If you’re not a group full of gamblers, why go to Atlantic City? That question was relevant a few years ago when “America’s Playground” was a one-horse town. But the continued success of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa since 2003 has spawned a new generation of groups to look at AC’s boardwalk and marina for more than just gaming tables. A slew of new dining, cocktail and spa tables are making noise nowadays on the Jersey shore.
“Borgata proved to this destination that a young, affluent customer will come to Atlantic City,” says Gary Musich, vp of convention sales at Atlantic City CVA. “Since then, the destination has invested about $10 billion into non-gaming development. And what $10 billion buys you is a new demographic. It really changed who comes to Atlantic City.”
Entertainment is a huge factor. With venues like Boardwalk Hall and the audiences to fill them, Atlantic City can now book A-listers. “I don’t want this to sound derogatory, but we went from Frankie Valli to the Stones and Madonna and Bruce Springsteen,” says Musich.
On summer nights, he says hotspots are the new beach bars on the Boardwalk—places like Bikini Beach Bar at Bally’s and The Beach Bar at Trump Plaza. “And Harrah’s just opened an area called The Pool, something like two acres under a giant glass dome,” adds Musich. “On the weekends it becomes a giant nightclub that’s open for private events. We now have a lot of unique venues like that.”
Planners with past connections to the city are thrilled, with acts like Depeche Mode and No Doubt coming to town.
“In the past, it was, ‘Okay, there’s gambling, what else?’” says Trish McCormick, executive director of the Northeast Pool & Spa Association, which meets in Atlantic City every January. “Now Atlantic City definitely rivals Vegas for nightlife. My attendees love it.”
“You have a wider mix of people coming, and that’s really helped Atlantic City’s image,” agrees Larry Huttinger, director of dmc Destination AC. He plays off the new vibe with teambuilders like Photo-opoly, a photo scavenger hunt following the Monopoly board around town. He also does a Dancing With the Stars event where groups pick a few members to be trained by professional dancers, then compete in a performance at the closing banquet.
“We bring a band in and everyone has someone to cheer for,” says Huttinger.
Also popular is a cocktail-hour “mixology” class at celebrity restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Continental restaurant at The Pier at Caesars. Starr is a major impetus behind AC’s surge into a 21st century lifestyle. His Buddakan eaterie is a celebration of dim sum, family-style dining and opium den decor, with verdant gardens and towering trees anchored by a big gold Buddha. Shawn Hausman helmed the design, lauded for his work at Andre Balazs’ stellar Standard Hotels in LA, Miami and NYC.
A Szechuan crusted ribeye in Hong Kong steak sauce headlines the mod Asian menu, along with elegant edibles like the tempura halibut satay and wild mushroom dumplings in truffle sauce. A buyout seats 400, while four semi-private areas host 15-65 patrons.
This summer, One Atlantic is scheduled to open on The Pier jutting out into the ocean 100 yards from shore. It will be the city’s only fully-independent, non-casino private venue, with 10,000 sf of glass-enclosed space indoors and 2,500 sf outside. The design is minimalist and sleek so the ocean and boardwalk take center stage.
“The ocean plays a large part of the space. It will feel like you’re dining on the prow of a cruise ship,” says Wesley Adams, director of marketing. He says the raw space was designed for group biz, with an integrated bar and kitchen. Partner and chef Jon Weinrott’s menu specializes in fresh seafood like Nova Scotia lobster rolls and day boat scallops with oyster mushroom ragout. “We’ll be serving clams at night dug out of the bay that morning,” says Weinrott.
SASSY SPAS + SMOKED BACON SCALLOPS
If Borgata pried opened the doors to Atlantic City for a new generation of groups, Borgata’s $400 million sister property broke ’em off their hinges.
The Water Club launched in 2008 with 800 rooms and 18,000 sf of meeting space adjacent to Borgata. The star of the show is the elegant 36,000-sf Immersion Spa occupying two floors of the 43-story tower. The is a destination spa resort with 5 indoor and outdoor pools, 16 experience rooms, serious Ayurvedic treatments, and a spa menu crafted by French master Geoffrey Zakarian.
We might mention too, the six boutiques including Hugo Boss and La Perla. In the latter you’ll need to decide if you’re a Black Label or Sexy Town kinda girl.
When the time comes for a group gambling lesson and/or charity poker tournament, planners can book private gaming space at Borgata. Groups also have multiple private booking options at a formidable fine-dining lineup: Wolfgang Puck American Grille, Bobby Flay Steak and the New York City landmark, Old Homestead Steakhouse.
Last year basically launched Atlantic City into the destination spa category. That’s also when Caesars Atlantic City unveiled Qua Baths & Spa—home of the $5,000, 5-person, 3-hour massage extravaganza: Deici Mani. You really don’t want to fall asleep during that one.
Here’s the big to-do this year. The Chelsea opened its new outdoor saltwater pool and 10,000-sf Sea Spa in April. The new 331-room lifestyle hotel is a yowsa rehab of a retro Holiday Inn and HoJo, with two more restaurants by Stephen Starr completing the hotel’s pre-American Graffiti era makeover. The classic Chelsea Prime steakhouse and funky Bronx diner Teplitzky’s serve up virtually every definition of comfort food from French toast to bone-in filets.
“We’re the first hotel that Stephen Starr has partnered with,” says Jane Mackie, Chelsea’s vp of marketing. “His background in nightlife and entertainment is very congruent with what Chelsea is about. So we’re not a typical banquet experience because we have these large, hip lounge spaces for meetings, and then we have the benefit of onsite catering prepared in a celebrity restaurant.” More meeting space includes the 15,000-sf pool deck and 4,200-sf Crystal Room.
Mackie believes The Water Club and The Chelsea, as non-gaming hotels, are a new chapter in the future of Atlantic City. Because they’re not casinos, they’re more attractive to some groups due to corporate governance rules. And they might be considered more family friendly by some attendees driving in with the clan.
“Atlantic City was a resort town before it was a gaming town,” she says. “Today, it’s a restaurant destination. It’s a nightlife destination, it’s a beach destination. Imagine Las Vegas with the ocean crashing at your doorstep.”