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Atlantic City Rediscovers Convention Business

22 January 2002

by Michael Pollock

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey -- The heating and air conditioning convention, AHR Expo, which recently brought 50,000 conventioneers to the city that invented conventions, is being hailed as the greatest conclave to hit the Boardwalk since the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Say what? That is like hailing a new Broadway comedy as the most enjoyable theatrical romp since Hamlet and Macbeth.

The AHR Expo is apparently the city's biggest convention since LBJ brought his entourage. And it might be one of the most important. But it is not a repeat of the 1964 Democratic national debacle.

Life was much simpler in 1963 when Atlantic City learned it had won the coveted national convention, to be held the following August. President Kennedy was still alive, and was expected to be easily re-nominated at the convention, which would leave delegates plenty of time to buy saltwater taffy, cocktails and all the other odds and ends that comprised Atlantic City's domestic output in the 1960s.

Atlantic City knew the value of a national convention. It had built the world's biggest and best convention center in 1929, at a time when most cities thought of conventions as three drunken businessmen dropping paper bags filled with water out of hotel windows.

One irony was that Atlantic City was then as Republican as George W. Bush's family tree. Yet it was the Democrats that did Atlantic City a big favor by agreeing to meet at the old Convention Hall. Some favor.

State Sen. Frank S. "Hap" Farley -- the Republican boss of Atlantic County, who was then still near the height of his powers -- strode to the podium of the Jefferson Hotel on a Tuesday night in October 1963 to address the Atlantic County Employees Association, most of whom owed their employment to Farley.

"We can't strike out," Farley said. "Even the casual must be big in our minds. It must be aloof from politics. It's big time. It's a chance to prove we're better than Chicago, Miami and the rest of them."

The city won the convention with a bid of $625,000. It spent an additional $2 million to gussy up the hall -- then still the nation's biggest convention center -- with a new air-conditioning system. (How's that for a dash of irony?)

What did it get for all that money? After Kennedy's assassination, the convention became merely a perfunctory forum for Lyndon B. Johnson's nomination. That left plenty of time for the media to report on other things. David Brinkley devoted a segment on NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report to the ailing condition of Atlantic City.

Other reviews were equally critical. The Indianapolis Star reported: "Early arrivals are dubious, inspecting rooms without TV or air conditioning and puzzling dark stains on the dingy wallpaper." The Cincinnati Enquirer called it "paying for poverty at peak prices. Our room looks like something out of a Charles Addams cartoon book."

The greatest quote, though, belongs to Theodore H. White who immortalized Atlantic City in his book, "The Making of the President, 1964" as the "original Bay of Pigs."

The publicity was a body blow to Atlantic City, which spiraled downward over the next decade to become, quite literally, one of the most impoverished cities in the United States, with an off-season unemployment rate approaching 50 percent. That rate would have been higher if the city had not been hemorrhaging people as well as jobs.

The city began the arduous process of rebuilding itself in 1976, when New Jersey voters approved a constitutional referendum to create the first legal casinos outside the state of Nevada.

Fast-forward 38 years. The AHR Expo might not generate the same media coverage as a national political convention. (Let's face it: When was the last time a network interrupted prime-time programming to carry a speech on the effective use of non-chlorofluorocarbons?) But it can still open a lot of eyes, because it has opened a lot of wallets.

Even though Atlantic City built a new convention center in 1997, the city has never quite reunited with the industry it created nearly a century ago. Conventions should dovetail perfectly with casinos. Conventions, after all, are mid-week, off-season affairs, while casinos face their biggest periods of demand during weekend, holidays and summers. But it had never quite worked out that way here, largely because rooms were more effective as marketing tools that could reward gaming customers and encourage more -- and longer -- visitor trips.

The AHR Expo, however, booked 15,000 room nights in mid-January. In a city with fewer than 12,000 casino hotel rooms, that is big. And those heating-and-cooling professionals spent money on everything from hot craps tables to cold buffets. That means Atlantic City has moved a step closer to the Las Vegas model of destination resort, and has moved a step further away from the 1960s.

The AHR Expo should have generated enough heating-and-cooling power to click on light bulbs in executive suites throughout the gaming industry. Conventions can be profitable, but the industry needs to add more rooms to attract even more conventions.

So call the AHR Expo profitable. Call it an eye-opener and a seminal event in the modern history of Atlantic City. But don't call it an heir to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

(Michael Pollock publishes Gaming Industry Observer -- and is the author of the 1987 book, "Hostage to Fortune: Atlantic City and Casino Gambling.")

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