. But it also balances that policy with occasional booking that skews toward a more mature crowd.
Borgata also tries to lure artists to Atlantic City who don't often play smaller rooms or have avoided casinos altogether, as it did this summer when it treated its high rollers to Billy Joel in his casino debut.
Caesars is also trying a non-traditional form of casino entertainment by presenting three celebrity chefs as "headliners."
The TV Food Network's Paula Deen (Sept. 9) and Giada De Laurentiis (Nov. 18) will share their stories with audiences in the Circus Maximus Theatre along with PBS host Lidia Bastianich (Oct. 7).
This is not the sort of news that Atlantic City, which is mired in a four-year gaming revenue slump, needed to hear. And if you think one entertainment venue located 120 miles from the Boardwalk isn’t such a big deal, think again.