I don’t like Vegas — never have, never will. I think no matter how many towers of greed you put up there, no matter how much money you throw at, it’s still only about as classy as the hookers working the casino floor. For me, whatever happens in Vegas can thankfully stay there. Since I don’t engage hookers, gamble, or care about magic shows or Celine Dion, I never have anything to do. I go for business a couple times a year, and I generally use the time in between work to catch up on first-run movies. The restaurants are amazing, and so I do trip around and see what’s the latest and greatest, but I always feel afterward like I need a bath and a shower. For me, the alternative to dirty Vegas has always been Atlantic City. I’ve been going there since before Bally’s — and yes, I remember how bad it was — but even at its sleaziest there, was a certain majesty in the old buildings (now mostly gone) and the boardwalk. When I was younger, I had fun checking out the real streets and comparing them to their monopoly counterparts. I risked my teeth on saltwater taffy, visited the remnants of the steel pier, and swam in the Atlantic. That version of Atlantic City can be seen as it morphs into the future, our present, in Louis Malle’s beautiful film Atlantic City, with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.
The Borgata and the Chelsea Hotel are very different concepts indeed, but both are fantastic places to visit. I always like the Tropicana as well, especially when the legendary Denis Gomes had it. The new AC has the rooms, the restaurants, the gaming, the entertainment — shoot, everything good that Vegas has, plus a beach, and it’s now only three hours by train. Last time I was there, I rode bikes with my significantly ex in hoods that I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have just a few years before. I even watched a pod of dolphins and a school of stingrays from the Caesars Palace pier. I’m not going to pretend that AC doesn’t have the same sleazy side as Vegas, but at least you can wash it all off in the ocean in the morning.
I hooked up with the very entrepreneurial Alan Philips and Josh Shames of Sky Group and discussed Atlantic City and their new nightlife service Deluxe Experiences.
The season is starting in full blast down in Atlantic City. You both have worked at the Borgata, and now you’re at the Chelsea Hotel, which is a beach property with no casino. What are your roles there and what can we expect from the Chelsea Hotel? Alan Philips: Borgata hired us to launch Murmur and establish the sub-brand of Borgata Nightlife. They saw what was going on in Vegas, and they wanted to establish a major nightclub presence, so we organized Borgata Nightlife and established a celebrity program which included guests from the Olsens to The Rolling Stones, Gwen Stefani, DJ AM, etc. the Chelsea Hotel, unlike the Borgata “Vegas experience,” wants to create an authentic Atlantic City experience similar to the way the Bowery Hotel uses its neighborhood as the canvas for building their property. There are no boutique hotels within a close radius to the Chelsea, and it’s an exciting and transformative property. I think people will really appreciate a city-style hotel with an upscale experience in this marketplace.
The hotel was designed by Sean Hausman, and it has a beautiful Sinatra-chic style to it. I’m old enough to know AC before it was casino-driven, and unlike Vegas, it offers a lot more. What amenities does a hotel like the Chelsea offer? Josh Shames: One of the things that the Borgata and a lot of the hotels never really offered the customer was a daytime experience. I always felt that if you weren’t a gambler, there wasn’t much for you to do in AC other than to eat. The Chelsea has a gorgeous outdoor pool on the fifth floor of the hotel overlooking the ocean, and we put in a Euro-style (or Vegas style) daytime pool party with ten cabanas equipped with Playstations, 42-inch plasmas, mini fridges, personal concierges, etc. We’re going to give the customer that wants to come for a weekend — or who doesn’t want to gamble during the day — something to do. That’s something we’re really proud of.
The Chelsea is the new alternative hotel, and something great happened this year, which is the ACES train. How much of a difference will this make for you and your customer? AP: It’s going to make a huge difference. When we were at Borgata, we drove down in party buses filled with party girls and models. Traffic on the Jersey Turnpike makes Hamptons traffic look like a walk in the park, so the train is a great thing. And now people who don’t have the funds to fly to Vegas can get to AC easily.
People generally think that if they go to Vegas, they have to spend a lot of money, whereas you can go to AC and hang out without gambling. AP: Which is the reason you go to the Chelsea as opposed to going to the Borgata or the casino. The Chelsea is an authentic place; everything about it, from top to bottom, is real. The pictures on the wall are from the past of Atlantic City, and it’s trying to create a new, exciting future.
You’ve built a serious marketing company, Sky Group, and now you’re launching a new product called Deluxe Experiences. Can you explain the service? AP: Let’s say you wanted to plan your birthday party — how do you do it now? You call ten different places and speak to ten different reps who aren’t motivated to sell you, and by the time you’re finished just calling, you’ve already spent an hour plus of your time. As a better alternative, you can now log onto deluxexp.com during your lunch hour to check availability, pictures, info, pricing, then plan the party and choose personalization options like cupcakes from Crumbs, or have an experience agent to meet you outside. It doesn’t cost anything unless you’re buying extra services, and then you can send your e-vite through the site. So you can do what used to take you a few hours in less than 30 minutes, the same way you can order your takeout from Seamless Web.
So this is a revenue stream for owners, but it also gives patrons the ability to shop around and see what works for them? AP: it’s the first active website that can allow the consumer and the club to communicate in a real-time basis. The consumer can find out what’s available and how much it costs, and the club, if they know they’re going to have an empty Thursday, can update the site to say, “We’re willing to take more parties,” or “We’ll give two for one bottles,” so they can fill their Thursday without hiring a promoter.
How are you getting the word out about Deluxe Experiences? JS: We created Deluxe Experiences, but we didn’t create this product. This product created itself, and that’s through people calling our office and us booking 20 parties a weekend and being asked the same questions: Will my friends have to wait online? Do we have to buy bottles? Are we all going to get it? Can we bring in a cake? There’s 10 million people living in Manhattan, there are thousands of bars here — why are people having so much trouble booking a birthday party? There’s something that’s not being communicated from the venue to the customer, and that’s when we identified the need for this service.
What does this product do to doormen? Are you going around them? JS: No, what we’re doing is offering different products to different consumers. On their birthdays, some people would like to get table service, and they can go to the Tenjunes, the Marquees, and GoldBars. But there are also thousands of people on a weekend that want a different experience at a lounge or a bar, and they just want to get their closest friends and family in, for birthdays or engagement parties, etc., and we offer that to them.
I’ve read some of the descriptions of the harder clubs to get into on the site, and it did describe what the door policy would be like, so people know what they’re going to get into. AP: Yes, because we planned about 3,000 birthday parties in the last year, and the number one question is: Will my friends get in? Will my friends be taken care of? Birthdays are what people follow now, birthdays are what get the big groups into a lot of clubs on Saturday nights. Our partner, Derek Feinman, books 25 birthday parties a week. He is the head Experience Agent for the sales and service team for Deluxe, and he does it all free of charge. Derek Feinman: What people want on their birthdays is access, service, and especially now, value. I spend all week dealing with these questions, and having Deluxe allows us to use our years of experience and access to help customers.
How did your role in the industry evolve to allow you to launch Deluxe Experiences? JS: We do venue acquisition. Companies like Sony will call us for product and game launches; they tell us what type of program they want for their events, and we’ll find them a venue for them. Alan has done the Catherine Malandrino Fashion Week event for five years running now, and he finds a different venue for them every year. So we we’re getting calls to book birthdays, Fashion Week events, product launches, movie premieres, etc., at all these different events because we’re not club owners, we’re free agents, so we can book them anywhere. AP: And multi-units like the Gerber Group, Morgan’s Hotel Group, and Starwood hire us to consult and fill venues. .
You guys are intelligent, educated, and you’re servicing the industry and supporting the city of New York, which I think is important for people to realize. AP: We’ve always been students of nightlife –, we’ve read all the blogs, looked at the history, etc., and if you look the casino business, it used to be run by hustlers, but the nightlife industry is different now. When Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss, our mentors, went to Vegas and opened a $65 million dollar club, corporate America took notice, and now nightlife is being legitimized. Big businesses see that they can make a lot of money, and we’re hoping that products like DeluxeExp and us being able to service the Starwoods and Morgans Hotel Groups of the world will help nightlife to grow so that people will look at it a new light.
How did you guys earn your credibility in the industry? AP: We go to all the new places, see where the people are — we’re out during the week, we do our rounds. We were able to get the GoldBars and the Tenjunes onto our site, and there’s a reason for that; it’s because these people respect us. In the tradition of successful and entrepreneurial business, we’re trying to take the excitement of a fashionable, trend-driven, downtown industry and bring it in an authentic way to the many people who we believe are looking to have memorable experiences and moments at all of these great places. JS: The one thing we always wanted to do was be true to ourselves, and we think that we’ll be more successful doing what we do best, knowing our crowd, knowing our customer, and providing the products and services they want.