Atlantic City's casino and tourism industry is under assault. In the past few weeks, Pennsylvania and Delaware have added table games to their casinos, giving two Atlantic City feeder markets casinos that can compete directly with the Boardwalk. But that's just the beginning of Atlantic City's problems. Will gamblers from Washington D.C. travel to Atlantic City for resort casinos, or will they make the much shorter trip to Delaware for casinos at racetracks? And if they're just interested in slots, will they journey beyond the borders of Maryland, which has legalized slots parlors? Will Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods siphon off more New York gamblers?
I don't think Atlantic City will like the answer to any of those questions (For the record: Delaware, no, yes), and I'm not the only one thinking that way. The Press of Atlantic City reports that one gaming analyst thinks table gaming revenue alone in Atlantic City will shrink 15 percent as a result of competition in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
So what should Atlantic City do to remain a viable gambling destination? Here are 10 suggestions that I really hope are adopted in some form. I'm a big fan of Atlantic City, and I want to see it survive and thrive.
10. Glamorize the Boardwalk
The Boardwalk is Atlantic City's most distinctive features. On one side of the large, wooden path lies a series of casinos. The Jersey shore and the Atlantic Ocean lie on the other size. And during good weather, it is a very enjoyable walk. Unfortunately, that's all it is.
The retail space facing the boardwalk is filled with palm readers, cheap t-shirt shops, inexpensive massage joints and a few greasy-food places. That's right, the best real estate in Atlantic City is filled with low-rent clients. And I say that with love. I've eaten at some of these places and enjoyed the food. I've bought some t-shirts. And I've almost been bullied into getting my palm read by an attractive young lady. But there have to be better uses for this space -- uses that will bring a lot more tourists to Atlantic City.
The Boardwalk needs to be filled with upscale restaurants and coffee shops with outdoor seating when weather allows. It should have book stores and art exhibits. It should have trendy retail outlets. The Boardwalk needs to exude class. And right now, all it exudes is kitsch.
9. Fine dining
Unfortunately for Atlantic City, most of its fine dining is located in the Borgata, which features both the Bobby Flay Steak restaurant and the Wolfgang Puck American Grille. But the Borgata is not on the boardwalk, which means many people visiting Atlantic City never get there. The same is true for Harrah's Resort which features two fabulous restaurants -- Polstina's and McComrick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant. But it's not on the Boardwalk, so it requires a special trip -- or stay -- to eat there. But for the most part, Atlantic City suffers in comparison to New York, Philadelphia and Las Vegas in terms of quality dining. Why is this important?
New York and Philadelphia are close by. And if you're going to lure tourists away from those two cities, and Delaware which now has table games, you need to offer more diversified entertainment set than gambling, and that includes good restaurants.
Las Vegas is a restaurant-goers paradise. It is filled with amazing dining options at a variety of price points. People who love food have no problem traveling to Vegas just to sample the restaurants. And people who enjoy gambling in Vegas almost always make time to enjoy the restaurants there. Atlantic City needs to become Las Vegas east when it comes to the total entertainment experience. And bringing in great restaurants to the Boardwalk and Boardwalk casinos is an important part of that equation. If people know they're going to a get a great -- and easy -- dining experience in Atlantic City, they'll be much more likely to come.
8. Improve rail service
Bus service to Atlantic City is very good. But in order to survive, AC needs to get away from grandmothers catching the bus in and start attracting a younger clientele. And one way to do that is through improved rail service from New York City. Right now, the Atlantic City Express Service (ACES) from Penn Station doesn't cut it. It only runs on Friday through Sunday. And there are only two trains a day headed for Atlantic City on Friday and Saturday. And the last train (there are only two) back from Atlantic City leaves at just after 2 p.m. on Sunday. The average trip time on ACES is 2 hours and 40 minutes. The New Jersey Transit rail service can also be used to reach Atlantic City, but traveling from Newark will take around 3 hours, and that's if you time your trip perfectly. If Atlantic City can improve its rail service, it will improve its visitor numbers.
7. Adopt online gambling
The New Jersey legislature is considering an online gambling proposal that would allow Atlantic City casinos to offer online gambling to New Jersey residents. Atlantic City should push for this proposal to go through. The World Series of Poker grew exponentially from 2003-2006 thanks to online poker creating a new generation of players determined to find poker gold and glory. The same can happen in New Jersey. Online casinos can create new generations of gamblers to visit Atlantic City. If the casinos tie in their existing player rewards cards into the online casinos, there will be every incentive for these gamblers to visit Atlantic City.
6. Get sports betting
I don't care who you have to sue and how long it takes, bring single-game sports wagering to Atlantic City. There's a reason the Saints Super Bowl win over the Colts beat out MASH for the most-watched TV show -- and it's not just because Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are great storylines. People like to bet on sports. Lots of people like to bet on sports. And even more like to bet on the Super Bowl. Around $81.5 million alone was legally bet on the Super Bowl in Las Vegas last year. If you can get sports wagering into Atlantic City, do it.
I see Las Vegas TV commercials all the time. I hear about Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun on the radio all the time. Any guesses about who I don't see or hear? You got it -- Atlantic City. People need to realize Atlantic City is a fun place to visit. And to make people aware of Atlantic City, you need to advertise.
4. Better strip clubs
I mentioned earlier that Atlantic City needs to become Las Vegas east. And part of the Las Vegas experience -- for better or worse (and usually, for better) is strip clubs. Las Vegas owns the bachelor party market for its combination of great food, night life and strip clubs. And it's time for AC to even the score. If Atlantic City could provide the same entertainment options as Las Vegas, more people would take the three-hour drive to Atlantic City instead of the four-hour flight to Nevada.
3. Events and entertainment
Atlantic City needs to do everything it can to bring young people with disposable income to the city, and that means booking events that appeal to those demographics. That means hosting every major boxing and mixed martial arts event. That means hosting college basketball tournaments like they did over Thanksgiving. And that means booking musical acts like Jay-Z, Rhianna and Lady Ga Ga. When I was in Atlantic City to watch Michigan State play basketball over Thanksgiving, the whole city felt young and vibrant. It's the first time I'd felt that way about Atlantic City in about a decade.
Part of attracting a younger crowd is providing a lively club scene. Harrah's Resorts has figured this out and turns its pool area into a booming nightclub each night. Bally's operates "The Ridge" inside of the adjacent Claridge Hotel, and that place is hopping with young people as well. Each night loud club music is playing. Dealers are dancing. Players are grooving. And everyone is having fun. Unfortunately, places like that are in short supply in Atlantic City. And until that changes for good, it will be tough to attract the younger crowd to Atlantic City.
1. Go young or give up
Atlantic City has a reputation of being a city for old people. In fact, whenever I tell an old Reader's Digest joke about an elderly woman popping a quarter into my mouth and pulling my arm down while I was yawning on the Boardwalk, I get nothing but guffaws. That means almost everything Atlantic City does has to be aimed at shedding that reputation. It's the only way Atlantic City is going to grow and thrive in an era of increased competition.