|By Donald Wittkowski, The Press of
Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 08, 2012--ATLANTIC CITY -- One of Atlantic City's oldest casinos has a new name and a new marketing strategy that will target local customers through a variety of low-cost gambling attractions and new restaurants.
The former Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort -- now known as the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel -- pledged to become the "locals' casino" during the announcement of its new name Tuesday. It also had a strong message for its competitors: "We're absolutely not dead."
Atlantic Club plans to target gamblers throughout South Jersey as the foundation for its customer base. The strategy includes partnering with local businesses to allow the casino's customers to redeem their comp points for goods and services at those shops.
"It is a business philosophy, a program that has never been done in Atlantic City before," said Michael Frawley, the casino's chief operating officer. "The Atlantic Club will have a dedicated sales team reaching out to local businesses in Burlington, Atlantic and Cape May counties to create mutually beneficial partnerships."
Customers said they liked the idea of a locals-oriented casino. At the same time, they expressed hope that the property, which is one of Atlantic City's smallest casinos, would not lose its cozy atmosphere.
"I like the smaller casinos better than the big ones, so it appeals to me," said Penny Rando, of Atlantic City, while playing a slot machine. "It's comfortable."
Beth Merkel, of Wildwood, said one drawback to the Atlantic Club is its relatively remote location at the southern tip of the Boardwalk. But Merkel noted that if Hard Rock International goes forward with plans to build a $465 million casino next door, it should generate more traffic for the Atlantic Club.
"I think there will be a crossover between the two casinos," she said. "They'll get more people here if they can just hang on to their finances."
In a struggle for survival, the financially troubled casino plans to reinvent itself as a low-cost gaming hall. To underscore their belief that the casino will be around for years to come, the owners have put up billboards on Atlantic City's major highways with the slogan, "The Fat Lady Ain't Singing."
"It's a tongue-in-cheek approach to our business," Frawley said of the advertising campaign. "We're absolutely not dead. We're not going anywhere."
Colony Capital LLC, the casino's owner since 2005, hopes the rebranding campaign resonates with cost-conscious gamblers who prefer penny slot machines and low-stakes table games.
"We're wall-to-wall value wherever you go," Frawley said. "We can't overemphasize how important this is, moving forward, to our success."
Colony is promising more than just a name change and new marketing direction. The casino will undergo a renovation in the next two months to make the gaming floor more aesthetically pleasing, including new carpets, wider aisles and comfortable seating.
Dining options are also being retooled, with restaurant prices being slashed by 50 percent. Restaurants will have new names and new menus, although the brands were not immediately announced by Frawley or the casino.
The remodeled casino floor will feature new penny slot machines and an assortment of table games that have low stakes, mainly $5 and $10 minimum bets. The number of slot machines will be reduced from about 1,800 now to 1,500 and the number of table games will be trimmed from 86 to 50 as part of plans to make the gaming floor more attractive. About 70 percent of the casino floor will be penny slots.
Frawley rejected using the term "cut rate" to describe the casino's new image, preferring instead to call it a "value-oriented" property that will appeal to savvy consumers who like to save money instead of risking big bets on high-stakes gambling.
"We will be a better deal," Frawley said. "Our tagline is, 'A casino for the rest of us.'"
Atlantic Club is just the latest name change. The casino had been calling itself "ACH" for the past few months after it lost the franchise rights to use the iconic Hilton name in a fallout last year with the Hilton Hotels & Resorts chain.
The property originally opened in 1980 as the Golden Nugget under the ownership of Las Vegas gaming mogul Steve Wynn. When Wynn sold the casino in 1987, it began a series of ownership and name changes that included Bally's Grand, The Grand and then the Hilton.
While it still operated as the Hilton, the casino defaulted on its mortgage in 2009 and then faced attempts by its lenders to foreclose on it. Colony and the lenders, however, reached agreement last year to call off the casino's sale.
Colony's rescue plan includes investing $24.3 million in fresh capital -- about $12.5 million for renovations and the rest going for operating expenses while the casino seeks to stabilize its finances. Frawley estimated the casino lost about $20 million in 2011, but he hopes to begin turning a profit this year.
"As of today, we're on the road to stabilizing the property," he said.
In November, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission secured a commitment from Colony Capital's affiliates to keep the property open through at least Oct. 31 of this year. Frawley stressed that the casino plans to stay in business much longer than that date.
"Oct. 31 is not an apocalyptic date for us," he said. "We see ourselves operating well beyond that."
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