ATLANTIC CITY - With gas topping $4 a gallon, this seaside resort is determined not to let the terror at the pumps put a damper on its most profitable season.
Top entertainment, additional dining options, and value-oriented hotel packages will be key to maintaining Atlantic City's competitive edge over convenience casinos in Pennsylvania.
"The higher that gas prices move, the greater the advantage the Pennsylvania slots houses have, as they are closer to the core market," said analyst Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Bank AG. "In order to be the most successful in the summertime, Atlantic City needs to give folks a reason to come to the Shore.
"That would include everything from entertainment, concerts, and other events," he said. "They need to offer value propositions to encourage customers to make the trip."
When it comes to entertaining the masses - having bigger names in bigger venues, such as the 3,000-seat Borgata Event Center and the 1,500-seat Circus Maximus Theater at Caesars - Atlantic City maintains a trump card over Pennsylvania gambling halls, which are still building up their amenities.
"The casinos have to give things to the customer, such as more comps and more incentives to come here," said Eric Moskowitz, 44, of Marlboro, N.J. As he checked in at the Borgata on a recent Friday, his wife, Lisa, 43, was watching Usher at the 10,500-seat Boardwalk Hall.
Erica Potocnie, 31, of Whitehall, Pa., near Allentown, said two things distinguish Atlantic City: "Clubs and the restaurants."
Potocnie and her sister, Heather Reed, 35, of Allentown, recently visited Exhibition Bar at Harrah's Resort while Potocnie's husband gambled on the casino floor. The trio stayed overnight in one of the casino's hotel towers.
"What gives Atlantic City the benefit of the summertime is people have more time," said Zarnett, "and when people have more time, they can allocate a day vs. three hours to go for a day trip to Atlantic City - and that helps Atlantic City."
Jennifer Weissman, regional vice president of marketing for Caesars Entertainment Atlantic City, owner of Bally's, Caesars, Showboat, and Harrah's Resort, said visitors now have more ways to get down to the Shore.
"We are fortunate to have resources like ACES train, Spirit Air, AirTran, and the Total Rewards shuttle to offer guests service between our four resorts and casinos," she said. "We know that gas prices are a concern for those who plan to drive in, so we do offer promotions that will feature gas incentives."
Some casinos, such as Trump Taj Mahal, Showboat, and Tropicana, have offered gas giveaways all month. But all are banking on entertainment and dining for repeat business this summer.
In addition to The Pool at Harrah's Resort that draws a crowd, three new restaurants will debut: Dos Caminos, Bill's Bar & Burger, and Luke Palladino. Bally's opens Taste of the Shore and Harry's Oyster Bar and Seafood, Caesars will feature Atlantic Grill and the Beer Garden, and Showboat will premiere Scarduzio's Steak (Sushi) Lounge. The foodie bandwagon will return the Food Network's Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival to Caesars, July 29-31.
Caesars will host the Tribeca Cinema Series, which returns for an encore, and the Australian Motown sensation Human Nature. The casino's Circus Maximus theater will offer a variety of acts, including a live performance with Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale.
Bally's Palace Theater is bringing back "Legends in Concert," starting July 2.
Showboat will host Snoop Dogg at its House of Blues Music Hall next Friday; the Go-Go's perform there on June 4, and LL Cool J on June 10.
The competition for business is fierce. Billboards from out of state casinos dot the Atlantic City Expressway, including Parx in Bensalem, Dover Downs in Dover, Del., Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, to Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia.
Atlantic City reported another month of casino revenue decline in April, down 7.1 percent when compared with the same month 2010. Its 11 gambling halls have to step it up against the regional competition, and the summer provides an advantage.
"In August, the population at the Shore swells from those who own vacation homes or summer homes that are significantly closer to Atlantic City than their primary residences that are spread out in Pennsylvania, New York, and Upper New Jersey," analyst Zarnett said.
Tropicana's game plan is to give visitors a reason to visit, said Mary Tindall, vice president of operation. The casino is offering Blue Mercury Girlfriends Getaway Hotel Packages, which start at $147, and a Romantic Getaway Package, starting at $85. Trop Rock Packages include overnight accommodations, two show tickets, 20EZ Slot Promo Dollars, and two drinks.
"As the casino products continue to improve, eastern Pennsylvania casinos are going to continue to chip at the Atlantic City market," said John Kempf of RBC Capital Markets in New York. "However, we still believe gaming customers will continue to visit Atlantic City given its broader entertainment offerings."
Boyz II Men performs at the Atlantic City Hilton on June 25; Meat Loaf on July 16; comedian Bill Engvall on Aug. 13; and Whitesnake on Aug. 20.
James Taylor takes the stage at Borgata's Event Center Saturday night, as will Paul Simon and Weezer over Memorial Day weekend; Miranda Lambert on June 10; Kid Rock on June 18; and Rihanna on July 17.
Trump Taj Mahal will feature Creedence Clearwater Revisited and Three Dog Night for just $9.99 on June 4.
To jump-start the summer party, both Beach Bar at Trump Plaza and Sammy's Beach Bar at Bally's open next Friday.
Trump Marina is undergoing a $100 million transformation into a Golden Nugget Atlantic City Casino through December. It will have completely revamped rooms and new bars and restaurants, including Chart House, which debuts next Thursday.
"We will not just sit on our hands, even while we're in transition," said Tilman Fertitta, chairman and chief executive of Landry's Inc., the casino's new owner. "We will have energy and activity throughout."