More than 26.6 million people visited Atlantic City casinos last year, a decrease of 6.2 percent. But a new survey finds spending per visitor fell by only half that amount, indicating that the people who have stopped coming to the nation's second-largest gambling market are the less-profitable customers the casinos have been paying less attention to in recent years.
The stakes are high in Atlantic City, which is in the fifth-straight year of a revenue decline brought on by the explosion of casino gambling in neighboring states and made worse by the poor economy.
For the past five years, it has been trying to remake itself as a destination resort for higher-spending customers willing to stay a few days and take in shows, go shopping and eat at gourmet restaurants in addition to gambling.
A new statistical survey by Spectrum Gaming Group, an Atlantic City-area consulting firm, indicates that the strategy is working, to some extent. It found the casinos' win-per-visitor was nearly $134 last year, down 3.6 percent from 2009 and nearly 8 percent from 2008.
"It's clear that the low-end visitor is more likely to migrate to other places," said Michael Pollock, Spectrum's managing director. "But it also shows that you have the ability to hold on to your high-end visitor if you have something to offer them.
"You want to replace the convenience gambler with a higher-end customer," he said. "We aren't replacing them yet; we're just holding on to the higher-end right now. You'd like to have both happen simultaneously."
Bob Copeland and his friend Aulis Laine, retirees from Canada, are the type of customers that Atlantic City has long catered to but might not be able to afford much longer. They booked a tour bus package from London, Ontario, to Bally's Atlantic City that cost them $950 for five days and four nights, and got $180 in cash back to gamble at the casinos. Copeland, who once taught woodworking and other courses, estimated he'll spend about $200 out of his own pocket during his stay.
"I'm a little fish, not a big-time player," he said. "I just come here to have fun and visit."
Laine said he's proceeding "as cheaply as possible" in the casinos.
"You play penny slots and you win 100, that's one dollar," he said. He estimated he'll spend a few hundred dollars during his stay.
Bob Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, said the trend is noticeable at his company's three Atlantic City casinos.
"The gamblers that are being loyal to Atlantic City are playing more," he said. "We're getting more out of fewer players. The business we're losing is the convenience gambler; they're just staying home. But the core gamblers are sticking with us."
The survey found less than 26.7 million people visited Atlantic City's 11 casinos in 2010, the overwhelming majority of them by car _ more than 22.9 million. Bus passengers accounted for less than 3.8 million, a decline of 13 percent.
"Busing is on a long, slow goodbye," Pollock said. "Buses once accounted for 15 million people a year here."
That, again, is due largely to the advent of regional casinos in the Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Connecticut suburbs, all of whom are siphoning off day-tripping gamblers who were once Atlantic City's bread and butter.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa saw the fewest bus passengers of any Atlantic City casino last year, at nearly 9,800. Buses are just not a big part of their business plan. Since it opened in 2003, the Borgata has focused more than any Atlantic City casino on high-end customers by recreating the Las Vegas-style resort experience in New Jersey, and has led the city in revenue. Not surprisingly, the Borgata had the most car passengers at nearly 4.3 million.
Bally's had the most bus passengers at about 684,000, an increase of 5.3 percent over last year. Its sister property, the Showboat Casino Hotel had about 638,000, down 3.4 percent.
Harrah's Resort Atlantic City had 3.25 million car passengers, Caesars Atlantic City had 3.1 million and Bally's had 2.3 million.
Resorts Casino Hotel, which was sold in December after nearly running out of money and having to close, saw nearly 700,000 car passengers last year, a decrease of 7.4 percent.
The survey also grouped the 11 casinos by geographic location and found the most profitable gamblers played at the three casinos in the marina district: Borgata, Harrah's and Trump Marina Hotel Casino. The average win per customer among those casinos was $142, down less than 1 percent from 2009 and down 4.2 percent from 2008.
The three casinos in the so-called Inlet cluster _ Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, Showboat and Resorts _ saw an average win per customer of $138, down 1.3 percent from 2009 and 5.6 percent from 2008.
The midtown cluster _ Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Caesars and Bally's _ saw an average win per customer of $128, down 12.3 percent from 2009 and 13.7 percent from 2008.
The least profitable cluster was the so-called Route 40 cluster, consisting of the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, which is seeking a buyer because of financial difficulties, and the Tropicana Casino and Resort, which is trying to rebuild market share after being sold to billionaire Carl Icahn for pennies on the dollar last year. Those two casinos saw an average win per customer of $119, down 4.5 percent from 2009 and 8.5 percent from 2008.