ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Atlantic City has a 1 percent problem, and it has nothing to do with the richest of the rich.
Only 1 percent of people who visit the East Coast gambling resort do so to attend a business meeting, according to Michael Massari, senior vice president of Caesars Entertainment.
Also, Atlantic City captures only 1 percent of the $16 billion convention and meetings market in the northeastern United States.
To rectify that, the company is betting big on a $126 million conference center it is about halfway finished building at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City.
"It's 1 percent business travel into this market and 99 percent leisure," he said. "We want to see the business traveler introduced here in a meaningful way."
The Waterfront Conference Center is scheduled to open in August, and advance bookings have surpassed expectations, Massari said. It has more than 100,000 room nights booked, with 66,000 of those occurring in the first 12 months of operation. Groups already have signed contracts for events as far off as 2019.
The move comes as Atlantic City desperately tries to grow its non-gambling revenue as its casino market shrinks. Four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos shut down last year — and Caesars Entertainment had a hand in two of the closures. The company shuttered its still-profitable Showboat in August and jointly bought and closed the Atlantic Club with Tropicana Entertainment in January 2014.
Caesars believes its conference center will not compete with the existing Atlantic City Convention Center, which he said focuses mainly on trade shows and similar events. The Caesars center is seeking business meetings.
"We really go after almost completely different clientele," Massari said. "And ours is attached to 2,600 hotel rooms."
Of the advance bookings the center has locked down, 60 to 70 percent are from customers who have never held a meeting in Atlantic City, Massari said.
The center will help Atlantic City compete for meeting bookings that are now going to Dallas, Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, he said.
Its first group, with 2,000 members, checks in just after Labor Day, followed the next week by a 3,000-member group.
The state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority contributed $45 million toward the project, supporting the goal of drawing large companies to hold business meetings in Atlantic City after becoming convinced it would not cannibalize business from the existing convention center.
Massari said the center should spur similar projects.
"Success for us isn't filling this place," he said. "Success is someone copying it and there being two or three of these things and the business market in this town grows."