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Betting on low rollers

The Atlantic Club is targeting patrons drawn to free parking and penny slots.

ATLANTIC CITY - Free parking! Low limits. Free parking! Cheap food. Free parking!!

In the long shadow of the new Revel Resort (double R, like a ranch), the casino formerly known as the Hilton, then ACH, and now the Atlantic Club (and, once upon a time, the Golden Nugget) has fashioned a marketing strategy aimed at the people everyone else wants to snub: the regulars who don't want to pay for anything.

"The rest of us," as one of their slogans goes. The ones who value a comfortable seat, penny slot machines they haven't seen before, casino comfort-food offerings (Chinese, steaks, Italian) and, you know, value.

Did we mention free parking?

Without dwelling on whether this is a bit insulting to an already maligned give-me-my-comps day-tripper grandparent crowd or a big we-love-you grannies-gone-wild hug (T-shirts available), it must be said: So far, it's working.

"We embrace our core customer," says buoyant Atlantic Club chief operating officer Michael Frawley, who until recently was presiding over the Titanic of the Boardwalk, a ship that had already hit the mortgage iceberg and was now just slowly going under. Hilton had taken away the right to its name, which turned the place into a vague "ACH." Even now, the outlines of "Hilton" can still be seen on the building, awaiting a June makeover.

"We recognize who are our core customers and their values," Frawley said. "Comfort. Food price. We embrace our core customer. Why alienate anyone?"

Free parking, it turns out, is huge.

"Customers get to the point where it's almost emotional about the parking," Frawley said. "It's not about the money. That really struck a resonant chord: I shouldn't have to pay to park. Why nickel and dime us?"

In the end, giving up that $5 parking fee costs the casino nothing, he said. "To tell you the truth, they put that fee into play," he said. Told that an ATM machine on the casino floor took a $4.50 fee to spit out some quickly lost cash, he vowed to eliminate that. (Free money!)

For years, the prevailing wisdom in Atlantic City has been that casinos needed to move beyond the frugal buffet-scarfing day tripper and reach out to a hipper, more affluent crowd through non-gambling entertainment options such as those offered at the Borgata or at a luxury mall like the PierShops (now in bankruptcy). The core Atlantic City perennial, Granny from Philly or New York, would be lost to the newer, closer casinos such as SugarHouse.

But as the value-targeted Tanger Outlets flourish and the PierShops struggle (except for Apple and a few other stores), a second prevailing wisdom seems to have developed. If your core customer is a female age 45 to 70, why fight it? Why not embrace locals by offering comps they can use toward an appliance at Art Handlers or groceries at Casel's? Why not market your casino as a place where the locals go, metaphorically and literally at the opposite end of the Boardwalk from Revel?

And so Atlantic Club dramatically lowered prices at restaurants, including Patsy's and Simon Prime Steaks, by as much as 50 percent. Aisles were widened on the casino floor, slot stools made more comfy. Seventy percent of the slot machines are now penny slots (though many have a minimum bet of 40 units and can take bets of several dollars).

Who doesn't love a discount? Frawley says weekend volume is up 30 percent since the marketing blitz started in March with lighthearted billboards poking fun at the dire state of the casino. (The casino had stopped paying its mortgage, but owners Colony Capitol L.L.C. decided to invest about $15 million in the place.)

One of their first billboards read: "The Fat Lady Ain't Singing." People mistook it for a new marketing plan for the entire city, which made the Atlantic Club's niche marketing seem even more clever: a winningly dark triumph of self-mockery. Why pretend the casino didn't lose nearly $20 million last year, taking in less than $9 million from gamblers? "We take our customers seriously," says Frawley, "but not ourselves."

Interestingly, says Frawley, younger people have started showing up, lured by low limits at the blackjack tables, a casual, clubby feel on the casino floor, and a consultant-produced soundtrack that is occasionally kind of hip. Unlike some casinos, where fake clanging of slot machines drowns out any background music, you can actually hear tunes at the Atlantic Club while you empty your wallet.

One recent Tuesday afternoon, the parking was easy and the casino floor was surprisingly full of people. Some were the locals the Atlantic Club has invited on its billboards, from Northfield, Ventnor, and Galloway Township. The Northfield woman was a high roller who already had free parking, the Ventnor couple walked, but the guy from Galloway was happy to park his motorcycle for free and down a couple of free scotches.

From Philadelphia were two women who welcomed the warm weather and the beach for a quick getaway. "That free parking is a big draw," said one. Several people interviewed praised the small feel of the casino, in stark contrast to the soaring escalator dizziness of the enormous Revel. It's not hard to find your way around this place.

And, if you want, you can find a machine that allows you to lose your money a penny at a time - drip, drip, drip.

Frawley is impatient to move to the next phase of marketing and renovations, including new letters at the top of the building, finally erasing the dark shadow of the script "Hilton" where the red-lit logo was. "I hate that," he said.