There were so many revelers eager to march in a brief “parade” around Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City on Thursday that it hardly seemed practical to kick the parade off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a bank of elevators.
But, on the one-year anniversary of the reopening of the formel Revel casino site, Ocean interim CEO Eric Matejevich hopes those elevators tells a symbolic tale of how change has come to the Boardwalk property.
It sounds hard to believe, but until recently, hotel guests didn’t have direct access to the casino. It was one of many architectural quirks that a few years ago led a Wall Street gaming analyst to say that the place has “bad bones.”
It also has a bad track record. Thursday’s parade, which might be seen as overkill, was an effort to drown that out. Several of the world-famous, flamboyant Mummers troupe of Philadelphia and other performers played “When The Saints Go Marching In” and other horn-friendly tunes as the parade marched to Ocean’s Prohibition-themed 1927 Lounge + Speakeasy, to its Pit Boss barbecue restaurant, and then to its bakery for an anniversary cake.
Dozens of guests — some playing vuvuzelas, shaking noisemakers, or wearing silly hats — followed from spot to spot (the free champagne didn’t hurt).
Matejevich spoke to NJ Online Gambling just after the parade, at a spot overlooking the Boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. He said that casino executives are being patient as the facility reinvents itself (even its name was subtly changed in April from Ocean Resort Casino to Ocean Casino Resort). The goal is to win over skeptical gaming industry officials and former customers.
The ghost of Revel past
That bank of elevators where the ribbon was cut is actually a key part of the revival plan.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We knew it was going to take time to overcome the negative stereotypes,” Matejevich said. “One of them was those casino elevators. The perception — and it was fact — was that you that had quite a long walk across our hotel lobby to get to our casino. Now, it’s instantaneous.”
Quite a few upgrades have occurred at Ocean — like last week’s opening of New Jersey’s first Wahlburgers, the restaurant chain owned by actor Mark Wahlberg — and others are still to come.
“Another change in the near term is overhead signage, like any normal casino would have,” Matejevich said. “Then we want to create better and more open pathways within the casino. We don’t want to disrupt our casino floor in the summer season, so we’ll probably do that in the fall.”
Yet another new approach is in how the casino is pitched to customers.
“We found that we had a number of marketing programs that were just not effective, at all,” Matejevich said. “So we went to more traditional casino marketing in this town — better offers, lots of gifts — and we have found people have responded favorably.”
Matejevich said that while June is typically “a more difficult month” than May for casinos, Ocean’s numbers in June have “vastly outperformed” the May figures.
“We look at that as a sign that the programs are working,” Matejevich said.
Location is everything?
Even Ocean’s location at the far end of the Boardwalk doesn’t seem to faze Matejevich.
“This is the only place in Atlantic City where you can get three totally diverse gaming experiences within a 10-minute walk,” Matejevich said. “You’ve got us, Hard Rock, and Resorts — and this side of the Boardwalk is totally safe.”
Ocean and Hard Rock — the former Trump Taj Mahal site that opened last year on the same day — teamed up on a plan to offer fireworks on Thursday night. That’s the sort of collaboration that used to be unheard of in the city.
A parallel subtle touch, but one that visitors will appreciate, is that the traffic lights in and out of the property now are synchronized.
Challenges remain for Ocean, which with Hard Rock is now part of a nine-casino competition for gambling and entertainment dollars.
In the first five months of 2019, Ocean casino revenues were $72.8 million, barely edging out Resorts ($71.3 mm) and Bally’s ($69.5 mm). Ocean was last in the May figures alone.
“We are moving up — we are still fresh,” said Matejevich, whose William Hill Sportsbook rates among the most popular land-based books in the city.
The property’s strange seven-year history
A move forward would be quite a turnaround for the historically beleaguered property, which was taken over six months ago by New York hedge fund Luxor Capital from real estate developer Bruce Deifik, who bought the property 18 months ago, sold it, and then died in a single-car crash in April.
Its earlier history also was grim. A construction worker was killed by lightning at the site in 2011, and a spring 2012 grand opening was followed by a bankruptcy filing less than a year later.
By April 2015, the 2.4 billion property was sold to Palm Beach, Fla. real estate developer and speculator Glenn Straub for just $82 mm. Straub, who later toyed with the idea of renaming the project “TEN” as a lucky number for sought-after Asian gamblers, never did get the project reopened. But he sold the property for $200 mm.
Now the new investors are hoping to both make money and keep the doors open. A sensible bank of elevators is a start, at least.