The one constant among East Coast gaming destinations is that their number has constantly increased since 1992, when Connecticut’s Foxwoods broke the monopoly long enjoyed by Atlantic City, N.J.
Since then, other Eastern states have gradually loosened their own gambling laws as they chased seemingly endless millions in casino-related tax earnings. But the pie of gambling revenue has proven to be only so large, and with more states vying for their share, the slice that each can claim has necessarily shrunk.
This has put pressure on existing full-service gaming resorts as casual visitors try the newest properties or simply visit their local casino, rather than journey to the north and south poles of Connecticut and Atlantic City.
However, this phenomenon has also led Eastern gaming resorts to court customers who have both business and leisure reasons to make the drive, specifically the meetings business.
Foxwoods became the East Coast’s first non-Atlantic City casino when the Mashantucket Pequot Nation transitioned it from high-stakes bingo hall to full-service casino in 1992. Jason Guyot, vice president of resort operations at Foxwoods Resort Casino, says its comprehensive one-stop experience for attendees is an advantage over Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
“Foxwoods is positioned very well from a meetings perspective; we have everything under one roof here, unlike in Vegas where people might get lost in the city,” Guyot says.
Guyot points out that Foxwoods enjoys a lot of repeat business since groups, which comprise 15 percent to 20 percent of Foxwoods’ business, tend to rebook once they’ve visited. He attributes this partly to the quality and variety of Foxwoods’ facilities—for example, superb food plus three hotel towers, each with distinct service offerings.
In 2014, Foxwoods completed a $25 million renovation of its Grand Pequot Tower, while the nearby, tribally owned Two Trees Inn was three-quarters of the way through a renovation at press time.
Foxwoods is also diversifying so that it doesn’t rely solely on gaming revenue. It already sports 34 restaurants and two theaters, and in May 2015 the fully enclosed Tanger Retail Mall at Foxwoods will open with 80 middle-to-high-end retail stores, including Michael Kors, H&M and J Crew. It also recently hosted a Boston Red Sox fan weekend that drew over 6,000.
“From a meetings perspective it’s an amazing facility to have attached. We could close that space down and do private shopping events,” Guyot says, noting that it should also add to length of stay.
Foxwoods faces the most direct competition of any non-Atlantic City resort in nearby Mohegan Sun, run by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority; it also touts an all-in-one experience starting with three casinos (Earth, Wind and Sky), a 1,200-room luxury hotel and 175 scenic acres along the Thames River.
Mohegan Sun has also steadily diversified, starting with its tagline, “Gaming Is Just the Beginning,” and backing that up with The Shops at Mohegan Sun; a 10,000-seat arena where the Connecticut Sun WNBA team and the New England Black Wolves pro lacrosse team play, not to mention a steady stream of nationally known entertainers; the 18-hole Mohegan Sun Golf Club; and 100,000 square feet of meeting space.
Atlantic City can be disorienting for planners to think about. On the one hand, the past few years have seen four major casinos close as casual visitors try new venues closer to home.
On the other hand, the eight properties surviving along Atlantic City’s storied boardwalk are investing heavily to improve meeting and convention facilities, which are increasingly viewed as a solid foundation on which greater leisure visitation will rise, especially since delegate spending here in the fourth quarter of 2014 rose 12.3 percent from the previous year.
Exhibit A: Harrah’s Atlantic City’s new $125 million, 250,000-square-foot conference center will open in late summer 2015. Exhibit B: The Tropicana Casino & Resort is renovating its casino floor and North Tower guest rooms while adding a state-of-the-art health club and a light show on the boardwalk, all at a cost of $35 million; meanwhile, a meeting-room renovation begins this fall.
Exhibits C and D: Resorts Casino Hotel is adding 12,000 square feet of new meeting and ballroom space, while the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa is adding a new outdoor entertainment venue that will help free up its main ballroom for more meetings and conventions. The list goes on.
The city of Atlantic City is also diversifying to reduce its vulnerability to fluctuations in the gambling business, exemplified by plans for the Steel Pier. This family-friendly, thousand-foot structure’s rides and carnival games jut far out over the Atlantic, and its owners and Atlantic City are cooperating to expand and modify it into a year-round attraction. The result: a three-phase makeover that will include a new food court and arcade building, a 200-foot Ferris wheel and a new 2,000-seat Marine Ballroom. Completion is slated for later in 2015.