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Room to Rendezvous?
It's no secret that in recent years, Atlantic City has upped the ante in terms of shopping, entertainment and dining, and has undergone a transformation from regional gambling hub to bona fide national attraction.
The thinking goes like this: The more there is to do, the longer folks will stay. Having Atlantic City perceived as a three- or four-day destination -- rather than an overnight trip -- is viewed as a major inroad into the profitable conventions and meetings market.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of profit and nonprofit companies and organizations have held conferences of various sizes in the resort city, thanks to a modern convention center and renovated casinos -- even a new one -- that boast upscale facilities.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the increasingly trendy city -- in an area that's been a summer playground for Jews for the better part of a century -- can find itself on the short list of places that national Jewish organizations look to as a possible meeting site.
That depends on a number of factors, some related to the industry as a whole and some specific to the Jewish community, such as the availability of kosher food, and whether or not Jewish professionals and lay leaders feel comfortable selecting a city that's synonymous with gambling.
At least in recent years, a major Jewish organization, such as the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League, has not held a national conference in Atlantic City, according to officials at the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Will that change? When it comes to event business, the future is literally now. That's because conferences are booked three, sometimes four years in advance.
As it turns out, the Women's League for Conservative Judaism -- which held its 2006 biennial convention in Philadelphia, and is headed for Detroit in 2008 -- is considering Atlantic City for 2010, according to executive director Bernice Baller.
What factors into the decision-making process?
"We get about 1,200 people, so there not only has to be enough rooms, but enough meeting space," she said. "We have to have a critical mass of Jews in the area, [and] we have to have members there. That restricts us to major Jewish centers. Kashrut also has to be readily available."
Going through the checklist: In terms of having enough hotel rooms, meeting space and entertainment options, the city by the boardwalk appears to fit the bill.
Back in the pre-gambling 1950s and '60s, Atlantic City was one of the premier destinations for the emerging convention and corporate-meetings industry. Yet by the 1970s, it had virtually fallen off the map, according to Michael Hughes, associate publisher of Trade Week magazine.
(Corporate and nonprofit meetings tend to take place at hotels, while conventions normally require exposition space.)
While the 1997 opening of the 500,000-square-foot Atlantic City Convention Center marked its return to the foray, momentum started in earnest with the opening of the Borgata Hotel Casino in 2004, followed by the rehabbed Tropicana, with its Havana-inspired "Quarter" of high-end dining and shops. Then last year came the creation of the Manhattan-like Pier Shops at Caesar's, once the site of the worn-looking Ocean One Mall. And in the works are planned hotel tower expansions at Harrah's and the Trump Taj Mahal.
"I can remember when in the wintertime, you would yawn around here," said Donna Vassallo, associate professor of hospitality management at Atlantic Cape Community College in May's Landing, N.J. "Now, the casinos are hopping all year long."
In 2006, convention bookings in the city -- which has roughly 1.3 million square feet of meeting space -- were up 78 percent from the previous year, according to Gary Musich, director of sales for the Atlantic City Convention and Visitor's Bureau. He added that in 2006, the industry brought $192 million to the city.
While Atlantic City might never be able to compete with national convention powerhouses like Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando, Fla. -- neither A.C. nor Philly make the Top 10 list of convention cities ranked by Trade Week -- Musich argued that Atlantic City is establishing itself as a regional magnet.
A Sticking Point
But will Jewish groups also be drawn in? Are there enough Jews there for it to be considered a major ethnic center? And is there any kosher catering to be had?
On one hand, the local Jewish community infrastructure is improving. In 2004, a contemporary and fully serviceable Jewish Community Center opened at the dividing line between Ventnor and Margate -- the crux of the Jewish community -- after more than $10 million in renovations. The Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties are located within, while the brand-new Jewish Family Service building stands next door.
Secondly, the summertime population continues to swell, adding to the 10,000 or so Jewish households listed as part of a 2005 Jewish population survey. Prices of beachfront property were at an all-time high during the recent housing boom, and it appears that the number of Jewish retirees has grown in the past five years.
It's the kosher issue that appears to be a far thornier sticking point.
First of all, the area has just two kosher restaurants. Neither the 13 casinos nor the convention center have a kosher kitchen or offer in-house kosher catering.
"I believe that's the reason we won't have a General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities here," said Robert Seltzer, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties. The G.A., which takes place each fall, is considered the largest Jewish gathering in the country, with more than 5,000 participants.
For three years running, the federation has actually held one of its biggest events -- a dinner for major donors -- at a casino. This year's affair took place in late May at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.
How did they get around the kosher issue? They served a dairy meal.
Still, as Seltzer explained, that has not provided a perfect solution since many attendees would prefer the luxury of meat. Some more observant members skipped the event altogether.
Seltzer offered that other options exist. It's possible to get boxed kosher meals brought in from the outside -- which he said doesn't necessarily go over well with major donors -- or use an outside caterer, which is generally far more expensive.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber, religious leader of Congregation Beth Judah, a Conservative synagogue in Ventnor, N.J., and president of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors, seemed more positive about it. "I think it's easily remedied. If a large convention wanted to come down here, I'm sure that kashrut could be done."
Spokespersons for several casinos did not respond to calls asking why it wasn't possible to have a kosher kitchen, or if there had been any discussion of adding one in the future. Several sources surmised that currently, there's not enough demand to justify the extra costs.
Then comes the question of good taste, all food issues aside. Simply put, is it appropriate to have a religious gathering in the middle of glitz, glam and gambling?
Baller, for one, said that if it were solely up to her -- which it's not -- she would take a pass on Atlantic City.
"I'm not interested in bringing our women into a gambling environment," she said matter of factly.
While large, national Jewish groups have yet not committed to holding multi-day events in or near the resort city, a number of smaller groups have done so. It seems that for the most part, organizers are not utilizing the casinos or the boardwalk as selling points for the events, and are drawn to the area for other reasons.
One small program -- the Delaware Valley Region of the Cantor's Assembly's third annual summer retreat -- is set to take place on July 29-30. About 20 cantors from the Philadelphia area are expected to perform in a concert at Beth Judah in Ventnor. They'll be staying at Caesar's Atlantic City Hotel Casino, where they will participate in several workshops.
"Our being in Atlantic City is simply a case of where the hotel rooms are, as opposed to 'Gee, we want to go to Atlantic City,' " said Cantor Stephen Freedman of Temple Sinai in Dresher.
Freedman, who organized the retreat, said that the group chose the shore largely because that's where the biggest potential audience would be for the concert. He did note that several participants were uncomfortable with the idea of having the retreat at a casino, and that he'd consulted national leadership at the Conservative movement's Cantor's Assembly before moving forward.
A far larger group planning to head to the shore early next year, in the dead of winter, is Limmud NY, a nondenominational, largely volunteer-run organization. The group puts together yearly retreats focusing on everything from Jewish learning and spirituality to Israeli politics.
In the past, it's drawn between 750 to 800 people, according to executive director Abi Dauber Stern.
She said that the idea is to hold the program far enough away from New York City so participants don't feel they can drop in and out. For the past three years, they've held the program in the Catskills.
But Stern explained that the remaining hotels in the Borsch Belt are run-down and lack adequate meeting-room space. And the participants have been complaining about the amenities.
"We'd like to be within a two-hour drive of New York, and our options are really limited. We need it to be kosher, and we need somewhere between 20 and 25 meeting rooms," she said.
So they settled on Egg Harbor Township, N.J., about a 10-minute drive from the Atlantic City boardwalk. Despite the proximity, Limmud isn't mentioning anything about Atlantic City.
"We don't want people leaving our conference to go gambling," said Stern, who added that one reason she didn't look into casinos is that she didn't think they provide a child-friendly environment. "In the heart of Atlantic City, it just wouldn't have been possible for us."
Instead, they'll be taking over the Clarion Hotel on the Black Horse Pike -- which has a glatt-kosher steakhouse -- and the Holiday Inn Express next door. Both properties are owned by Dr. Ira Trocki, a plastic surgeon who's active in the local Jewish community.
Some of the programming will also take place at the Trocki Hebrew Academy across the street.
"Obviously, guests can go to the casinos. We have a bus that goes back and forth," offered Trocki.
Stern did note that they were going to try to have some fun with the idea of being so close to such a famous and well-loved resort. One event in the works, of all things, is a charity casino night. Of course, it's quite possible that folks might just take a break and head for the real thing.