Atlantic City took a step toward remaking itself Thursday — and it had nothing to do with gambling.
Caesars Entertainment showed off a new $126 million conference center designed to help Atlantic City gain a bigger share of the business travel market. The Harrah's Waterfront Conference Center is part of a bid to help save the struggling gambling resort by making it less reliant on betting.
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Caesars senior vice president Michael Massari said the center, located in the city's marina district, has the potential to change the Atlantic City market by giving corporate travelers from around the country a new reason to go there.
"It's a whole new customer we're attracting — the business traveler," he said. "If you don't introduce the business traveler into this market in a meaningful way, you're going to see more of what you've seen in the last 4 to 5 years."
That includes plunging casino revenue, lost jobs, and the shutdown of four of the resort's 12 casinos last year.
Atlantic City currently has a paltry 1 percent of the $16 billion business travel market in the northeastern U.S., Massari said. The center hosted its first large conference Wednesday with an agricultural equipment group, after some smaller groups met there since the last week in August.
The center already has 140,000 room nights booked through 2019, with more than 90,000 set for the next 12 months.
The move comes as Atlantic City desperately tries to grow its non-gambling revenue as its casino market shrinks. Caesars Entertainment had a hand in two of the four casino closures here last year. The company shuttered its still-profitable Showboat in August 2014 and jointly bought and closed the Atlantic Club with Tropicana Entertainment in January 2014.
Caesars believes its conference center will not compete with the existing Atlantic City Convention Center, which Massari said focuses mainly on trade shows and similar events.
Numerous analysts have said that Atlantic City needs to further diversify itself to become less reliant on gambling revenue, and that meeting spaces like Harrah's Waterfront Center and a smaller facility opened last month by Resorts Casino Hotel are badly needed.
But they also say more air service at Atlantic City International Airport to and from the rest of the country is needed for the business market to grow significantly. The casino industry and New Jersey elected officials have tried for years to attract major carriers in addition to Spirit Airlines, with little success.
"It's a chicken-and-egg situation for us," Massari said. "We believe you'll get a lot more business travel once the airlines start to pay attention."
For now, the center is drawing many of its customers from the northeast region, but hopes to attract business groups nationwide.
This story has been corrected to show first large conference was held this week, not Wednesday.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC