|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 20, 2008 - ATLANTIC CITY -- The bedbug image remains fresh in Laurie DiNatale's mind.
"I think of dirt, and the bedbugs totally turned me off," the 55-year-old nurse from Long Beach Island said of what she envisions whenever the Tropicana Casino & Resort is brought up.
As DiNatale played a slot machine at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa here last week, she said the Tropicana was facing "a major marketing problem" in getting people like her to come back.
"Their reputation is damaged," she said. "It will take a lot of time before I go back there."
The Tropicana launched a major advertising campaign last week to restore its image and recapture lost market share.
Print ads began appearing in the Atlantic City Weekly and other publications, and a 30-second commercial began airing on Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey television Wednesday, touting "a new experience" and "a commitment to service" at the casino.
The $1 million ad campaign, financed by the Tropicana, is to help undo the damage from months of negative publicity leading to the decision by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to deny the casino's former owner, Columbia-Sussex Corp., a license renewal on Dec. 12.
Seventy-four customer complaints dealing with issues including bedbugs in hotel rooms and filthy public bathrooms that reeked of urine were part of the evidence reviewed by the commission -- and created an image that has been hard to shake.
DiNatale, who has not been at the Tropicana for a year and a half, said she had not experienced the dirt or bedbugs firsthand, but had read and heard about them in news accounts for months.
"That perception has stayed with me," she said.
Dennis Conrad, president and chief strategist with Raving Consulting Co. Inc., a gaming-consulting firm based in Reno, Nev., said the Tropicana was suffering from "a crisis of confidence."
"It's still open and still viable, but it's taken a severe whack," he said. "These ads are a good start to restore customer confidence."
Last week, 15 new Tropicana billboards went up along major thoroughfares -- eight on the Atlantic City Expressway, three each on the Black Horse Pike and White Horse Pike, and one on the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Most of the billboards highlighted the casino's mega-dining-retail-and-entertainment complex, called the Quarter. Others featured coming major events and smiling, happy Tropicana employees.
The rebranding comes at a time when the casino is shopping for a buyer.
Last week, the five-member New Jersey gaming commission approved two members of Wall Street investment firm Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. to serve as financial advisers to Gary Stein, the state-appointed trustee and conservator, in evaluating bids for the casino. Three former gaming executives also were brought on board as consultants.
Some of the prospective bidders include Colony Capital Acquisitions L.L.C., of Los Angeles; Cordish Co., of Baltimore; and the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, of Connecticut. Colony Capital submitted the first formal written offer Jan. 9 to buy the Tropicana for $850 million. A second offer was made last Tuesday by an unidentified investment group.
The Tropicana, which is home to New Jersey's largest hotel, with 2,129 rooms, had the biggest drop in revenue among Atlantic City's 11 casinos last year, according to data from the gaming commission.
The casino's year-over-year total revenue decreased 12.1 percent from 2006. Slots revenue slipped 15.7 percent, and table-game revenue declined 2.0 percent.
"We need to get the customers back in here and . . . have them walk away with an opinion that is theirs and not an opinion that maybe they read from months and months ago," Tropicana president and chief operating officer Mark Giannantonio said last week as his team unveiled the ad campaign.
Easier said than done, according to marketing experts.
"Like any hotel in the industry, once the damage is done, it takes a lot longer to repair," said Nicholas Hadgis, dean of the School of Hospitality Management at Widener University in Chester, which trains gaming executives.
"A reputation takes a long time to rebuild. It will take word-of-mouth, as well as advertising and good press saying the place has really turned things around and is worth revisiting," he said. "That particular property will have to earn its stripes all over again."
Giannantonio, who began managing the hotel and casino last August after Columbia-Sussex fired his predecessor, Fred Buro, for refusing to make additional job cuts, acknowledged that major mistakes in staffing had been made. About 900 Tropicana workers were pared by Columbia-Sussex last year.
"There was a culmination of events that took place that really hurt our business," he said. "Some were certainly self-inflicted."
He said that among them were staff cuts "in the areas of cleanliness" that hurt the casino early on, and that reductions in player development and slots service caused the defections of some of the casino's most loyal customers.
He said, for instance, that having so few slots attendants caused the jackpot payout time -- the interval between a slot machine posting a win and a customer getting paid -- to jump from an average of eight minutes before January 2007 to as high as 24 minutes last summer. Giannantonio said the casino was rehiring 20 slots attendants.
Another major problem was excessive overtime, which he described as "abnormally high." He said there were immediate plans to rehire 100 to 150 workers -- for security detail, the public-space areas, such as bathrooms, and facilities maintenance -- to reduce overtime.
Other casino operators here are hoping the Tropicana succeeds. Atlantic City reported lower gambling revenue overall last year for the first time in its 29-year history of having casinos, mostly because of new slots competition from Pennsylvania and New York. The operators say the town cannot afford a weak link.
"We don't want any failures here," said Borgata president and chief operating officer Larry Mullin. "It's not good for anybody."
Amelia DiCioccio, 70, of Atlantic City, is giving the Tropicana another chance after leaving it for the Atlantic City Hilton last year. Her complaints over uncleanliness and filthy bathrooms were among those read by the gaming commission.
Since December, the Tropicana has been showering the avid slots player with cash bonuses, free meals and gifts, such as last week's choice between a handheld computer device and $300 in cash. Giannantonio said such cash-back promotions had been cut about 20 percent last year under the old regime, but were restored to previous levels when he took over in August.
"I've really started coming back," DiCioccio said Tuesday while at the Tropicana. "The workers are really working hard to give you good service."
She cited one area in particular.
"The bathrooms are much, much cleaner," she said. "The floors are not as sticky, and the trash bins aren't piling up.
"You actually see people going around cleaning," she said. "Before you never saw them."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.
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