With days left before the official Memorial Day reopening of the Claridge Hotel, construction crews were still spackling a breakfast nook, testing elevators original to the 1920s-era building and shining the marble floors where the Claridge's name is boldly displayed.
For decades, the Claridge was known as the "Skyscraper by the Sea," attracting the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Al Capone and Princess Grace of Monaco. After a stint as a casino, the 500-room hotel returns to its roots this weekend as a noncasino hotel, The Press of Atlantic City reports.
Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, and with it comes a new trend for Atlantic City, epitomized by the reopening of the Claridge, just one of several noncasino hotels re-emerging onto Atlantic City's landscape.
Joining the Claridge in opening this weekend is the former Ascot motel. The Iowa Avenue motel had been closed since Hurricane Sandy. It reopens this weekend with 70 rooms as TRYP by Wyndham after extensive renovations by Northfield developer Max Gurwicz Enterprises.
The two new upscale properties follow the quiet January reopening of the historic Madison House hotel on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. Shuttered for seven years, the property was refurbished and reopened by new owners Ratan Hotel Group under an affiliation with Baymont Inn & Suites. Its identifiable name was kept intact.
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The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, which shut down in January and is now owned by Caesars Entertainment, also is rumored to be undergoing an ownership change and could reopen as a stand-alone hotel with 800 rooms.
Before the dawn of the casino era in 1978, Atlantic City was known as a seaside vacation resort boasting plenty of hotels. But as casinos sprang up, stand-alone hotels dwindled. Today, the city has about 20,000 hotel rooms, the majority of which can be found in casino properties.
Boutique hotels at noncasino properties have tried their luck in recent years with varying results. In some cases, hotels have been forced to nearly shut down for the winter due to a lack of demand. Many casino restaurants also adjust their schedules in the winter to reflect smaller crowds at the casinos.
Sherry Amos, head of marketing for the Claridge, said for TJM Properties, the Florida-based developer that purchased the historic hotel for $12.5 million from Caesars Entertainment, it's about a strategy of promoting a resort experience in Atlantic City.
The new owners believe there is a market for travelers, particularly families, interested in a noncasino hotel that houses additional activities. The Claridge is unique because it offers amenities such as a 500-seat, cabaret-style theater that reopened last week under the name Celebrity Theater.
"Not everyone wants to stay in a casino," Amos said. "Casinos have tried to keep people in, away from the windows. We'll be offering to help families plan trips in the area — things like the Steel Pier, Gardner's Basin and the things we'll be offering here as well."
At one time, the Claridge offered three floors of gaming space, but the gambling floor was cut back over time, and all gambling was removed by 2013.
Now, in house, the Claridge's theater will feature nightly entertainment. That's something that's no longer easy to find in Atlantic City, where the majority of entertainers come for weekend shows interspersed with one-night weekday performances.
The Edwards Twins, Anthony and Eddie Edwards, are celebrity impersonators whose act was courted by former Resorts Casino Hotel owner Dennis Gomes shortly before his death in 2011. After finding the pair performing in Providence, Rhode Island, the twins played one weekend at Resorts but always hoped to bring nightly entertainment to Atlantic City, they said.
"Midweek business is huge. Nightly entertainment is huge, and we've always wanted to be here," Anthony Edwards said.
The theater will primarily feature the Edwards Twins, but other acts, including performances of the Atlantic City Ballet, a tribute to Whitney Houston featuring gospel singers from New York and New
Jersey, and a performance of The Color Purple have been booked.
The hotel that's still connected by a walkway to Bally's Atlantic City doesn't expect to have difficulty filling seats. It plans to market its shows through partnerships with casinos that would be interested in directing patrons to midweek entertainment when their properties aren't offering shows.
Amos said more amenities will open in the coming months. An art gallery, an outlet of the Discovery Museum and restaurants are planned.
Operators also pointed to the recent push for convention business as another reason noncasino hotels could be needed. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority recently funded a spinoff nonprofit organization known as Meet AC that is charged with making a more aggressive push for convention sales.
Mitchell Gurwicz, principal of Max Gurwicz Enterprises, which owns the new TRYP, said he also believes the Atlantic City market needs an influx of newer, more modern-looking hotel rooms. He pointed out, however, that his firm has always believed in noncasino hotel properties. Three years ago, Gurwicz reopened the former Flamingo Motel on Pacific Avenue as a Quality Inn.
"We're looking at something fresh and modernized with convenience," Gurwicz said of the hotel nearly adjacent to Tropicana Casino and Resort. "Staying at the TRYP, you're actually closer to The Quarter in Tropicana than you would be if you stayed in the casino, in some cases."
The push to make Atlantic City more inviting to nongamblers means there will be a need for noncasino hotels, as there was before the casinos were built, said Donna Vassallo, associate professor of hospitality management at Atlantic Cape Community College.
More visitors are looking for a more varied experience, with the beach, shopping, fine dining and other options beyond the gambling rooms, she said.
"What the difference is, is that we're looking at the younger generation and they want it all, and that's not a bad thing," she said.
Still, not all are convinced that there's a market in Atlantic City for noncasino hotels. The subject came up recently during the East Coast Gaming Congress in Atlantic City as Robert Heller, president and CEO of gambling industry research firm Spectrum Gaming Capital, explained to visiting attendees the transformation underway at the Claridge.
The Claridge was a tower that operated as part of Bally's until its sale last year. Heller described the sale to TJM Properties, which is making its first venture out of Florida, as a sale to an owner "who apparently didn't see what happened to the Chelsea and thinks he's going to do well."
The Chelsea Hotel opened as a luxury hotel in 2008 following a $112 million renovation to what had been a Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson. The hotel featured a posh steakhouse and rooftop nightclub. Now, however, in the winter, the Chelsea closes during the week, operating its restaurants and hotel on a varying schedule.
However, Jeff Guaracino, chief strategist for the Atlantic City Alliance, which is charged with marketing the resort, recently said the new trend speaks to the new customer the alliance is trying to bring to Atlantic City.
The alliance is promoting beach concerts, a sand-sculpting contest, boat races and the Atlantic City Airshow, among other events designed to keep a variety of demographics, including families, outside and enjoying activities in the city.
"For a long time, people would say, 'Oh, I don't gamble. I'm not going to go to Atlantic City.' Now, you have other options popping up, and it's not just one," Guaracino said. "That something else that gives people a reason to think they might want to give it a try."