Juliano on AC: Pandemic Comeback, iGaming, AC Smoking Ban

Bally’s Atlantic City is wrapping up a $100 million upgrade, just in time for the busy summer season. Bally’s Executive VP and CMO Phil Juliano (l.) says overall changes in the resort town are fueling the post-Covid comeback. But challenges loom for the shore resort: like a possible New York City casino. Bally’s will offset the threat by applying for a license.

Juliano on AC: Pandemic Comeback, iGaming, AC Smoking Ban

In Atlantic City, an iconic Boardwalk casino has come full circle.

Two years ago, Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc. bought the Bally’s casino resort from Caesars Entertainment. The property, which opened as Bally’s Park Place in 1979, was acquired by Harrah’s in 2005. Harrah’s later became Caesars. And in December of 2020, when Caesars sold Bally’s to Twin River, Twin River changed its name to Bally’s Corp.

As part of this transition, the rechristened parent company is restoring the casino to its former glory. Twin River-aka-Bally’s earmarked $100 million for the overhaul, which will touch every corner of the refreshed Bally’s: hotel rooms and suites, lobby and lobby bar, casino floor, outdoor venues and more. Most of the job will be complete in time for Memorial Day, the kickoff of the shore town’s busiest season.

The extensive upgrade, part of the company’s license agreement with the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, is “the most aggressive reinvestment in the city,” said Phil Juliano, Bally’s executive vice president and CMO. In addition to prime real estate, the acquisition gave Twin River “both a new brand and entry into the interactive world in New Jersey: online gaming and mobile sports betting.”

But it wasn’t exactly a steal, Juliano added. “You don’t buy something for $25 million that’s in good shape, especially when you’ve got to pay $100 million to fix it up.” But he’s confident the investment will pay off, starting this summer.

Looking Good

Along with scheduled maintenance and past-due repairs, the new owners also wanted to put their own stamp on the property. According to a company release, the renovated rooms were inspired by a matchless setting: Atlantic City’s beach and Boardwalk, which are right outside every window and door. Along with fully remodeling the suites on the upper floors, Bally’s combined a select number of rooms to create 16 new penthouse-style suites for premier players. The new suites will feature dining areas, pool tables, wet bars, and “a spa-like experience” in the bathrooms, with custom rainfall showers and freestanding deep soak tubs.

The casino floor “had really been neglected,” said Juliano, so Bally’s undertook stem-to-stern improvements. “The high-end gaming area is fabulous, we’re tremendously busy in that area with our Asian play. Then of course we went onto the slot floor, which is so critical for our success, and brought in all new equipment” in a reconfigured layout that allows more breathing room between gaming stations—a legacy of Covid.

The resort added a FanDuel sportsbook and a carousel bar, akin to the landmark revolving bar at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone. “That’s going to be a must-see attraction,” said Juliano. “When we’re finished, our hotel product will be able to compete with everyone.”

He applauds his competitors for completing similar upgrades. “While we were renovating our rooms, Hard Rock did theirs, Ocean just opened new rooms, Tropicana did too. A while back Caesars redid all theirs.” Collectively, it makes Atlantic City more desirable for meeting and convention planners, which is “crucial for the shoulder seasons, midweek, and even in the dead of winter.”

‘Back in Business’

With Covid in the rearview and mask mandates dropped, Juliano expects visitation to bounce back, and possibly return to pre-pandemic levels.

“In 2019, Atlantic City was finally growing again in land-based casino participation. It was on its way back to $3 billion in revenues—then came Covid. Last year, though we were back in business, we didn’t see a full commitment from the people at large. With Covid getting out of the way and people understanding how to be safe with it, I think we can get that momentum back.”

He also believes iGaming and mobile sports betting won’t unmoor land-based operations, for a simple reason: “People are social animals. While technology has interfered with it to a degree, and it’s a given that you carry your information around with you on your cell phone, you’re also seeking out human interaction. I’m convinced that iGaming and land-based gaming are compatible.”

Other projects promise to provide a lift to AC, like the continuing redevelopment of the so-called Orange Loop: bars, clubs and Airbnbs on New York Avenue, Tennessee Avenue and St. James Place (the orange properties on the Monopoly board). Then there’s developer Bart Blatstein’s planned $100 million water park, adjacent to the Showboat, which could open in the summer of 2023. There’s North Beach (NoBe), the new family-friendly cultural hub. And the planned “KY. and the Curb,” a Kentucky Avenue redevelopment project backed by Grammy-winner Rodney Jerkins, a record producer who grew up in nearby Pleasantville. Also on the books: a proposed multibillion-dollar redevelopment of Bader Field, which would feature a Formula 1-caliber racetrack on the grounds of the former airport.

All of it will contribute to the reinvigoration of the city, said Mayor Marty Small Sr. in his recent State of the City address. “Everyone wants to talk about a grand slam,” Small said. “But Atlantic City, we’re in position where we need everything. We need some singles, some doubles. We need the sacrifice bunt. We need to get hit by a pitch. We need to walk. We need to be hit by a pitch.”

Rough Road Ahead

One challenge for casinos is the increased push for a smoking ban inside gaming halls. A recent Spectrum Gaming report indicated that AC could shed 11 percent of revenues and 2,500 jobs if the smoking loophole is closed. Juliano said the estimates are “very accurate” as long as Pennsylvania casinos allow smoking.

“We have a casino in Shreveport. The city just banned smoking, and we lost 25 percent of our business,” he says. “And when that happens, you lose jobs. That being said, if there was no smoking anywhere, that would be an even-Steven deal. But I don’t hear Pennsylvania banning smoking.

“I’m not insensitive to people’s desire to not be in that environment,” he added. “I appreciate that, but there’s a financial reality too. It’s a tough call.” (This week, a bill that would ban smoking in AC casinos gained four more sponsors. The legislation has been sent to health committees in both the Assembly and Senate, where it awaits hearings).

Then there’s the growing possibility that New York City will say yes to a full-blown casino—a move that’s sure to siphon off some Atlantic City business (Bally’s may apply for a New York license, where it already has a mobile sports betting license; the company is also among the frontrunners for a Chicago casino license).

At a March 4 symposium of casino executives, Jacqueline Grace, senior vice president of the Tropicana, took the upbeat view of NY-vs.-AC, saying, “We have something special here in Atlantic City (the beach and Boardwalk). It’s hard to compete with that. People are still going to want to come down to the shore.”

But an exasperated Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City, countered, “I get tired of hearing, ‘Atlantic City’s going to be great again’ without details. We need to see some funding from the state and some real planning from the city. The streets need to be paved. There needs to be more light. There need to be more police on the streets.”

Bring On Summer

For all the city’s lingering problems, it seems a safe bet that this summer—the first true post-Covid vacation season—will be a winner. At Bally’s, the crowning touch is the Yard, a new beer garden and indoor/outdoor space for bands, music and gatherings aimed at a younger demographic. “We’re really excited about it,” said Juliano.

The Yard will occupy Bally’s 10,000-foot courtyard and feature live entertainment, craft beer, gastropub dining, lounge seating and games in a park-like setting. “It will join the Boardwalk Biergarten and the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall in making Atlantic City an easy place for a trendy brew crawl,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After more than a decade, Bally’s has brought back live entertainment indoors too, with a revolving slate of local bands and DJs at the casino’s watering holes, Longo and the Water Dog.

“Now it’s one of the most vibrant spots in the city,” said Juliano. “You’ll go up there tonight and say, ‘Wow, this is one of the city’s best kept secrets.’”

But not for long.

Articles by Author: Marjorie Preston

Marjorie Preston is managing editor of Global Gaming Business. She is a writer, editor, author and expat Pennsylvanian who now considers herself a New Jerseyan. Based on Brigantine Island north of Atlantic City, Preston has been writing about the gaming industry since 2007, when she joined the staff of Global Gaming Business as managing editor of Casino Connection.