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Harrah's exec seeks to reenergize Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - Persistent. That's how Marie Osmond describes Don Marrandino, new Eastern Division president for gambling giant Harrah's Entertainment Inc.

ATLANTIC CITY - Persistent. That's how Marie Osmond describes Don Marrandino, new Eastern Division president for gambling giant Harrah's Entertainment Inc.

It was Marrandino, you see, who persuaded the singer and her brother Donny to resurrect their 1970s TV variety show on a Las Vegas stage.

"Don gives you an offer you can't refuse. . . . He believed in Donny and Marie, the brand," Osmond said during a phone interview from Vegas, where "The Donny and Marie Show" has played five nights a week for more than a year now at the Flamingo casino, which Marrandino used to run.

A knack for booking acts that find an audience is what helped Marrandino land back in his native Atlantic City, where he began his career 28 years ago. The move also brings him back to his roots in Brigantine, where his parents and siblings still live and where he spent seven summers as a beach lifeguard.

"I'm really a marketing, entertainment, excitement, PR kind of guy," he said during a recent interview in his office at Caesars casino.

A professed workaholic, Marrandino, 50, said his style was to jump in, assess the situation, and figure out what he needs to do.

He has been in his new job almost 100 days, and the task before him is daunting: to keep Atlantic City, where casino revenue is down 13.5 percent this year, viable - and Harrah's four casinos here with it.

Competition from Pennsylvania's slot parlors is fierce. Customers are more reluctant to travel and part with their discretionary dollars.

But the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound former football lineman at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon (Class of '77) and West Chester University (Class of '81) thrives on tackling challenges - and has a good time doing it.

"I liken working at a casino to throwing a party every day," said Marrandino, who grew up a diehard Philly sports fan. "I think we need to let people know that this is a cool and fun place to be."

Entertainment - Marrandino's forte - is one big way to keep the party lively.

In 21 years on the Strip, he brought Toni Braxton to the Flamingo; the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Who, and the Eagles to the Hard Rock Hotel; and Rita Rudner to Harrah's Las Vegas.

"He knows when to be in your business, and when not to be," Marie Osmond said. "He's very good with public relations and what to promote. He does it in a very brilliant way."

Deutsche Bank gambling analyst Andrew Zarnett said Marrandino's return to Atlantic City "brings energy, historical perspective, and great connectivity to staff and customers."

In announcing in August that Marrandino would step into the shoes of three-decade company veteran Carlos Tolosa, Harrah's Entertainment chairman and CEO Gary Loveman described him as "one of the most energetic, engaging and creative leaders" at Harrah's.

The company's four casinos here - Bally's, Showboat, Caesars, and Harrah's Resort - accounted for about 44 percent of Atlantic City's total $4.55 billion revenue last year. They account for more than one-third of the casino workforce and about 40 percent of the total hotel rooms.

Marrandino also oversees Harrah's Chester Casino and Racetrack, the second-most profitable slots parlor in Pennsylvania, which grossed $319.6 million in the July 2008-June 2009 fiscal year.

Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment reported a net loss of more than $1 billion in the third quarter ended Sept 30. The company also experienced a nearly 15 percent decline in cash flow during the quarter, which analysts like Zarnett attribute to continued midweek weakness in its two key markets: Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

So, for Marrandino, the focus is trained on three goals right now: increasing the number of casino jobs in spite of increased competition, raising Atlantic City's profile as an entertainment and nightlife mecca, and keeping hotel rooms affordable and available.

"Harrah's Entertainment properties are absolutely committed to advancing Atlantic City as a year-round destination," he said.

Case in point: Marrandino is keeping all four Harrah's casino-hotels here open midweek, even during the winter. Twice this year, most recently in October, its chief competitor, the Borgata, closed its plush Waterclub Hotel midweek because of declining business.

Going full tilt on non-gaming attractions is one way to distinguish Atlantic City from the Pennsylvania slots parlors, Marrandino believes, especially now with table games likely to become a reality there soon.

"Gaming is all over the place now," he said. "We must diversify our business to make people want to come to Atlantic City. Not just to come here and gamble, but to come here and spend a weekend."

The average stay in Atlantic City is 1.4 days, compared to 3.5 days in Las Vegas.

Changing that means bringing in a mix of headliner entertainment, spas, and nightclubs and celebrity-chef-driven restaurants. For example, the new nightclub, the Loft, set to open for New Year's Eve tomorrow at Harrah's Resort's Pool entertainment complex. Another nightclub, Dusk, recently opened at Caesars.

Marrandino's career started in 1981 in the hotel division at Bally's Atlantic City. He climbed the ranks, moving to Las Vegas in 1989.

Over the next two decades, he did stints at the Rio casino (until 1995) and Station Casinos (until 2001). He served as chief operating officer at the Hard Rock Hotel and later worked with Steve Wynn during the development of Wynn Las Vegas casino resort.

In 2003, Marrandino rejoined Harrah's Entertainment and moved to Lake Tahoe. Two years later, he became regional president of Harrah's Las Vegas, Flamingo, Imperial Palace, Bill's Gamblin' Hall, and O'Sheas casinos on the Strip.

Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which owns the three Trump casinos here, said Marrandino's penchant for taking chances, particularly with entertainment, is what Atlantic City needs right now. He serves on a subcommittee with Marrandino that's part of a task force recently formed by Mayor Lorenzo Langford to assess short- and long-term needs.

"There are some operators who don't value entertainment because it's hard to quantify the returns," Juliano said. "But I agree with [Don] that it's not only about the immediate results, but also about building the image and the brand, and how you want Atlantic City to be perceived."

Marrandino isn't wasting any time. Already, Marie Osmond said, he's trying to convince her and her brother to do a small show at one of Harrah's properties in A.C.

How's that going?

"We're talking," she said.

Harrah's Area Holdings

Harrah's Entertainment Inc. - Eastern Division has five casinos in the Philadelphia area.

Casinos: Bally's, Caesars, Showboat, and Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City. Harrah's Chester Casino and Racetrack in Chester, Delaware County.

Employees: 14,185 total in Atlantic City, 1,050 in Chester.


Total 2008 Atlantic City: $2 billion.

Total Pennsylvania slots: $319.6 million

(for fiscal year July 2008-June 2009).

Slot machines: 12,701 in Atlantic City, 3,000 in Chester.

Table games: 634 in Atlantic City.

Hotel rooms: 6,814 in Atlantic City.

Sources: Harrah's Entertainment Inc.; New Jersey Casino Control Commission; Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.