Resorts Casino in Atlantic City has experienced its share of ups and downs during the past 40 years. But nothing from its past, including Hurricane Sandy and a budget shutdown, come close to measuring up to the impact of the global pandemic.
In the leadup to the big day, Resorts spent weeks preparing and implementing its Play Safe, Work Safe plan.
But how are things going two weeks later?
Play NJ spoke exclusively with Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts, on a variety of topics that included welcoming back customers, the challenges of operating during a pandemic, the success of online casinos, and more. (Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity.)
Looking back at Resorts AC’s reopening weekend
Play NJ: How did things go the first day?
Giannantonio: As you know, there was a bit of a curveball. We thought we were opening with 25% [capacity with] indoor restaurants, so we had to adapt to that.
The good news is Resorts has a lot of outdoor venues. We are really blessed that this property sits on the nicest section of the beach. And we have Landshark [Bar & Grill] built right on the beach with a lot of outdoor dining and a beach bar.
I have to tell you everybody is doing a good job socially distancing, everybody is now accustomed to wearing a mask.
One thing about Atlantic City is … we really planned for this scenario. I think the whole industry has executed the reopening well. Resorts has gone above and beyond by investing in air cleaning technology.
I think, in general, the governor should be proud of what is going on with Atlantic City. We are doing a really good job making sure everybody is adhering to the protocols that were put in place.
Play NJ: How have the crowds been so far?
Giannantonio: Summer in Atlantic City is always very busy. Clearly the levels of business are not where they were last year. But at the same time, there are some key elements of the business that are very encouraging.
The consumers have been phenomenal, and I think they really appreciate the protocols. We are finding our loyal customers love Resorts, and they’ve come back and are staying with us. Our occupancy has been strong and our room rates have been great, so it has been good.
Several months of planning and prep
Play NJ: Talk about what was going on behind the scenes.
Giannantonio: We were closed almost four months. A lot of work has gone into reopening under a pandemic scenario. You know, I don’t know if we’ve ever worked harder.
We spent a lot of time, effort, and money to prepare the property to get it open as safely and as detailed oriented as possible.
As you know, we are owned by Morris Bailey. He along with Mohegan Sun, our managing partner, approached this situation as smart as possible with the consumer and employee in mind. So we really want to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep all of those folks as safe as possible.
Very early on Morris had us look at the UV technology; I am talking almost three-and-a-half months ago. We took a deep dive into that technology and how that could help us.
What we’ve done is not only brought UV into the property but also bipolar ionization.. So if you look at the low rise of the building, which is mainly the casino floor, lobby, transportation center, Boardwalk lobby, that whole area now has bipolar ionization in the HVAC system.
That coupled with UV technology is like a one-two punch against any type of foreign matter or debris. It really does a great job of purifying the air in the space.
So we approached this from a very long-term commitment to the property, and I think we did a really nice job. As a result, the consumer I think really appreciates it, and I believe our employees do as well.
Looking out for Resorts customers and employees
Play NJ: What kind of reaction have you been getting from customers and employees in regard to the protocols that are in place?
Giannantonio: I think it has been overwhelmingly positive. Our team members appreciate the fact that we are taking a lot of time developing these safety protocols.
We looked at all of the jurisdictions around the country, and our goal as an industry — Resorts and all of the other competitors — was to implement protocols that made sense for Atlantic City.
New Jersey was one of the harder states hit with this pandemic, so we wanted to make sure that we were doing everything that we could. Consumers, I really believe, appreciate the protocols that are in place. It’s becoming almost commonplace now. You don’t have to worry about people not wearing their masks. Everybody wears their masks.
Then we have our “go clean” team, which is made up of some of the most dedicated people that I’ve ever seen. Really making sure they keep the interest of the consumer, our customers, at heart. It has really gone quite well. I am pleasantly surprised.
As crazy as it was that we were closed this long, to be where we are at today under these circumstances, I am very, very happy.
Resorts adjusts to no indoor dining
Play NJ: How did you adjust to Gov. Phil Murphy pulling back on indoor dining?
Giannantonio: It was tough. There is no question about it. I certainly don’t envy the governor and the decisions he has to make with regards to this pandemic. We are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that no one saw coming, no one could’ve predicted the issues that surround the pandemic.
The only thing I can tell you is in this business and with a pandemic at hand, you have to adapt. And we learned first hand that we had to be flexible.
But remember we were closed for three and a half months. So I was thrilled with the fact that the governor decided to reopen us.
It wasn’t exactly the way we thought we were going to reopen, but we adapted and we’ve done a good job ensuring that the safety protocols that we put in place, the masks wearing, the social distancing, the Plexiglass on all table games, the temperature checks for employees, the questionnaire that customers have to go through when they enter the building. These are all things that were put in place with the help of health experts. They are part of our everyday living now.
Everybody that enters the building has to fall within those guidelines. So it has been a lot of planning, but the good news is now we are open and we are gaining momentum.
When the governor does allow us to have indoor dining we will at least have some momentum. We will certainly adhere to the continued standards when indoor dining is open again.
Play NJ: What about outdoor dining? Do guests have options at Resorts?
Giannantonio: About a year ago, we invested quite a bit of money building an outdoor patio right on the Boardwalk in front of Landshark. So that added a lot of capacity to what we already had.
The nice thing about this expansion is that it’s located on the Boardwalk. Talk about timing. We really lucked out with having that in place.
Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville also has a boardwalk footprint.
One thing we had not planned for but we executed immediately, and I really have to credit the team here because they did a great job, was opening Eastwind for outdoor dining, which is on the corner of our property on the Boardwalk. It is one of the finest Chinese restaurants in Atlantic City. We added a nice amount of tables on the Boardwalk with umbrellas and so forth. They have been doing great business. You’re able to get sushi there, too.
Wet Willie’s, which has Boardwalk frontage, has just been wonderful.
The ability to take a drink on the Boardwalk really helps have us be a little more competitive with other jurisdictions throughout the country.
We transformed our transportation center and we made a little patio out there for outdoor dining and seating. Quick Bites food court [customers] can enjoy their food and coffee at this new patio within steps of where they purchased. Room service [meanwhile] probably hasn’t been this busy in 25 years.
This weekend coming up we are going to reopen Capriccio. We have an outdoor veranda that seats about 40 people outside, and it’s really beautiful.
We are building a permanent structure above the veranda so it will be a year-round awning that is going to be phenomenal, so we will really be able to offer seats out there well into the fall.
Basically, we’ve just had to adapt. Let’s hope God-willing that the virus continues to go in the right direction in New Jersey and Atlantic City, so we are able to get indoor dining and drink service up and running.
Atlantic City casinos working together
Play NJ: Did you visit Mohegan Sun or coordinate with them since they opened first?
Giannantonio: The reality of it is we did a lot of coordination with Mohegan Sun in Connecticut in particular [and] with our colleagues here in Atlantic City.
When you are dealing with a pandemic you have to put the competition to the side because the reality of it is, if we didn’t collaborate well together, it may have put a black eye on Atlantic City if one property wasn’t doing as well as others.
There was a lot of collaboration, and I commend my colleagues in town and their teams for doing such a great job.
I can’t say enough great things about director [David] Rebuck from the Division of Gaming Enforcement and his team. It was a lot of work for each of the properties, but it was a mountain of work for the regulators who regulate us. As you can imagine, we were submitting plans to be approved and they got back to us pretty quickly.
Play NJ: What was the training process like?
Giannantonio: For starters, we collaborated with AtlantiCare. They did all of our onboarding training for those employees who were out on furlough or temporarily laid off and so forth.
They came back for a series of weeks that led to the reopening. [And] they went through probably like a 45-minute training program.
They did a tremendous job educating everybody from good hygiene to the reason why you wear a mask to social distancing to all the things that surround this new environment that we live, work, and play in. I think everybody was better for it.
Play NJ: How much more challenging is this compared to anything else you’ve faced during your time in the industry?
Giannantonio: I would have to say this is the most challenging because when you put that many thousands of employees out of work it’s kind of gut-wrenching. We tried to do our best by paying people for as long as we could. We covered benefits and so forth.
One of the things Morris did very early on is he allowed us to contribute about $100,000 directly between the food bank and Jewish Children Family Services. We served [meals to] about 10,000 employees in Atlantic City.
NJ online casinos help fill the gambling void
Play NJ: NJ online casinos just took off during the closure. How much did having that revenue coming in during these challenging times help?
Giannantonio: We are really proud of our Resorts Digital business.
Ed Andrewes [CEO at Resorts Digital] and his team do a great job running resortscasino.com and mohegansun.com. Then we have tremendous partners in PokerStars for online poker and Fox Bet, and DraftKings Casino and Sportsbook.
Morris has done a great job building those brands. They all have done very, very well. Once the doors shut, we collaborated very closely with resortscasino.com to make sure if our players wanted to play online we made it very simple for them.
That’s how we always approached that business. We never looked at it in a vacuum. It goes back to when we first opened an online casino. We were the first in the country to have an online gaming lounge right on the casino floor to help educate people about online gaming,[And] as bad as it was with the whole brick-and-mortar casino closed, we were quite happy with our online partners plus our own online casinos.
So I guess there is a pro and a con, and online casino is still doing quite well even after we opened. It will be interesting how things look a year from now, but I think hopefully we can get both brick-and-mortar and online gaming growing.
One thing is for sure is it definitely exposed a lot of new people to the online gaming environment. It’s not a bad thing.
Resorts and the future of Atlantic City
Play NJ: There are a lot of unknowns right now, but what are the keys to working your way back from the shutdown?
Giannantonio: It’s a long-term curve. When we were closed, we were losing money. And the minute we opened, our goal was to try and overcome that burn rate. It’s vital to get to break even and make a profit, and that is what we’ve been able to do here in a few short weeks.
We are in business to make money and not lose money, so the focus is going to be balanced in our approach. Be very calculating in the direction we want to go in. Look, we would love to put everybody back to work. Right now it is simply not possible.
I think the key is just to be focused and balanced and nimble. Just make sure we get through this and continue to make sure the customers and employees are safe. I think it will all work out.
AP File Photo/Mel Evans