- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Atlantic City took a step toward remaking itself Thursday - and it had nothing to do with gambling.

Caesars Entertainment showed off a new $126 million conference center designed to help Atlantic City gain a bigger share of the business travel market. The Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center is part of a bid to help save the struggling gambling resort by making it less reliant on betting.

Caesars senior vice president Michael Massari said the center, located in the city’s marina district, has the potential to change the Atlantic City market by giving corporate travelers from around the country a new reason to go there.

“It’s a whole new customer we’re attracting - the business traveler,” he said. “If you don’t introduce the business traveler into this market in a meaningful way, you’re going to see more of what you’ve seen in the last 4 to 5 years.”

That includes plunging casino revenue, lost jobs and the shutdown of four of the resort’s 12 casinos last year.

Atlantic City currently has a paltry 1 percent of the $16 billion business travel market in the northeastern U.S., Massari said. The center hosted its first large conference this week with an agricultural equipment group, after some smaller groups met there since the last week in August.

The center already has 140,000 room nights booked through 2019, with more than 90,000 set for the next 12 months.

The move comes as Atlantic City desperately tries to grow its non-gambling revenue as its casino market shrinks. Caesars Entertainment had a hand in two of the four casino closures here last year. The company shuttered its still-profitable Showboat in August 2014 and jointly bought and closed the Atlantic Club with Tropicana Entertainment in January 2014.

Caesars Entertainment CEO Mark Frissora called the new center “a game changer.”

“Atlantic City is changing, and changing for the better … as we attract a new and different type of visitor,” he said.

Numerous analysts have said that Atlantic City needs to further diversify itself to become less reliant on gambling revenue, and that meeting spaces like Harrah’s Waterfront Center and a smaller facility opened last month by Resorts Casino Hotel are badly needed.

But they also said more air service at Atlantic City International Airport to and from the rest of the country is needed for the business market to grow significantly. The casino industry and New Jersey elected officials have tried for years to attract major carriers in addition to Spirit Airlines, with little success.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation for us,” Massari said. “We believe you’ll get a lot more business travel once the airlines start to pay attention.”

Exhibitors were enthusiastic about the new center.

“Everyone I talked to loves this facility,” said Diane Anderson, whose gift and garden company was selling wind chimes and glass globes. “It’s wide open, there’s nice high ceilings and I like the carpeting.”

Janette Marszalek, of Bradley Caldwell Inc., agreed.

“It’s nice and clean, and everything is close to you,” she said. “And we really enjoyed the food.”

Both said they would come back if the opportunity arose.

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This story has been corrected to show the first large conference was held this week, not just on Wednesday.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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