|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 1, 2005 - ATLANTIC CITY - Avi Toledo, 48, walked past the gambling hall at Tropicana Hotel & Casino recently and headed straight for the new retail stores.
Instead of testing his luck on the slot machines or table games, Toledo is wagering on Atlantic City; he spent his entire visit trying to find a location on the Boardwalk for his upscale Manhattan-based women's couture shop.
"I like what they did in the city with all the stores," said Toledo, as he peered inside a Brooks Bros. men's store inside the Quarter, a new $285 million, Havana-themed non-gambling expansion at the Tropicana.
A combination of new competition and changing consumer preferences have forced a sea change in the gambling industry, and Atlantic City is in the midst of a major transformation: It's becoming "Vegas East."
Like Las Vegas, Atlantic City has added luxury casino hotels, golf courses, high-end spas, and upscale retailers and restaurants over the last year and a half -- and is marketing them as all part of the casino experience.
There is a new urgency for Atlantic City. With Pennsylvania poised to add as many as 61,000 slot machines starting in 2007, gaming analysts predict slot parlors there could siphon as much as 10 percent of Atlantic City's total annual revenue. Last year, New Jersey casinos racked up $4.8 billion, with 74 percent coming from slots. So the city is reinventing itself to offer more than just gambling. It wants to shed its image as a day-trip market.
"All of the new attractions will better position Atlantic City to compete in the future as neighboring states expand the kinds of gambling that they offer," said Linda Kassekert, chairwoman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, which regulates gaming in Atlantic City.
The opening of the $1.1 billion Borgata in July 2003 altered Atlantic City's landscape, much as the $650 million Mirage did in Vegas when it opened in 1989. For Vegas, the Mirage was the first mega-casino with luxurious hotel rooms, a crowd-pleasing volcanic display at its entrance, and a large array of non-gambling attractions under one roof.
Tim Wilmott, chief operating officer of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which is poised to acquire Caesars Entertainment Inc. this year to become Atlantic City's largest casino operator with four properties, said Atlantic City was drawing a new type of customer.
"It's attracting a new clientele -- younger, not as gaming-centric as Atlantic City has traditionally seen, and that's very encouraging," Wilmott said. "That's really the story for the past five or seven years in Las Vegas, so hopefully, Atlantic City can catch up."
Just how far Atlantic City has to go is reflected in who Vegas brings in. Lara Colagrosa and Isabella Verdi, both from Rome, felt at home inside the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas recently.
"We don't gamble," said Colagrosa on a balmy afternoon in the resort long known for extravagance, as she and Verdi strolled past the Fountain of the Gods piazza. "We come here for the shopping and dining." As the duo shopped, their husbands played blackjack at the Bellagio.
More than 2,000 miles away in Atlantic City, Marion Ferguson and her cousin, Susan Hardiman, were awed by the architectural ceiling patterns throughout the Quarter.
Despite frigid conditions outside on the Boardwalk, it was sunny and festive inside the Quarter. Its imitation palm trees, live Latin band and bright tropical colors evoke Old Havana in its 1950s, pre-communist resplendence.
The Forum Shops and the Quarter are strikingly similar. Both have large water fountains in center courtyards. Both feature a variety of restaurants and retail stores. Both look as if they are somewhere they are not.
"It's fantastic," Hardiman said, staring up at the skyscape in the Quarter and watching the projected clouds drift by.
Ferguson and Hardiman had something else in common with their compatriots in Las Vegas. "The boys are in there, and we're shopping," Ferguson said, pointing to the gaming floor where their husbands played craps and slots.
Hardiman, 34, from Dublin, Ireland, said she last visited Atlantic City in July 2003, for the opening of the Borgata. On her return trip, she said she was astonished by the city's physical transformation.
In the heart of downtown, where there were once large vacant lots, now stands an eight-block giant outlet mall called the Walk, with stores like Bass, Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger.
Scott Gordon is developing the Pier at Caesars, a $170 million, multidimensional, mega-complex with giant video screens throughout that will resemble Times Square on a luxury cruise liner with retail, dining and entertainment. The 320,000-square-foot Pier, which will be connected to Caesars' casino on the Boardwalk by an enclosed, glass skybridge, is set to open in late fall.
"This is the first time that I've seen, in years, a concentration of nongaming and gaming improvements ... " in Atlantic City, said Gordon, whose father, Sheldon Gordon, co-built the Forum Shops. "For 15 years, nothing was happening."
Since the Mirage debuted in 1989, Las Vegas has undergone a near constant metamorphosis. Long seen as Hollywood's playground or the place for a quick, no-frills wedding, Las Vegas began attracting more families and non-gamblers after the Mirage opened. The city's other casino owners took note and responded with their own bigger and pricier attractions.
"As the destination grew, we expanded our market," said Terry Jicinsky, head of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "First regionally, then nationally. And now worldwide."
Celebrity chefs, such as Bradley Ogden and Wolfgang Puck, and trendy nightclubs, such as ghostbar at the Palms Casino Resort, are attracting a younger clientele -- the same demographic that Atlantic City is heavily targeting with similar venues such as the mixx nightclub at the Borgata.
"They all speak to the diversity of our offerings," Jicinsky said. "Now that we're attracting 37 million visitors, you can't work within one market segment."
On a recent evening in Las Vegas, Celine Dion performed at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and the circus-inspired "O" by Cirque du Soleil headlined at the Bellagio. As it neared midnight, Mike Rizk, 27, of New Brunswick, N.J., paid the bouncer $200 to get to the front of a line that stretched for three blocks for ghostbar, located on the 55th floor of the Palms overlooking the Las Vegas Strip.
Ghostbar is an ultra lounge -- a hybrid of a traditional discotheque and nightclub. Inside, it resembles an ultra-hip, intergalactic space lounge with art-deco furniture in silver, white and blue.
"This is the place to be," said Rizk, as a Linkin Park song blared through speakers, and wall-to-wall of young bodies mingled or gyrated to the rhythm. "It's the whole environment -- the sights, the sounds. Everything."
Atlantic City is hoping a little bit of Vegas will go a long way toward shoring up its future. The Showboat Hotel Casino announced in early January that it is adding a $65 million House of Blues restaurant and music hall -- like the one at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
"One feeds off the other," said Jeffrey Chodorow, principal owner of Red Square, a Russian-themed restaurant operating at Mandalay Bay since 1999 -- and which opened last month at the Quarter. "The more you put there, the more reason to go there."
Toledo, the New York businessman, will open the sixth store of his Parisian women's couture chain, Montmartre, at the Pier at Caesars -- his first shop outside of New York City.
"We like the feeling of new, and getting into a new place," he said. "It's an opportunity you could really do well with."
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