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Atlantic City: Hotel Rooms Tough to Get in Summer, a Bargain in Winter

18 February 2000

Other than Bally's Wild Wild West, which is more like something you'd find in modern-day Las Vegas, Atlantic City's casinos are relatively mundane and quite similar. They're required by law to have at least 500 hotel rooms and 50,000 square feet of gaming space. Tropicana is the biggest -- at 1,624 rooms -- and is the most aggressive in selling rooms on a cash basis.

That's a point to remember, for Atlantic City casinos are notorious for reserving about 70 percent of their rooms for preferred customers. Getting a casino hotel room during the summer can be impossible, even though there are 11,300 of them. One casino president told me the other day, "If we sell even 1 percent of our rooms at the rack rate, I'm upset."

"The image of that (no vacancy) is real, and the perception counts," Michael Pollock of the Gaming Industry Observer, says. "It's like the old Yogi Berra line: 'Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore because it's always crowded.' "

Don't bother calling a travel agent if you're planning a visit; tour and travel packages are practically nonexistent because of the rooms shortage. It's best to call yourself and hope for the best. Offseason is the best bet, whereas rooms in the summer can be next to impossible to get.

Room rates are high in the summer, in the $100 to $200 range. They can be a steal in the offseason, going as low as $55 or so. Tropicana, for instance, was offering a two-night February package for $113 that included two show tickets, breakfast buffet for two, some special events and a coupon book.

Atlantic City is primarily a drive-in market. Only one airline serves the city, and that's regional discount carrier Spirit Airlines. It specializes in nonstop service to Boston and a few cities in Florida.

You can also arrive by train, getting to Philadelphia via Amtrak, then switching to a New Jersey Transit train that takes you directly inside the new Atlantic City Convention Center. That convention center, by the way, is a fabulous facility and the largest between Atlanta and Boston.

None of the casinos is a dive, and none rivals any of the new Strip casinos, either, in terms of its creativity and scale.

Trump Taj Mahal is the biggest, highest-grossing operation and has the most going on. It hosts some of the world's biggest gamblers in its ornate, sunken baccarat pit yet also offers nearly 4,500 slot machines for the masses. It has 1,250 hotel rooms, the biggest buffet and loads of meeting/convention space.

The Taj Mahal also has the most appealing array of shops and restaurants, including Hard Rock Cafe, Stage Deli, Warner Brothers Studio Store and Harley Davidson. Entertainment, offered in three venues, runs from Kenny Rogers to Lord of the Dance to Moscow Ballet to Rod Stewart.

Bally's, which includes the attached Wild West, is the most profitable place in town. Its parent company, Park Place Entertainment, seems to be always spending a few million here or there on some new amenity. Right now, it's building a $25 million extension of the Wild West; when completed, it will hook up with Caesars, which Park Place bought in December.

Park Place, the world's largest casino company, now owns 3.5 Atlantic City casinos: Bally's Park Place and its Wild Wild West addition, Hilton and Caesars.

Caesars might be the trendiest place in town, having undergone a recent $280 million renovation and expansion. Its Roman piazza lobby is a true spectacle. The Temple Bar and Grill is a trendy eating spot and offers some of the best food in town.

(Joe Weinert covers the casino industry for The Press of Atlantic City.)

Tomorrow: Part Three: A Regional Getaway That's Attracting Players Like Carl Icahn and More Vegas Operators

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