On July 16, a 30-seat Dornier 328 luxury jet will fly into Atlantic City International Airport from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, courtesy of Ohio-based Ultimate Jetcharters and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Carrying a contingent of patrons from Arnold Palmer’s hometown, it’s just one of a handful of Hard Rock excursions the same weekend coming from Norfolk, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; and Farmingdale, New York. Subsequent charters will originate in cities like White Plains, New York; Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati; and Scranton, Pennsylvania, all within a 300-mile radius.
The new flights “shorten a four-to-eight-hour drive to a 30-minute to one-hour flight,” said Joe Lupo (l.), property president of Hard Rock, Atlantic City’s newest casino, which opened in 2018 on the site of the former Trump Taj Mahal. Big Business
With the luxury flights, Hard Rock joins other Atlantic City casinos that use charter flights to bring in business. They’re a perk for high rollers, but available to anyone else who can pick up the tab. Borgata, for example, brings in travelers from up to 75 cities across the U.S. on 173-seat jets from Sun Country Airlines. Service is available from markets such as Buffalo, Houston, Detroit, Clearwater, Florida and elsewhere. MGM Direct, the charter arm of MGM Resorts International, first introduced the air service in 2008 at the Beau Rivage in Gulfport-Biloxi, Mississippi.
Borgata packages start at $553 per person and include roundtrip airfare, three nights’ accommodations and transportation to and from the airport and hotel.
“In addition to bringing new and returning visitors to Borgata for unparalleled travel experiences, the air program benefits greater Atlantic City,” according to Sean Farrell, MGM’s executive director of charter services. Fly-in visitors are likely to have plenty of discretionary income; Farrell said they can be expected to venture beyond the host casino to area restaurants, Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk, the city’s nightclubs and music venues, and of course, the beach. Caesars, Harrah’s and Tropicana are on board too, flying in customers from more than 30 cities as far south as Florida, as far north as Maine and as far West as Illinois, said Noel Stevenson, regional director of public relations.
Expanding the Market
As the city sheds pandemic restrictions and business revs up again, it’s critical for its chief industry to expand outside the traditional drive-in market, said Robert Ambrose, a former Atlantic City casino executive, consultant and educator.
“What better way to do it with high-end private jet service? It’s an expensive start-up proposition, but if you’re already providing this service for your high-end guests at other properties, why not expand to Atlantic City? This is part of a lifestyle option that a certain level of casino player expects. And it better be consistent.”
The concept of flying in preferred customers isn’t a new idea; in the old days, the flights were known as junkets. “Charters have been used by the casinos since day one,” said Steve Batzer, a longtime business advisor and industry consultant in Atlantic City. Some casinos use independent charter companies, and in some cases casino-owned planes. Stevenson said Caesars charters “likely first launched decades ago, in the ’80s.” Back then, specific airlines partnered with properties for commercial flights. Sometimes charters resulted from lack of adequate carrier service to Atlantic City. “The top-tier player will always be flown in privately,” Ambrose said. “Private jets for the best of the best players are another tool in the marketing arsenal in this competitive market. Bringing people to the city, whether high roller or day tripper, is paramount for growth.” Atlantic City needs all the transportation vehicles at its disposal, Ambrose said.
Buses Still Rolling
Which recalls so-called “bus marketing,” once a mainstay in Atlantic City. In the early years of casino gambling, the buses would bring in scores of casino gamblers, drop them at the door and hand them rolls of quarters. “The diesel fumes were so thick in the bus terminals,” Ambrose recalled, “you could cut it with a knife. We’re talking apples and oranges when it comes to buses vs private jets; however, there is room for all dollar values in the Atlantic City market.”
Buses haven’t been relegated to the bin of history. Caesars Entertainment’s Atlantic City resorts have roughly 20 to 40 buses each day that come in from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Hard Rock isn’t planning bus excursions any time soon, “but air service is another matter,” Lupo said. “This program continues to show CEO Jim Allen’s commitment to the city, their investment and our efforts to drive more visitation to the city.” A side benefit is increased use of an underutilized asset: Atlantic City International Airport, where the jets land, about 10 miles outside the city in Egg Harbor Township. “I think it’s now time for this link in the chain to be better utilized as part of the Atlantic City turnaround,” Ambrose said.
Why It’s Worth It
It’s not quite Vegas-style, but it’s an important link in the business chain. According to aviation website AVGeekery.com, back in the mid-1980s Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson launched a charter air service using TWA L-1011s to fly attendees to his COMDEX trade show. Sands Aviation has since been updated, reportedly with nine Gulfstream aircraft, four Boeing jets and an Airbus A340-500. Executives use them, and they’re also available to whales, the high-rolling players who sometimes bet tens of thousands of dollars on a single hand. Clearly, the charters and VIP service are worth it to bring in that customer segment. Ambrose said Atlantic City has increasing appeal for those VIP players, a fact that is reflected in the use of air charters. “Atlantic City has become interesting again, not only to the general public but the serious player as well, because of the number of major brands in the city that have high rollers.” And in the end, he said, “casinos will bring them in, whether it’s planes, helicopters or limousines.”