Steve Callender is a very busy man who suddenly finds himself a tad busier thanks to his new role with Caesars Entertainment.
As the Northeast regional president for Caesars, he is always on the move. And now that the Caesars-Eldorado merger is complete, his responsibilities are expanding.
The six properties that now fall under his watch are:
- Caesars AC
- Harrah’s AC
- Tropicana AC
- Bally’s AC
- Harrah’s Philadelphia
- Horseshoe Baltimore
But six could become five before the end of the year. The pending sale of Bally’s to Twin River Worldwide Holdings is expected to close during the fourth quarter.
Play NJ caught up with Callender for an exclusive chat. With all that has changed in the Atlantic City casino market, and for Caesars in particular, there are quite a few things on Callender’s mind. Updates to existing properties, a new casino to oversee and a global pandemic top the list.
Sounds like a lot to manage, but Callender said he is excited about expanding his role and excited for Atlantic City.
“You know, it’s two great companies combined into one. It’s going to be a great team,” said Callender. “I am sure we will be very successful. It’s certainly going to be challenging, but I am looking forward to it.”
Day-to-day routine mixed with a pandemic and a merger
2020 is one of those years the gaming industry will never forget.
The global COVID-19 pandemic forced casinos around the world to close for extended periods of time. In New Jersey, a state mandate forced all nine Atlantic City casinos to close on March 16. But no one, including Callender, thought the shutdown would last 100-plus days.
The Trop reopened on July 2. Caesars, Bally’s and Harrah’s welcomed back customers the following day.
And while the reopening plans were coming together, the Caesars and Eldorado teams were busy finalizing a merger.
Callender, who also serves as president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, had an active role in Atlantic City’s reopening plans.
“With the COVID-19 [pandemic], we were spending a lot of time on the telephone building protocols for reopening with the Casino Association team, AtlantiCare and the Division of Gaming Enforcement,” said Callender.
A lot of meetings and phone calls went into putting the pieces in place for reopening. But the result is that AC is open and people are back at work. The long hours were all worth it, according to Callender, who said:
“I am thrilled to have the casinos back open again, to be able to walk the casino floor and talk to some guests. We have a lot of our [team] members back, which is a great sign.”
Callender spends much of his time introducing himself and visiting the different properties he now oversees. He already knew a lot of people in the Atlantic City market.
Senior vice president of operations, eastern region, for Eldorado Resorts was his previous title.
A big to-do list for Caesars
The $17.3 billion merger, for those who didn’t tune into last week’s Casino Control Commission hearing, finally got the state’s stamp of approval. But it came with some stipulations that Caesars must follow.
One of the biggies is making capital investments to the tune of $400 million within the next three years.
Obviously, we are not talking about small projects here. And believe it or not, Callender and his team are already putting together a to-do list.
“We kind of have it broken up into three buckets,” said Callender.
Here is how Callendar said the ideas are organized:
- What needs to be done and done right away.
- Crazy ideas, things that nobody has thought of.
- What Caesars would really like to see fixed.
Callender noted that the team has already started looking at designs for hotel rooms at Caesars and Harrah’s. The management team isn’t wasting any time in getting that to-do list finalized and completed.
Once the prime summer season ends, Callender said, come September, “we’ll be working.”
“We have some challenges,” he added, “but we have some bright people that are going to figure it out.“
Caesars Atlantic City comes first
Not surprisingly, Caesars Atlantic City, which is at the center of the Boardwalk, tops the list of properties in desperate need of some TLC.
Part of that comes with the territory. Caesars AC has been around since gambling first took root on the Jersey Shore. That’s 40-plus years.
But there is another factor: Previous owners have not made the necessary improvements to keep up with the times. The DGE and CCC are making sure the flagship property will finally get the attention it needs.
That’s why one of the conditions focuses specifically on Caesars AC. A minimum of $150 million needs to be spent on improvements at Caesars over the next three years.
For instance, the casino floor at Caesars Atlantic City near the valet entrance is empty. It’s just a blank space with nothing to wow guests or entice bettors to come inside.
That “sense of arrival,” as Callender terms it, is not a good way to introduce tourists to Caesars. It needs an update. And Callender said his team is up to the challenge.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “The sense of arrival is very important to us and for our businesses. It is at the top of our list to address.”
Will the Playground Pier live up to its potential?
There is an intriguing component to the property. The building connects to the Playground Pier via an enclosed walkway over the Boardwalk.
Earlier this year, developer Bart Blatstein, who owns the Showboat and has grand water park plans, sold the shopping and entertainment complex to a subsidiary of Caesars Entertainment.
High-end retailers such as Tiffany’s, Apple, Gucci and Louis Vuitton all previously operated out of this space. Today, the vacancies far outnumber the occupied spaces.
And the fact that there is no indoor dining isn’t helping things.
So what does one do with a massive space that resembles a ghost town?
“It’s a challenge, but it’s something I really need to get my head around,” said Callender.
“We are meeting with a group that is going to make a proposal with some things they would like to do at the pier. We will take a look at that and see if we can find a plan that encompasses that great space into something that makes sense and that we would be happy to have our name on.”
Sounds daunting, but once again, Callender remains positive:
“We have a lot of creative people in our company, and we are going to find something to make that work.”
Tropicana’s past, present and future
Callender is experienced with overseeing extensive capital improvements. He was part of the Tropicana Atlantic City team during its renovations. But back in 2010, the Trop was in bad shape.
“Frankly, the property was in terrible condition,” Callender said.
He noted that aside from The Quarter, the Havana-themed entertainment complex, the building was in need of a lot of repairs.
The escalators, elevators, roofs and boiler rooms all got addressed first. But the bigger projects soon followed.
“Once we started to get rolling, we spent $300 million [at Tropicana],” said Callender. “We remodeled the entire casino floor. We refurbished three hotel towers out of our five. We actually bought the Chelsea Tower when we needed more rooms and brought it back to life, which was great for the city.”
And last year, just in time for March Madness betting, the Trop unveiled its permanent William Hill sportsbook.
“We’ve done a lot. It’s a completely different property and something we are very proud of,” said Callender.
And as far as future upgrades go, there is always more work to be done.
“We never stop. We will continue to update our casino floor. We are actually looking at redoing the West Tower, which is another 500-room tower that we would like to get to. That’s in our plans right now,” said Callender.
Harrah’s is getting upgrades, too
Over in the Marina District, Harrah’s is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Whether or not there will be some grand celebration is still to be determined. The pandemic may delay the party.
Harrah’s Resort is unique, as it has its own convention center. Plus, there is The Pool, which doubles as one of Atlantic City’s more popular nightlife destinations. Unfortunately, nobody knows when it will be safe to resume the business.
The bottom line is that the property is in better shape than Caesars AC. Still, the management team sees areas that need to be addressed.
So what are some of the things planned for Harrah’s?
Callender notes that some of the changes won’t necessarily give customers something new to look at or drive business but will make the business easier to run. A high-speed slot floor falls under this category.
Those upgrades to the casino floor and IT systems will help Caesars compete in the AC market. “Those things need to be done,” said Callender.
The Pool and convention center areas could see upgrades as well.
“I look at The Pool over there. That is probably [Harrah’s] greatest nongaming amenity. And that needs a little bit of work, too. So we will be spending some money there,” said Callender.
“The convention center is probably the best part about it. We certainly want to take advantage of that. We are looking at making a few little changes there that might make that a better concept for us.”
And upgrades to the hotel product? Yes, those are also on the list.
Back in December, Caesars Entertainment announced a $24 million investment dedicated to its newly rebranded Laguna Tower.
The project has been delayed as a result of the pandemic. Work should resume in September.
Bally’s, a property in transition
Like Caesars, Bally’s has been a mainstay at the center of the Boardwalk over the last four decades. And it’s another property needing a makeover.
Caesars will be keeping the Wild Wild West portion of the casino, and that includes the giant sportsbook, The Book at Bally’s. The rest of the complex will fall under the purview of its new owners.
But for now, until Twin River gets licensed, Callender will be keeping a close eye on things.
“My instructions are we run it like we own it until we don’t own it anymore,” said Callender. “It’s not just overseeing, it’s lending support and advice. When a deal gets done, then I’ll stop worrying about it. Until then, it’s part of our [responsibilities].”
And here is something else to consider. Once the sale is completed, the Roman-themed Caesars and the Wild West-themed casino will be combined into one property. Granted, the two spaces currently connect via an indoor escalator.
Whether or not the latter theme remains intact is something Callender and his team will evaluate down the road.
“Whether the theme changes or not, I am not sure yet, to be honest with you. I don’t think it will be too hard to move away from it,” he said.
“A lot of people like it. People are sentimental. It’s a good space, and we want to take advantage of it. I am sure we will figure it out.
“Right now, we have to concentrate on upgrading the room product across our brands [and the] sense of arrival at Caesars. [Those] are probably our biggest priorities we have right now.”
Staying positive for Atlantic City
Even with the pending Bally’s sale, there is obviously a lot of work for Callender and his team to get done. Details on the specific projects will come at a later date.
And keep in mind, the current Atlantic City casino market is facing challenges like it’s never seen before. There are the wild cards of indoor dining, and smoking and drinking on the casino floor.
Casinos are currently operating at 25% capacity, too. Sure, something is better than nothing. However, if Atlantic City hopes to return to pre-pandemic levels, the restrictions will need to be loosened.
But when? That decision remains in Gov. Phil Murphy’s hands.
To Callender, the updates to Caesars’ properties are required, yes, but important. Simply put, “I am still very pro-Atlantic City,” he said.
“It’s really a shame. We had great momentum going on in the city. We went a few years and were growing. Unfortunately, we were stopped dead in our tracks. … It’s going to take us a while. I certainly understand that. We will be patient, and when it’s safe to get back out, we will be here and we will be ready.”
AP Photo/Wayne Parry