A not-so-happy New Year at the casinos

Atlantic City – New Year’s Eve is to the casinos what the Super Bowl is to the NFL and the Academy Awards are to the motion picture industry.

It is one gigantic blowout bash featuring lavish parties, extravagant meals and big-name entertainment to reward high rollers for their loyalty and keep them coming back in the new year.

But as Atlantic City continues to struggle with the recession and plunging revenue, the most important holiday on the casino calendar will not be as grand as in years past.

„Definitely the recession has taken a toll on our business all year round. It’s a little lighter on New Year’s Eve this year,“ said Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Inc. „But having said that, we’re not falling off the cliff. It’s still going to be busy.“

The most glaring example of the recession-restrained revelry is at the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, which will have no New Year’s Eve events for the public. Michael Frawley, the Hilton’s chief operating officer, said the smallest casino in town will have only private parties.

„We just decided that is what we wanted to do,“ said Frawley, declining further comment.

Hilton has suffered a nearly 17 percent drop in gaming revenue so far this year, the largest decline among Atlantic City’s 11 casinos. Its gross operating profits are down almost 60 percent.

Harvey Perkins, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a casino consulting firm based in Linwood, was stunned that the Hilton has cut back so drastically on New Year’s Eve.

„It’s indicative of a very dire situation,“ he said.

Perkins noted that when he formerly worked at Resorts Atlantic City, the casino threw a New Year’s Eve party even when it was in bankruptcy at that time. He said the Hilton risks offending its customers.

„Casinos are very fun on New Year’s Eve. When a customer gets invited to a New Year’s Eve event and a RSVP party, it gives you bragging rights and is a symbol of your hierarchy at the casino in terms of being a valued customer,“ Perkins said.

The worsening economy and fierce competition from Pennsylvania’s slot parlors will force Atlantic City to work even harder to attract customers in the new year. Analysts are predicting that 2009 will probably be worse than 2008, which has seen a 6.7-percent decline in gaming revenue for the first 11 months. The final revenue figures for 2008 will be released in early January, but it will be the second straight year of declines.

Although there seems little to celebrate this year, some casinos will wine and dine their top gamblers with posh, invitation-only parties costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most of the casinos reported they are booked for New Year’s Eve or have precious few hotel rooms available, despite the holiday falling midweek.

Juliano, who oversees Donald Trump’s three casinos, said 90 percent of the rooms at the flagship Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort will be „comped“ for the best customers. The Taj is planning two big parties to accommodate the extra guests in the casino’s new hotel expansion, the Chairman Tower.

„It’s a reward to our loyal customers for all the business they’ve given us year round,“ Juliano said.

Mark Giannantonio, president of Tropicana Casino and Resort, expressed confidence that customers will finally break loose on New Year’s Eve after carefully watching their money as the recession unfolded.

„My hope is that this is one time of the year that people are going to pull out all the stops,“ he said. „Even if the recession is impacting you, it’s still New Year’s Eve.“

Giannantonio said Tropicana never hesitated in its plans to have a full-fledged holiday celebration for its customers, despite lingering concerns about the economy.

„Everything is top notch, from the musical bands to the floral arrangements,“ he said. „We didn’t want to send the wrong message to our customers. We have decided not to hold anything back.“

Also taking that approach are the four Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. properties – Harrah’s Resort, Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Showboat Casino Hotel. Each casino will feature specially themed New Year’s Eve parties and „over-the-top menus“ of haute cuisine, said Jennifer Weissman, regional vice president of marketing for Harrah’s.

„Every year we try to outshine the year before,“ Weissman said.

At Resorts, VIPs may notice a different emphasis this year, according to spokesman Brian Cahill. „We had a headliner in previous years,“ he said of the casino’s last invitation-only New Year’s Eve party. „But this year, because of the popularity of our Boogie Nights nightclub, we’re recreating that in our theater.“

The party extends the nightclub atmosphere into a private theater space, where guests will be invited to rub shoulders with celebrity look-alikes from the 1970s and ’80s.

However, Cahill said the decision not to book a headliner was not made because of the dismal financial outlook. „It’s not because of the economy,“ he said. „We think our guests will enjoy this.“