|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 13, 2011--ATLANTIC CITY -- A casino's size and freshness often equate to market success. Yet two of the smallest and oldest gambling halls here, Resorts and Trump Marina, are banking on old themes to bring them new glory.
At Resorts, gaming-industry veteran Dennis Gomes -- who with JEMB Realty Corp., of New York, bought Atlantic City's first casino from its lenders in December for $31 million -- envisions a return to the Roaring Twenties, complete with flapper dresses (designed by him) for cocktail waitresses and period uniforms for bellmen, butlers, valet staff, and table dealers.
At Trump Marina, new owner Landry's Inc., of Houston, plans to bring the Golden Nugget brand back to Atlantic City for the first time since 1987, according to chairman, president, and chief executive officer Tilman Fertitta. The company owns Golden Nugget hotel-casinos in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev., with a retro-Vegas look.
Fertitta said he planned to invest about $150 million in new restaurants, lounges, and a complete face-lift for Trump Marina, which opened in 1985 and from the outside resembles a rundown hospital more than a casino.
Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. announced the sale of Trump Marina, the weakest of its three local properties, last month. The deal is expected to close by June.
For both casinos, industry observers say, the big question is this: Can rebranding bring in new, younger customers in the face of competition from amenity-rich, megasize operations such as Borgata, Harrah's Resort, and, by next summer, the $2.5 billion Revel Casino?
"The longer-term survival of these smaller casinos depends on whether Revel can grow the market, and if Atlantic City operators can withstand new competitive threats from Aqueduct [a racetrack with slots in New York], Pennsylvania casinos, and Delaware and Maryland," said RBC Capital Markets Corp. analyst John Kempf.
Gomes and Fertitta are confident they can make it work.
"Size is not always good," Gomes said in an interview in late January after taking over Resorts. He purchased the property from RAC Atlantic City Holding L.L.C., which obtained the title after the former owners defaulted on the mortgage. "Sometimes, with the bigger casinos, it's a little tougher because there is so much more overhead and so much more space to clean."
With a 99,030-square-foot gaming floor, Resorts is the fourth-smallest casino here; the Atlantic City Hilton (75,416 square feet), Trump Marina (78,535), and Trump Plaza (86,923) are smaller.
"We want people to know that we're the value play for them," Gomes said. "You can get the most for your money here and still be in elegant, beautiful surroundings."
Among the value-oriented promotions initiated by Gomes are $2.99 late-night steak dinners Sundays through Thursdays, and all-you-can-eat crab-leg-and-shrimp buffets for $19.20 (another take on the theme).
In their reincarnated forms, the two casinos can ultimately survive and thrive if they go after a niche, gambling analyst Cory H. Morowitz, of Morowitz Gaming Advisors L.L.C., in Galloway Township, N.J., said.
"Number one, their entry cost is low, and their balance sheets have very little debt," he said. "Therefore, they only need to turn a reasonable operating profit in order to generate a fair return on investment. . . ."
"Meaning they should not try to compete with a Revel or Borgata head-to-head," Morowitz said. "They should focus on dominating specific markets and maximizing their nongaming revenue from cash-paying customers."
Resorts is going after "a lot of different markets," Gomes said. Among them: Asian-table-game players -- the casino began an extensive renovation of its Asian gaming room last week to include a noodle bar.
It also will go after the gay and lesbian market with special packages and targeted online marketing.
The message: No matter your race, age, or sexual orientation, "there's something for you here," said Gomes, who previously held senior executive positions at Tropicana and Trump Taj Mahal.
For Gomes, the big difference this time is that he is running the show as co-owner. Working alongside him are son Aaron, 28, executive vice president of operations, and daughter Danielle, 30, who does social and viral marketing.
Getting annual hotel occupancy up from 65 percent to 80 percent is among Gomes' priorities. Resorts has almost 1,000 hotel rooms between its older Ocean Tower and the newer Rendezvous Tower. All 480 rooms in Ocean Tower are being redone with new bedding and furniture.
Gomes said he hoped to have all room renovations and the flapper uniforms ready for Memorial Day weekend, the kickoff to the peak summer season.
On Thursday, as he did a casino walk-through, Gomes was approached by Lucille Corte, 83, of Westbury, N.Y., a Resorts regular since it opened in May 1978.
Corte, who was with a bus group of 42 seniors, thanked Gomes for the letters he has been sending her announcing all the changes, part of his strategy to get up close and personal with customers.
"I'm starting to see all the people come back," she said as she gave Gomes a hug.
For Trump Marina -- dead last among the city's 11 casinos last year, with just $147.4 million in total revenue -- there are visions of a similar makeover.
"It will be totally updated," Fertitta said in an interview after the sale was announced. "You won't recognize the property."
Fertitta is the sole owner of Landry's, the nation's largest privately held restaurant, entertainment, and gaming company, with combined revenue and assets of more than $4 billion.
Among the restaurant chains Landry's owns are Chart House, Rainforest Cafe, Saltgrass Steakhouse, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Fertitta said the revamped casino would feature several of the restaurant concepts.
"That's good. This place is dead," said union official Charles Williams, 52, of Philadelphia, who stayed at Trump Marina last week for a leadership seminar with AFSCME Local 1637. "My only suggestion to them is to put in an indoor pool and spa. All the successful casinos here have spa packages."
The new Golden Nugget will have that, said Fertitta, as well as new bars and lounges with live entertainment, and stylish retail shops to complement a new poker room, race and keno room, and improved showroom. All rooms and suites will be redone, too.
Rebranding should be complete by year's end, Fertitta said, and customers will be able to earn points and rewards at all three Golden Nuggets using their player cards.
Ida Riccardo, 74, of North Plainfield, N.J., was relieved to learn her favorite casino was merely changing owners, not closing.
"I like it here because it's small and compact," Riccardo, who is retired, said as she worked a penny slot machine at Trump Marina on Wednesday afternoon, when the casino was barely half full. "I know where everything is." Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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