40 Years Later: Harrah’s AC Still Thinking About The Future

Written By Bill Gelman on January 11, 2021

Who remembers the days when Harrah’s Atlantic City consisted of one hotel tower consisting of about 500 rooms and a small casino floor?

Being that it was forty years ago, some of Harrah’s current customer likely base wasn’t even born yet. And back then, it sat all alone in Atlantic City’s Marina District.

The property, which is owned by Caesars Entertainment, opened its doors Nov. 22, 1980. Now known as Harrah’s Resort, the property looks nothing like its original version.

Clearly, Harrah’s has and will continue growing under the Caesars Entertainment umbrella. To get a better idea of where things stand today and in which direction they are going, Play NJ  caught up with Ron Baumann, Senior Vice President & General Manager for Caesars and  Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City.

Harrah's 1980

Harrah's 2020

Photos provided by Caesars Entertainment 

Harrah’s 40 Years Later

In terms of Atlantic City seniority, only three of the nine gaming halls predate Harrah’s. They would be Resorts (1978), Caesars and Bally’s (both 1979).

Today, Harrah’s is much more than an Atlantic City gaming hall. Just look at how different the property looks today compared to its 1980 version.

The current version has the look of a Las Vegas-style resort. Baumann said “I think the property has had a great run.”

“It started 40 years ago with one small casino and a small 500 room hotel tower, the Harbor Tower, said Baumann. “Now look at it [with] 2,600 rooms. It’s a full-blown resort with a convention center.”

The casino floor now spans close to 180,000 square feet and includes more than 2,100 slot machines. Plus there is the William Hill-branded sportsbook. NJ sports betting was illegal when the property opened its doors.

A bigger property means more jobs. There are still 40 day-one employees working at Harrah’s. By the way, it wasn’t planned that way. Call it a coincidence.

“We are very proud of the team, our commitment to the community, very proud to still have 40 day-one employees,” said Baumann.

Harrah's Day One

Photo provided by Caesars Entertainment 

Facing pandemic-related challenges

Of course, 2020 ended up being a year where celebrating any major milestone was extremely difficult. Actually, it was and continues to be the most challenging period in the 40-year history of Harrah’s AC.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Atlantic City casinos to close March 16, and Harrah’s didn’t reopen until July 3. And the state mandated 25% capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines eliminated  the possibility of hosting a big bash like sister property Caesars did back in ’19.

However, they still found ways to recognize the occasion. Many of the day-one employees got together for a photo-op (pictured above) in front of the 40th anniversary sign. And Gordon Ramsey Steak, which celebrated its second anniversary, served its 150,000th dining cover. The 150,000th guest was treated to dinner.

However, the focus was and continues to be on keeping employees and customers safe.

“There is no way around it. It’s a very difficult and challenging environment right now in the city for all of us, whether it’s Saturday night or midweek,” said Baumann. “Our first and foremost thought is always providing a safe environment for our team and for the customers who come here. That drives pretty much everything we do.”

Caesars will continue investing in Atlantic City

Even with the current restrictions limiting business, the future continues to be the focus.

Last year, Caesars Entertainment merged with Eldorado, which means Caesars, Harrah’s, and Tropicana are linked together. When New Jersey regulators approved the merger earlier this year, it included the stipulation that the parent company must make capital investments to the tune of $400 million within the next three years.

“We are working very hard to bring this to fruition. The first thing I think that people will see will be the room renovations. It will certainly be the first thing we talk about because the room renovation will be very significant here and at Caesars,” said Baumann.

In late 2019, prior to the merger, Harrah’s announced a $24 million investment dedicated to the rebranded Laguna Tower. The project addressed upgrades to a tad over 400 rooms. Baumann said the project was completed right after the summer reopening.

But this is just a small sampling of the steps Caesars Entertainment has taken to update its AC properties. Prior to the merger, the parent company made a total investment of nearly $300 million into its AC casino resorts, which previously had included Bally’s.

At Harrah’s, the checklist has included much more than upgrades to two of the five hotel towers. Other projects have included:

  • The $125 million Waterfront Conference Center 
  • Opening Gordon Ramsey Steak in 2018
  • 3,800-square-foot sportsbook, which was rebranded as William Hill in 2020)

Brick and mortar revenue remains Harrah’s ‘bread and butter’

Speaking of NJ sports betting, it’s hard to ignore the eye-opening performances from the last several months. In November alone, the Garden State took in $931.6 million in bets. And the NJ online casino industry is coming off its two biggest months all time, back-to-back $90 million performances.

Yes, they are impressive numbers. However, the casino floor results are what Atlantic City operators care about most.

Baumann said it’s obviously encouraging to see a piece of the business grow. At the same time, land-based numbers are down 44.9% year to date.

Sure, the global pandemic has a lot to do with those results, Remember, Atlantic City casinos were closed for 100-plus days, and the 25% capacity restrictions on gaming floors continue to hinder Atlantic City casino revenue.

Harrah’s alone is down 46.3% for the year. The property reopened its poker room on Dec. 26, joining Borgata.

Like the past 40 years, the casino floor results remain a big part of the game plan.

“What is most important is the brick-and-mortar business. That is the bread and butter,” said Baumann. “You love to see any portion of your business grow, and you are encouraged by it, but we need the brick-and-mortar business to grow. That is what creates jobs.”

When looking back at Harrah’s over these past 40 years, all it takes is one look at the property. Proof of the growth is overlooking the marina.

Photo by Associated Press/Wayne Perry
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Bill Gelman

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and now NJ sports betting and online gambling.

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