ATLANTIC CITY - The $126 million project to test whether this struggling city can have a multifaceted corporate meeting and convention business to compete with other Northeastern cities was showcased Wednesday.
With a projected early August opening, the new Waterfront Conference Center at Harrah's Casino Hotel in the city's Marina District is still a work in progress, rows of steel beams on concrete throughout, with a crew of about 200 per shift working to complete it.
Once finished, the conference center will add 100,000 square feet of meeting space spanning two floors, and two ballrooms, each measuring 50,000 square feet, making it the largest conference center hotel in the Northeast between Boston and Baltimore.
The idea, according to executives from Caesars Entertainment Inc., who hosted the construction site tour, is to go after an untapped market - corporate meetings - with a vengeance.
The Northeast Corridor hosts $16 billion in meetings and conventions business, but Atlantic City captures only 1 percent of that.
"This can be done," said Michael Massari, senior vice president of national meetings and events for Caesars Entertainment, as he fielded questions from reporters Wednesday. "If you look at Las Vegas in the 1980s, it was not a corporate-meetings destination. It's only been that in the last 17 years, and now that business dominates" that market.
A state-of-the-art conference center, combined with the city's dining, entertainment, and hotel accommodations, is what convention groups and meeting planners are being sold on, as well as location, said Massari, whose company owns the adjacent Harrah's casino as well as Bally's and Caesars on the Boardwalk.
"You want these facilities in interesting places that aren't distracting," he said. "The Marina District is quiet, interesting, and beautiful. That's why we put it here."
Wednesday's tour took place the day after an emergency management team appointed by Gov. Christie issued a report that painted a dire financial picture for the city as gaming revenue, along with property tax revenue, has dried up. The report said the city could face cuts in the coming months that include hundreds of layoffs of municipal workers.
Massari said the stream of bad news out of Atlantic City since last summer - including the closure of four gambling halls - made selling the new conference center harder, but not impossible.
He said bookings had exceeded Caesars Entertainment's expectations. He said 60 groups, the equivalent of 66,000 room nights or $16.1 million in new business, had signed contracts to use the new conference center and stay at Harrah's from August 2015 to August 2016. An additional $10 million in contracts is pending, Massari said.
While the conference center officially opens Aug. 7, about five weeks will be used to train staff and work out glitches. The first group, which asked not to be identified, will have 2,000 attendees the week of Sept. 6.
"These are groups where Atlantic City was never in their consideration set before," Massari said. "Now we have the meeting space to accommodate them." The new Harrah's center will be able accommodate up to 5,000 delegates at a time.
Among the groups that have committed to use the center include Rita's Italian Ice, Bradley Caldwell, and Aerospace Medical Service.
Gary Musich, vice president of sales for Meet AC, the nonprofit agency charged with going after conventions, said the new conference center would not compete with but enhance the Atlantic City Convention Center.
"About 80 percent of events don't use a convention center," he said. "So we have something else to offer those groups. It balances our product offering."
Peter Tyson, senior vice president at Philadelphia-based PKF Consulting, which tracks the region's hospitality industry, said Atlantic City was going in the right direction.
"I think it has a chance at attracting some new business," he said Wednesday. "Atlantic City realizes it needs to get more midweek conventions and meetings business. But being one hour from Philly and New York, it will be tough.
"There is a lot of competition for that business, with both metro areas competing for it," he said. "And Atlantic City only has airlift from certain cities, which makes it even more challenging."
But Massari said an incentive being offered to groups to pick Atlantic City is free shuttle service to and from Philadelphia International Airport.
"If that's what it takes, we give it to them," he said.