What does Atlantic City, a gaming town based in New Jersey, have in common with Mobile, AL, a city full of southern charm and history? Both are cities in the midst of reinventing themselves to attract meetings.
Al Hutchinson, the new president and CEO of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, is spearheading a rebranding effort for this coastal town. It is vital, he says. "We are fortunate that we have a lot of great assets that make storytelling easy. We now have to come up with the one or two things that will have an emotional connection to potential visitors."
He realizes he has his work cut out for him. A recent market research survey of 2,000 meeting professionals from companies that included PNC Bank, New York Life, American Express, McDonald's, and the National Parkinson Foundation, found that 76 percent said they have never brought a meeting to Mobile or visited for personal or business reasons.
About 1,200 miles to the north, Atlantic City faces an entirely different challenge. Unlike Mobile, which is almost a blank slate as far as awareness for national meetings is concerned, Atlantic City has no problem getting on the public's radar. But the city is mired in the throes of a perception problem. Stories about Atlantic City's reported demise abound. Here's just a small sample of headlines this year: "Once Fabled Atlantic City Hits Free Fall," according to USA Today. "End of the Boardwalk Empire? The Rise and Demise of Atlantic City," declares The Guardian. "The Last Hand: The Epic Bust of Atlantic City's Gambling Economy," reads a headline in The Washington Post.
Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment
"The press about Atlantic City has been predominately negative," admits Michael Massari, senior vice president of national meetings and events, Caesars Entertainment. As a result, his team has spent a great deal of time educating potential customers about the realities of Atlantic City.
There is no hiding the fact that four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos have closed. Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC, a nonprofit created to boost the convention, meeting, and group market for Atlantic City, describes it as a correction in the marketplace.
"We look forward to these properties reopening. A lot of damage has been done. The closing of these casinos hurts. It sounds like the whole destination is closing," adds Wood.
He says this is the furthest from the truth. As a matter of fact, meetings are up in Atlantic City. "We are seeing significant bookings right now. There is a great deal of demand for Atlantic City. We're very bullish that convention demands will continue to increase year over year," explains Wood.
The scenario found in Atlantic City is similar to what Massari faced when he got to Las Vegas in the '90s. "Las Vegas was not favorably viewed by corporate America as a meetings location," he says. When he finally convinced potential clients to visit and they realized how close the airport is to The Strip, and the caliber of hotels, meeting space, and entertainment available, many a mind was changed.
Las Vegas is not an isolated case of a destination reinventing its image. New York did it in the '80s, and Detroit is currently in the midst of a renaissance. So it is possible. Here's a look at how Mobile and Atlantic City are approaching the journey of brand reinvention that many other destinations have taken before.