In Atlantic City, Harrah's Is Betting Big On A New Conference Center

Don't count Atlantic City out yet, because Caesars Entertainment, which owns Caesars, Bally's, and Harrah's in the seaside city, sure isn't. They're putting the finishing touches on a 100,000-square-foot conference center that will be the largest between Boston and Baltimore, and they've already lined up some big names to take over the space when it opens its doors in September.

I had the opportunity to visit the under-construction center, and the scale is baffling. Two 50,000-square-foot rooms are stacked on top of each other over two floors, and they can be subdivided into 30 individual breakout rooms each. Huge spaces adjacent to the conference rooms will allow for pre- or post-meeting receptions, and spectacular views of the marina are afforded on the second floor.

"This is one of the largest investments in Atlantic City in a number of years," Steve van der Molen, the resort's vice president of meetings and operations, told me during a tour of the site. "The last addition of meeting space to Atlantic City was when [the now-closed] Revel opened. To get large citywide conferences you need a lot of space and hotel rooms, and we'll be able to offer that. Harrah's also has shopping, restaurants, the casino, and the largest indoor pool in the country."

The goal of the Harrah's Waterfront Conference Center is to attract conferences that would have been otherwise held in comparably sized centers in cities like Chicago or Las Vegas. "One-third of the U.S. population is now a three- to five-hour drive away," van der Molen added. "Instead of sitting on a plane, they can drive here instead, with the added benefit of being close to the beach. And because there are several Caesars properties in Atlantic City we can offer guests extra amenities as well, like the boardwalk beach club."

The sales team has spent the past year and a half booking the center, and the first clients will be Bradley Caldwell Inc., bringing 1,500 employees.

Harrah's banquet chef, Louis Heckel, who will spearhead the catering at the conference center, was also excited to show off the impressive kitchen, which is located adjacent to the conference floor. The state-of-the-art facility includes warming cabinets that can be loaded right from the prep area and rolled directly to the service areas, a high-capacity hands-free dishwasher, a tasting kitchen for clients, and assembly line-style prep stations that keep all food at exactly the right temperature. "This is unlike anything Atlantic City has seen before," Heckel told me.

The Harrah's Waterfront Conference Center has been two years in the making, and comes at a pivotal moment for the city, which has seen several high-profile casino closures within the past year, including the Caesars-owned Showboat. But the response from prospective clients has so far been overwhelmingly positive, and van der Molen isn't concerned.

"All they need to do is come see it for themselves. Once they see it, they love it," he told me.