I grew up not too far from Atlantic City. My great grandpa once even owned a house in the uptown part of Atlantic City so he could go down there and gamble, which is why my family took me to Trump Taj Mahal and Steel Pier so often as a kid. Over time, Atlantic City became a part of me and grew on me.
Property President Matt Harkness was generous enough with his busy schedule to speak to me about how things are going, but first I had the chance to have the public relations manager walk me around the property and point out all the goods. Well, we didn’t get around to everything because this Hard Rock, housed in the very large former Taj Mahal, contains the most memorabilia of any Hard Rock property in the world.
It was all optimism and excitement from Harkness, who said that the reception they’ve gotten right from the moment people walk through the doors has been very positive. “It’s great to be back home. It really is,” the native of Bergenfield, N.J. said. Harkness’s wife was born in Atlantic City, and they raised their kids mostly in the area. He worked for Trump Casino Resorts for 15 years, giving him not only potentially valuable insights but the strange story of working at a casino property that’s now been converted into the Hard Rock Casino for which he is property president at a time when his former boss during that 15-year run is now the president of the United States.
Harkness is very grateful to be back and have this opportunity after he spent time in the midwest. He believes that having that chance to step away from Atlantic City and work in other markets so he can understand best practices. He can take that knowledge and those experiences and mix them with his insider insight from his time spent working and living in the Atlantic City area.
Harkness said that the casino received 60,000 applicants, so they got “the pick of the litter” after putting applicants through a very intensive hiring process and identified the best service providers. Harkness believes in the importance of good hospitality and service. “People have a lot of options in their entertainment, and I believe we’re putting ourselves in a position where we’re delivering a newer, fresher level of service.”
When I turned 21 during my college years, I took my friends down all the time for fun in Atlantic City, which wasn’t hard to do being nearby at Rutgers-New Brunswick. For the first time, I really got to explore everything the resorts had to offer and have the control to book my own rooms. It was about the only place where I could show up in a suit or tuxedo and chat it up with the casino hosts with a complimentary Scotch or bourbon in hand before heading back to being a regular student at college. Before I even turned 22, the long-delayed and over-budget Revel opened in 2012. With its completion, Atlantic City seemed to be at its best, with casinos and other attractions lining the boardwalk for most of Atlantic City’s main commercial area, but that was before everything changed.
Bruce Deifik, chairman of Ocean Resort, is in his 15th month of working on this property that he, through the help of a good friend and business associate, acquired without ever even setting foot in the property or Atlantic City. He, too, was generous enough to set time aside to speak with me, even hurrying over and giving me plenty of time after he ran an hour late. I’d been waiting for him in the brand new sportsbook, watching what would become the third-longest tennis match in history, happening at Wimbledon of all places. The match could have ended at almost any moment because it was stuck in a tiebreaker, but it just never ended.
Once Deifik and I started talking, the match still wouldn’t end. In this sportsbook that’s almost fully complete but currently accepting wagers, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling and the New Jersey government passing the proper laws to make sports betting legal in the state, it’s very apparent how big of a hit this area could be.
Deifik, like Harkness, remains very optimistic about his property and Atlantic City’s future. He considers this experience an interesting journey for him and his family and calls it “one of the more gratifying things I’ve done in my life.” It’s an entirely different journey for the 63-year-old developer who said “this is the first time that I ever bought a property that I had to open with 3,300 team members and employees and correct the property and take care of all the issues associated with that in a market that people had an issue with,” which he started doing back in January when he lived out of the Tropicana, which happens to be the farthest casino on the boardwalk from Ocean.
Deifik took down what he called the “prison wall” between the boardwalk and the casino and installed “grand staircases” instead to make the property more inviting as Frank Sinatra’s singing greets guests as they enter and exit. He followed other recommendations by doing things like improving wayfinding and putting wings on the escalators for safety.
The new properties reflect a larger effort to get the whole city back on its feet and restore it to former glory. Harkness knows that he has plenty of advantages at hand, calling Atlantic City “a little bit of a hidden secret, but this is a resort, and it’s absolutely beautiful.” He thinks the residual effect of a large property like this and Ocean opening is an influx of people.
“The addition of these two properties that are really adding a new element in terms of product offerings to the city, it doesn’t just offer the area new guests that are coming in. It also has between the two new properties that just opened, literally thousands of employees.”
Deifik agrees that there’s something special about this place, driving home the point “beach, boardwalk, and ocean,” over and over again. “Why would you get on a plane and fly five hours if you can have all of the fun, all of the excitement that you want, here?” He strongly believes Atlantic City can be a popular destination year-round, and he hopes to get the annual visitors up from about 25 million to 30 million, which he said would benefit the city as a whole. He said that with everything the resorts offer, if for example, people stay at Hard Rock or see a show there but have dinner at Ocean or stay overnight there, it’s good for the whole town.
Both properties boast impressive theaters and can hold hundreds or even thousands of guests. Getting big acts, like Maroon 5 at Hard Rock the weekend I visited, and getting a piece of the group and convention action that comes through Atlantic City will be key to making the city a place that doesn’t just offer gambling and summer fun. Both properties said to look out for their events and shows because we should expect some really exciting things.
On a Friday evening, Hard Rock was hopping. Its large spaces were mostly occupied, though far from claustrophobic, and people were pouring into one of the theaters for a performance. Most of those people probably had no idea they were walking past such memorabilia as Elvis Presley’s old Rolls Royce in which he once drove around The Beatles. The sheer amount of memorabilia and nice restaurants could make someone’s head spin, in a great way. Hard Rock plans to leverage its brand to its advantage and really play up the music and entertainment theme.
Ocean was quieter but still had some crowded areas. The very nice high limit area that has a bar and water views had plenty of bettors in there, and the line for the Ocean players card help desk has consistently been out the door. Its restaurants were busy too, so once everything comes into place like e-sports, the completed sportsbook, Cereal Town, a daycare center, and other innovative ideas that take advantage of space Revel never even used, Ocean should be hopping and hot too. Outside views are a rarity in casinos, but some spots in Ocean have ocean views, and at night, onlookers from the boardwalk and beach can see a majestic display of lights and slot machines that sit inside.
Almost everywhere, there was a buzz amongst people about the new casinos. It was all the patrons at Andre’s Wine Bar and Grill were talking about, and the bartender said business has been booming since the casinos opened. The general feeling was that the casinos had some kinks to work out but are going to be the real deal.
As Bruce Springsteen once sang, “everything dies baby that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” For a city that’s gone through a number of rebirths since the mid 1800s, its residents and tourists from all over are hoping that Hard Rock and Ocean can help foster in yet another rebirth.