Two years ago Toby and I stayed at the Revel during their “soft opening,” and now $2 billion in creative financing later, it’s going to shutter those glass doors on Labor Day. The Revel couldn’t save Atlantic City because it was more of the same – an undifferentiated casino hotel with expensive (but elegant) rooms, a mish-mash of retail, dining and entertainment spaces at the north end of the Boardwalk. Nicer packaging doesn’t offset the wholesale decline in the stock of Atlantic City’s post-1979 trade under pressure from new physical and online casinos as well as the minimal allure of Atlantic City as anything other than a place to gamble.
It saddens me to see the Revel close up shop. It’s a magnificent building, with beach sand bucket loads of potential. If Atlantic City is going to survive, the Revel needs to survive, and if the Revel is going to make it, it has to be rethought as something other than a casino hotel.
In my ideal world, a group of hedge fund or venture capitalists pool their money and make the necessary investments to demonstrate that urban renewal is possible on a grand scale, with grand plans, and social as well as economic return. At the same time, fire nearly everyone in marketing, hire a gaggle of young, energetic and creative marketing types on a series of 3-month contracts, and let the crazy ideas flow. Nobody knows the right set of answers, but re-executing the same tired casino marketing, room discount, and small venue shows is clearly not generating cash flow – let the young turks execute 500 small plans and see which one wins. It’s a marketing hackathon.
Top level idea: The Revel is a city-in-a-city: a highly segmented, highly wired, highly differentiated experience for multiple audiences, where the casino is just one more diversion but the property survives with or without the table drop. To get there, you need to completely rethink the property in four areas:
Rooms: This is the easiest play. The rooms are well appointed and one of the primary attractions. Build a marketing program to fill those rooms: partnerships with other hotel chains, points exchanges, and a branded loyalty program that encourages repeat hotel (not casino) guests. Go after the NJ staycation crowd with a nice weekend away, which works year-round.
Food: To model the city-in-a-city expand the variety in size, cost and time. Remove all of the retail shopping (I’ve never seen anyone in those stores, and I’m sure their revenue per square foot is contributing to that sinking feeling). Replace the retail rim and the area under the concert venue with a wide, expansive combination of restaurant row and a food court – everything from a high end bakery (bring in Formica’s) to the first east coast In N Out burger to a 24-hour Subway. You have to be able to get food, any time, with enough cost, time and flavor combinations to suit a variety of taste and wallet buds. Keep one or two pads open, and run a promotion with the Food Network – whomever wins their latest chef-off gets to open a restaurant in the Revel for three months. It’s an incubator for new dining experiences — that is how businesses get started. If they move into the city proper, it’s a win; if they move to other cities then Atlantic City is the gastronomic Silicon Valley for dining portfolios. Again, market it creatively, widely and to the consumers who keep a plethora of high-end restaurants afloat in the Garden State. It works year-round, it encourages repeat visitors (if the venues change, it’s worth coming bak to say you were there first) and it builds on whatever dining theme (farm to table, organic kale, curated burgers, or theme-and-variations of cheese). The idea is to create an air of elusive exclusivity; a sense that you want to be there to witness culinary vision, like knowing Zuck before he started Facebook at Harvard. The city has to cater to all; think of the eating options within the Revel as you would a slice of the Big Apple, not a slice of pizza from the Boardwalk and a sliced steak from an overdone whisky bar.
Co-working space. Bet you didn’t know the Revel has meeting rooms? No, I never saw anyone in them either. They’re up by the poker room that’s impossible to find. Remove the poker room as it is (more on this at the end), and retrofit all of the meeting rooms as a set of highly wired, highly flexible co-working spaces. Take the mid-level lobby (which is always empty) and turn it into a gaming space – beanbags, Xboxes, Playstations, lots of Wifi coverage, lots of places to camp with a laptop. WeWork is one model; the redevelopment authorities rebuilding Allentown, Bethlehem and the DUMBO part of Brooklyn show that small scale businesses need a place to get started. If it allows new businesses to start in Atlantic City, then it’s an anchor point for the city idea. Better yet, treat the co-working space as a short-term, high turnover office suite, making the Revel a destination for technology or technology-driven company meetings. If I want to bring in 20 people for a week and want to be off-site without incurring catering, high-end hotel and efficiency loss due to nearby distractions, I’d prefer to have a highly engaging space where people are likely to congregate. The WeWork model is powerful; combine with some of the NJ Economic Development Authority projects (incubators, accelerators and hackathons) and you could keep those ocean-facing suites full most of the time. Run regular hackathons, sponsored by both NJ employers as well as sponsors of the space — get our major telecommunications, healthcare, manufacturing, and financial services companies in the Delaware-to-New York corridor to back the idea, and in return they get a 2-3 year right to use. It’s giving away the co-working space to fill the room and tables at the retaurants. Draw on the incredible depth of university talent in the area, and it’s America’s Nerd Playground.
Entertainment: Build a three-pronged approach for high-end entertainment, local and emerging talent, and sports enthusiasts. Retarget the main theater at Beacon Theater type acts, and compete with Philadelphia and New York as a tour stop. Acquire the rights to the House Of Blues next door (as the Showboat closes) and use that to drive local, emerging and established but exclusive acts (Trey Anastasio Band for 500 people, at $150? It would sell out in 10 minutes). By focusing on NJ and emerging talent, you add to the mystique that the Revel is where the “next next” happens – whether it’s music, food, comedy, a mobile application, or a breakthrough in technology. For the sports enthusiast, Atlantic City cannot attract the sports gambler — so stop trying. Go after the fantasy sports player. Gut the entire lobby (ditch the coffee shop and most of the wasted space in the main lobby) and turn it into the world’s largest, best, and most wired sports bar for fantasy football, baseball, basketball and hockey players. Create semi-private booths with private screens (pick your video feed or use your tablet, laptop or phone to display whatever your League-fueled craziness demands) and highly partitioned Sonos speaker networks – avoid the house feed and let each small party create its own environment. It’s “The League” stamped out in 50 varieties in parallel. Here’s where you test the marketing geniuses – create in-house promotions, contests and reward/loyalty programs to fill that sports bar as many hours of as many weekends as possible. Start now and open it for Final Four 2015.
What do to with the casino? Clearly, it’s failing as another Atlantic City casino that can’t figure out if it’s targeting high-end players, low-end players, or day trippers. Reduce it by half, pick an audience ($10 tables, all of the time, with the best transparency and access — you should have an app that lets you see what seats are available, to reserve a table for your friends who are at the sports bar, or reserve a poker table seat for 9pm). High end gamblers will go somewhere else, but the goal should be to make Revel function as a hotel that has a casino as just one more attraction or amenity, along with a spa, pool, and 24-hour Subway.
Clearly I’m not a hotel developer, or a hospitality business expert, but without a portfolio of ideas, executed in parallel and with wild abandon, not much is going to change in Atlantic City. The 35-year gambling experiment will have three more victims (Showboat, Trump Plaza, and Revel) in the next four weeks, and without some major changes Atlantic City will resemble Detroit before it can hold a dented, corroded Miss America sceptre to Las Vegas. If the business incubator, co-working space and emergent entertainment ideas create value, there will be financiers who are willing to invest in and benefit from it — we should be using that same pool of money to rebuild the city’s beachfront majesty as a requirement for entry.