April 2017

GMID: All Together Now in Atlantic City

by Jeff Heilman

First visiting in 1989, my nearly 30 years’ perspective on Atlantic City includes a decade covering the destination for Meetings Today. Three intertwined storylines have defined this period: divisive political, labor and economic issues, unforgiving mainstream media portrayals of a city mired in turmoil; and sustained turnaround efforts.  

For too long, the trend has been to buy the first two and ignore the third. Since 2014, however, renaissance has taken the lead. Successfully hosting MPI WEC ’16 last June established a new benchmark for Atlantic City. How measures the yardstick today? In town for Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID) last week, the stories were nothing but bright, under the headline of unity and collaboration.

The day before GMID, I attended a packed press conference at Hard Rock Cafe Atlantic City confirming the acquisition and $375 million total reinvention of Trump Taj Mahal into Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. With Hard Rock International Chairman Jim Allen announcing 3,000 permanent jobs at the new property, plus 1,000 construction jobs (work is already underway, targeting completion by summer 2018), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke about moving past hard decisions (specifically, last year’s state takeover of Atlantic City) and ensuring a governmental climate that will spark more success.

Citing original brand mottos, including “Love All--Serve All,” “All Is One” and “Save the Planet,” Allen affirmed Hard Rock’s commitment to the local community.

“Our marketing plans are not…to take the customer from existing properties,” said the New Jersey native. “It is the direct opposite. Our goal is to work with property presidents around town to market Atlantic City as one destination.”

On hand to commend the deal, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt promised to bring his brand of rock and roll to Atlantic City. 

Buoyant and familial, the GMID events amplified the message of common purpose. Held at the bustling Atlantic City Convention Center, the agenda kicked off with an overview of local progress and developments from Gary Musich, Meet AC’s vice president of sales. (See next month’s East Coast Gaming feature for details.)

Then, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow moderated a lively panel discussion featuring Meet AC President & CEO Jim Wood; MPI President & CEO and Meetings Means Business Coalition (MMBC) co-chair Paul Van Deventer; MGM Resorts International Chief Sales Officer Michael Dominguez; Caesars Entertainment Chief Sales Officer Michael Massari; Freeman Company EVP and Chief Sales Officer Larry Luteran; and Harrah’s Atlantic City Vice President and General Manager Karie Hall.

There were many highlights. Van Deventer cited a new MMBC finding that “one face-to-face meeting is equivalent to 20 e-mails or 10 conference calls,” while Luteran affirmed that face-to-face meetings have “nothing to fear” from technology, which is only driving meetings demand and enhancing interaction and learning at events. The subject of legalized recreational marijuana impact on the meetings industry drew humorous asides—and word from the panel of significant leads making this “a growing vertical market we should all be chasing.”   

Echoing Atlantic City’s long battle against agenda-driven reporting, Dow reminded of the “piling on” by media and politicians that defined the downturn’s “bad optics” era, and his team’s efforts to ensure that the new administration understands the effect that meetings have on communities and jobs.

“Context, not content, is king,” stated Dominguez, who praised one reporter for correctly asking about the “proposed” travel ban. “There is no travel ban in place,” he said. “We have done a really poor job of communicating that it is a proposed ban.”

To that point, Dow cited a conversation with former NFL star Terrell Davis on concussions.

“He said it’s not the big hits, but the ‘tap, tap, tap’ of smaller hits,” Dow said, “and we are concerned that if that ‘tap’ keeps up, we could have big problems.”

Telling, too, was Dominguez’s exchange with “my peer, friend, colleague, and competitor last,” Massari. “We often have a genuine conversation around the belief that what’s good for the destination is good for all of us,” Dominguez said. “As for Las Vegas, that’s true for Atlantic City. It’s not Pollyanna to think about unifying the power of MGM, Caesars and Meet AC to change the destination.”

Atlantic City is not just changing—it is breaking out. Breakfasting at the Harrah's Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center that morning—the $126 million investment spearheaded by Massari that is driving significant meetings growth for the city—I met coffee break staffers Robert Mancuso and Annette Flack. Veterans of the Atlantic City hospitality scene, they have experienced job loss and economic setback. Yet, like the city itself, they have stayed resilient, and when they smiled and said that things are getting much better, that’s the news to believe.

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