Instead, he insists that United and the Atlantic City Alliance (ACA), the agency created in 2011 and charged with promoting the city for a trial period of five years, must launch a heavy advertising campaign in Houston, Chicago, and their feeder markets. Because even though the U.S. Bureau of Transportation just named ACY as the American airport with the least expensive fares for the fourth year in a row, cheap fares aren’t enough to compete with the great gambling mecca of the west.
“Let’s say you’re in St. Louis and someone tells you to choose between two planes, and it’s the middle of February. One plane flies west to Vegas and one flies to Atlantic City. Which one are you going to get on?” asks Marino. He adds that A.C.’s one advantage over Las Vegas – its shoreline – doesn’t fly with travelers when it's not beach weather.
A.C. doesn’t need to scavenge for patrons during beach season. Throughout peak season (and on weekends year-round) hotels stay at or near capacity. But as Schaffel and Marino point out -- and marketing executives acknowledge -- 12 casino hotels cannot survive on three months’ worth of revenue.
“In 1976, prior to casino gambling, Atlantic City was on the verge of collapse because hotels cannot stay in business for 12 months when they can only make money three months a year. This is the situation again; what should have happened in 1976 will occur in 2016,” Schaffel wrote in a far-reaching marketing proposal to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA).
Now, with convenience gambling keeping the retired slot player closer to home and away from A.C., properties desperately need to replace them during off-season weekdays. Who better to fill rooms, restaurants, and casino floors during these times than out-of-town conventioneers.
“Clearly the biggest opportunity for a hotel to grow its business is in conventions, (which can) attract people beyond the direct drive-in business,” says ACA President Liza Cartmell. But A.C. has a problem drawing anything but local and regional conventions. Not for lack of space, which is plentiful and growing with Harrah’s construction of the largest convention facility between Baltimore and Boston scheduled to open in 2015, but for lack of accessibility.
“The thing with conventions in Atlantic City is you’ve got to fly to Philly then drive an hour and half,” notes Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Sweeney sponsored the legislation that created and funded the ACA and essentially gave the city five years to prove itself before top state leaders will entertain the idea of opening up other parts of the state to gambling.
“What you want is for people to come here and realize we’ve done a lot of good stuff,” he said.
But critics scoff at the idea that two 50-seaters carrying passengers from Houston and Chicago can jumpstart a surge in national convention bookings in a city that reportedly captures just one percent of the Northeast’s convention market. Spirit cancelled its daily run from Chicago for lack of sales, and Wayne says that United and other airlines must commit to bigger planes and new routes immediately in order for the idea to take off. If United’s first plane arrives with an empty seat on April 1, he says, the opportunity to sell this business plan as a profitable one will be lost.
“If they can’t sell out a 50-seat plane from Chicago, how will they do it from Phoenix?” he asks.