East Coast Gaming Destinations Are Spending for Success
Freedom Plaza rendering, New York City. Credit: Soloviev Group
As reported by the American Gaming Association, U.S. casinos and mobile gaming apps set a record high of $60.4 billion in gross gaming revenue (GGR) in 2022.
East Coast markets drove much of the action. Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania alone collected an average of nearly 12% more GGR over 2021. Connecticut and New York soared even higher. Atlantic City, up 8.5% over 2021, was second in the nation behind Vegas, followed by the Baltimore-D.C. market.
All regional eyes are on the sixth-place New York City area, where Caesars Entertainment, Hard Rock International, Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp. are among 10 bidders vying for three new downstate New York commercial gaming licenses. Bank of America Global Research estimates that this trio of additional casinos, combining for a projected $5 billion on GGR, would make New York the second-largest commercial gaming state in the U.S.
The East Coast also scored big at the property level, with six of the 10 highest-grossing casinos in the nation outside of Nevada. First was MGM National Harbor in Maryland, followed by Resorts World New York City, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Encore Boston Harbor. Wind Creek Bethlehem (see On the Scene) in Pennsylvania was 10th. Twelve East Coast properties placed in the top 20.
On the group side, CVBs and resort operators are putting their money into rebranding, reinvention and other strategic moves to maintain standing and counter competitive headwinds in this high-stakes region.
Atlantic City Comes Vibrantly Alive
While Atlantic City’s nine casinos were grossing $2.78 billion in GGR last year, 9% above 2021, Meet AC and the Atlantic City Sports Commission brought in 209 events to the tune of $300-plus million in total economic impact.
As the organization’s President and CEO Larry Sieg shared in a release, that’s double the impact and room nights since 2020.
“We still have work to do to surpass our pre-pandemic numbers, but we’re confident in our current trajectory and growing interest we’re seeing from the meetings and convention industry that this goal is within reach,” he added.
In support of that ambition, Sieg and his team engaged destination marketing agency Simpleview to define a new identity for Meet AC. Following site visits, research and analysis throughout 2022, the result, announced this January, was rebranding to Visit Atlantic City. Future marketing efforts will be informed by Simpleview’s finding of “playful, bold, eclectic, celebratory and iconic” as personality traits and “vibes” that visitors associate with Atlantic City.
2023 is off to a hot start, with 18 first quarter bookings generating $62,663,443 in economic impact. As Sieg noted, “our new name broadens the enticement to choose us,” and in that respect, Atlantic City’s “vibrancy” includes continuing major reinvestment in reinvention as a “safer, culturally rich and sustainable community.”
Opened in 1987 with a 60-lane bowling center, the former Showboat Hotel and Casino is emblematic of the new era ahead.
Relaunching as Showboat Resort, the non-gaming property is undergoing a phased transformation that includes exciting activities and flexible new venues for groups.
Repurposing the former casino floor, the event-capable 100,000-plus-square-foot Lucky Snake Arcade and Sports Bar features a 40,000 square-foot go-kart track and 600-plus games. Slated for this summer, an additional 10,000 square feet, with new attractions including disco-themed roller blading and a climbing wall, will create the world’s largest arcade.
Billed as the world’s largest beachfront waterpark, Showboat’s new $100 million tropical-themed ISLAND Waterpark, slated for this summer, makes another major splash. The 103,000-square-foot facility has a retractable roof for year-round use and will offer versatile rental spaces for groups. Showboat is also investing in room renovations and just launched The Terminal, a versatile new 55,000-square-foot convention and expo space that updates the resort’s historic former bus terminal.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with the $55 million relaunch of its non-gaming sibling The Water Club as The MGM Tower. Slated for completion by Memorial Day, the project includes 700 reimagined guest rooms and 9,000-square-foot event venue in the former Immersion Spa space.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City turns five this summer. Speaking to the competitiveness of the regional market, including the looming new licenses in NYC, new property President George Goldhoff told PlayNJ.com in April that “I believe that Atlantic City will adapt” but “likely would shrink a bit, which means it’s a little bit of survival of the fittest.”
Hard Rock, Ocean Casino Resort (also five this year), Resorts Casino Hotel and Bally’s Corp., are all making significant capital improvements. Caesars Entertainment expects to wrap $400 million in guest room enhancements and other updates to its three properties this year. Tropicana Atlantic City now offers eight new F&B concepts.
Groups also have Nobu Atlantic City and Gordon Ramsay’s HELL’S KITCHEN at Caesars Atlantic City, where this summer, Las Vegas-based theatrical sensation Spiegelworld is slated to debut a new permanent show, The Hook, at the renovated historic Warner Theatre. The new 400-seat venue will reportedly incorporate another Vegas import, Spiegelworld’s zany Italian-American-Psychedelic Superfrico restaurant.
[Related: Atlantic City Aims High in 2023 Behind New Products, Experiences and Opportunities]
Connecticut to Massachusetts: Operators Diversifying for Success
The enhancement, reinvestment and expansion story extends throughout the region.
As reported by Play Pennsylvania this January, Keystone State casinos have invested $250 million in renovations since 2020. Highlights include Valley Forge Casino Resort’s $6 million redesign of its Casino Tower and lobby. Mohegan Sun Pocono, which rebranded to Mohegan Pennsylvania last fall, invested $10 million in updates that include new bars and live entertainment venues.
In Connecticut, Mohegan Sun is expanding its relationship with leading global player Tao Group Hospitality with the anticipated early 2024 opening of Tao’s Beauty & Essex brand. The glam new group-capable 11,000-square-foot space joins TAO Asian Bistro & Lounge in Mohegan’s upscale restaurant collection.
In 2022, Oxford Economics published a report on the economic impact of Mohegan Sun and four other Mohegan properties, including Mohegan Pennsylvania and Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. Collectively, the quintet generated $5.2 billion in total impact, including $2.7 billion in direct visitor spending, in 2019. Furthering its reach outside of the Connecticut market, Mohegan is joining developer Soloviev Group as casino partner in its bid for one of the three available commercial casino licenses in the NYC-area market. The Soloviev project, Freedom Plaza, envisions an entertainment district on Manhattan’s East Side incorporating a casino, hotel, green space, Ferris wheel and the world’s first Democracy Museum.
Nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino, which turned 30 last year, is investing $85 million in new improvements, including 50,000 square feet of new gaming space and the sixth U.S. location of Gordon Ramsay HELL’S KITCHEN. Slated for this summer, the 260-seat eatery will feature a chef’s counter and 40-seat private dining room. Projected for 2025, Great Wolf Resorts is developing an indoor water park adjacent to the resort.
In September 2022, the Oneida Indian Nation, owner-operator of Turning Stone Resort Casino, announced its largest expansion in 20 years. The multi-year project will double the existing 125,000 square feet of convention and meeting space and include a new 250-room hotel, new dining options, outdoor spaces and additional amenities.
Encore Boston Harbor’s record GGR month of nearly $65 million in March 2022 shows optimism despite fears of East Coast casino saturation. Finishing last year in fourth place nationally with more than $700 million in GGR, the $2.6 billion resort just north of Boston further muscled up its sports partnership playbook this March with a multi-year relationship with the Boston Red Sox. The deal adds to existing partnerships with the Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots and New England Revolution.
In Western Massachusetts, MGM Springfield is relying on big-name entertainment as part of its rebound strategy. Announced this April, 15-time Grammy winner Bruno Mars will play two shows this June at the nearby MGM-managed MassMutual Center. Other upcoming bookings include concerts by Santana, Chicago and Gladys Knight, and performances by comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Bill Burr and Kevin Hart.
[Related: From Dining to Live Entertainment, Connecticut Puts on a Show for Groups]
Wind Creek Bethlehem Readies a Hot New Expansion
Picture awakening in a brand-new west-facing guest room, opening the curtains and standing before a sweeping valley scene of the former Bethlehem Steel plant and Lehigh River. That view is among the many fetching visual features of the $160 million hotel and meeting space expansion at regional gaming and group leader Wind Creek Bethlehem.
The project was approved in 2020 primarily as an advance response to future commercial gaming in New York City, 80 miles to the east. As I discovered on a site tour this April, the investment, delayed by the pandemic and now slated for completion in June 2023, is transformative in every way.
Boosting the key count to 552 with 276 new rooms in a mix of styles, the new tower offers a distinct sense of arrival away from the casino. Creative references such as gearwheels inlaid in the pavers of the industrial-size porte cochere and guest room wallpaper featuring Bethlehem Steel blueprints create a strong sense of place. Resplendent in burnished metallic finishes, the breathtaking two-story lobby, which features a customizable video wall, fireplace crowned by an artful installation of dripping molten steel, and luxurious new cocktail bar Mixx, creates a brilliant sense of occasion for groups.
Accessed directly from the lobby, the 23,000-square-foot centerpiece Foundry Ballroom can be divided into nine rooms and incorporates expansive prefunction hallways, a dedicated kitchen and spacious loading dock. Combined with the versatile new 310-capacity Monocacy Room (named after a local creek) and 650-capacity Moravian Room, the newly available venues nearly triple total meeting space at the property to 60,000 square feet.
"Wind Creek Bethlehem can now execute various configurations, including groups of up to 2,200 attendees in our new Foundry Ballroom." said Maureen Boyd, director of sales. "This expansion solidifies Wind Creek Bethlehem as a regional competitor when attracting larger tradeshows, meetings and events."
Adjoining the event-capable 14,000-square-foot Wind Creek Event Center, which accommodates up to 3,300 guests for A-list and headliner shows, the tower also integrates a new fitness center with pool and the luxurious new top-floor Spa at Wind Creek, featuring an outdoor deck and those same sweeping valley views.
Ideal for group activities and teambuilding, the resort now offers Angry Jack’s Axe Throwing and Trap Door Escape Room. For upscale dining and creative cocktails, The Chop House, formerly Emeril’s Chop House, is a classic American steakhouse offering private dining for groups.
The adjacent event-capable SteelStacks arts and entertainment campus features the 1907 Hoover-Mason Trestle, now an elevated walkway running alongside Bethlehem Steel’s massive blast furnaces. Nearby, Historic Moravian Bethlehem was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage consideration in early 2023.
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