In late July, casino workers at Resorts and Golden Nugget in Atlantic City reached new labor agreements with their employers. Those deals mirrored those of the other seven casinos that had been settled and ratified earlier in the month with substantial wage increases for tipped/nontipped workers, housekeeping workload standards and job protections.
TopNJCasinos.com reached out to Jane Bokunewicz, faculty director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism (LIGHT) at the Stockton University School of Business in Galloway Township, to get her thoughts on AC’s new labor peace for at least the next four years and New Jersey sports betting and what it all means to the industry, city and region.
Bokunewicz worked 22 years in the Atlantic City casino industry with 12 years as Vice President of Administration at Tropicana. She began her career as a computer programmer in the Information Technology department of Playboy Casino. She later held the position of Director of IT at Tropicana and was promoted to vice president in April 1994.
She has worked with the LIGHT institute since 2012. She was lead researcher on several LIGHT studies, including several on underage gambling and college gambling behavior.
In addition to being lead author of Casino Gaming Technology, Bokunewicz also wrote a chapter in Casino Gaming in Atlantic City, A Thirty-Year Retrospective.
Bokunewicz holds a PhD in Communication, Culture and Media from Drexel University and she is a third-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate.
Four Years of Labor Peace
TopNJCasinos.com: With Resorts and Golden Nugget casino workers agreeing to a new contract at the end of July, I believe this makes labor peace among all Atlantic City casinos for the next four years. What does this mean to the city and the industry itself?
Jane Bokunewicz: With this agreement, the casinos first of all have eliminated the threat of a labor strike at the height of the summer season, which could have been disruptive to their patrons and limited their earnings at a critical time of year. Such a strike would likely have impacted the properties’ post-pandemic recovery and resulted in a loss of wages and tips for the employees. Securing a four-year contract means the casinos, their employees and patrons can avoid this possibility for the next few summers at least.
The stability granted by a four-year agreement also helps casino operators to plan for the years ahead; improving their chances for a full recovery post pandemic. However, the wage increases agreed to may have both positive and negative effects on casino operations. An increase in wages will help the industry attract workers in those positions that were hard to fill since the pandemic, like housekeeping and front-line service workers, but the increase in cost of labor may have a negative impact on Gross Operating Profit if not offset by increases in revenue.
TopNJCasinos.com: How important was this to get done now, in light of coming out of COVID-19 and with the current state and national economic issues we are facing?
Bokunewicz: It was important for the casinos and the union to come to an agreement that reflected the current economic reality, both to the benefit of workers facing higher cost of living expenses and the casinos experiencing a shortage of labor. Coming to an agreement now should hopefully limit harm to both groups, either through personal debt or lost revenue from being unable to effectively serve current consumer demand, which is still recovering from the pandemic shutdowns.
While higher wages may serve both groups in the near term, persistent inflation and the potential for a recession could soon change this. If consumer demand and discretionary spending levels do not fully rebound or decline from pre-pandemic norms, casinos may find it difficult to operate profitably under the new contract terms. This could ultimately have a negative impact on employment levels in the resort.
State of Casino Industry in New Jersey
TopNJCasinos.com: On a scale of 1 to 10, give me the current state of the casino industry right now in AC?
Bokunewicz: The current state of the Atlantic City casino industry depends on the benchmarks you choose to measure it against.
If assessing only the short-term total gross gaming revenue, which includes internet gaming and sports betting, the industry is in a strong position showing sustained growth. The six months ended June 2022 have outpaced the same period in each of the past 11 years. At $2.2 billion, 2022 is on pace to outperform 2021, which saw Atlantic City’s casinos earn $4.2 billion by year end in total gross gaming revenue - a level not seen since the city’s peak gaming revenue period 1998-2008 (per February study by University of Nevada-Las Vegas).
That peak revenue period, which pre-dates both internet gaming and sports betting, includes only revenue generated by brick-and-mortar operations. When current brick- and-mortar revenues are compared to these, the performance of the industry is more mixed. Brick-and-mortar gaming revenue is showing signs of recovery compared to 2020 and 2021. However, some months in 2022 have seen revenue fall short of pre-pandemic (2019) levels. The six months ended June 2022 have outpaced the same period eight of the past 11 years and will likely out-perform 2021 for year-end revenue.
At $2.5 billion, year-end 2021 brick-and-mortar revenues fell short of 2019 revenues of $2.7 billion and were a little more than half the revenues seen annually between 1998 and 2008.
The reality is likely somewhere in the middle with the industry experiencing both headwinds from regional competition, and national economic conditions, as well as windfalls from internet gaming and sports betting. Continuing to innovate and to provide distinctive, quality service to patrons will be essential to the industry’s future.
TopNJCasinos.com: It seems like every AC casino property is investing and upgrading their infrastructure, providing new incentives for customers, etc. Looking toward the future, how is this significant to the landscape of Atlantic City say five years down the road?
Bokunewicz: The competitive landscape in Atlantic City with nine casinos in a small geographic area makes re-investment in each casino property crucial to continued growth and success. Properties that were once successful but have not re-invested in their properties in the past have paid a price.
For example, Trump Plaza and the Taj Mahal both closed in recent years, in part because of lack of investment in the properties. Conversely, casinos that have invested and added attractions remained successful, even during the pandemic and other business downturns.
Future of New Jersey Sports Betting
TopNJCasinos.com: On the sports betting front, with New York now on the scene for the past six months, it was believed that the Empire State would take away significant numbers from New Jersey sports apps. That has not been the case as the Garden State has hung in there pretty well. Why do you think that is and what does the future hold?
Bokunewicz: It was feared that many bettors from other states may have been crossing state lines to place their wagers and would switch to their home state once online wagering was legalized. The number of people in this situation may not have been as great as once feared.
Additionally, New Jersey’s sportsbook operators had first mover advantage by acting quickly to secure market share when sports betting was legalized in the state. Customers near state borders with established accounts with trusted providers might continue to use these platforms rather than switch to unproven providers in their home state.
TopNJCasinos.com: Mention two or three (more if you’d like) upcoming events that they expect will generate excitement and draw visitors who aren't casino regulars to AC properties.
Bokunewicz: Atlantic City casinos have been increasing the percentage of revenue gained from non-gaming attractions for several years now. Restaurants, night clubs, shows and special events are increasing in importance as a revenue stream for their operations and the city as a whole.
New and established citywide entertainment attractions like Top Golf at Ocean, the Raceway, Arcade and planned indoor water park at Showboat, Steel Pier, Atlantic City Aquarium, Absecon Lighthouse, Noyes Arts Garage and others help to diversify the offerings in Atlantic City. Likewise, the emergence of esports has the potential to attract a new demographic of visitors.
Just this month, the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit at Hard Rock, Atlantic City Beach Concert series featuring Phish, Dino Safari at the Absecon Lighthouse, Jim Whelan Open Water Festival and the Annual Atlantic City Air Show will all bring visitors to the city that may or may not be regular casino patrons.
Atlantic City as a Destination
TopNJCasinos.com: There are things outside the direct control of the casino industry – such as transportation, public safety, the beach and the Boardwalk – that impact AC as a destination for betting patrons and hotel visitors. What broader issues would you like to see addressed, say over the next year, to continue the growth of the region?
Bokunewicz: The growth of the greater Atlantic City region, especially as a destination resort, will depend on the collaborative efforts of stakeholders to address a wide range of challenges and opportunities identified in various reports such as the May 2021 Atlantic City Restart & Recovery Working Group Report and LIGHT’s own research findings.
The Atlantic City Airport, in particular, stands out as a key challenge and opportunity to improve national and international access to the greater Atlantic City region. It has long been believed to be one of the city’s most underutilized assets, and improvements to airline offerings could be instrumental to growth in the city’s meetings and conventions business.
Developments at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center and ongoing efforts to expand commercial use of the facility also aim to bring more aviation business and related jobs to the region.
While many sections of Atlantic City have been revitalized, there are still pockets of blight that contribute to a negative image of the city. In recent years, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has made great efforts to address incidents of blight in the City’s Tourism District with varying levels of success.
As of last month, phase one of a long-planned, and disputed, road “diet” for Atlantic Avenue began with the aim of making the corridor, which has been called one of the most dangerous in the country for drivers and pedestrians, safer. The plan, which would reduce the four-lane main artery of the city to two lanes, would see bike lanes and parking added, new street lighting, improved traffic lights and new sidewalks with trees and landscaping, as well as repaving.
It will take significant investment, effort and stakeholder commitment to make any of these plans and initiatives a reality.