ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — One Atlantic City casino has found a way to attract new customers: Let them eat cake.
Bally's Atlantic City hired Buddy Valastro, star of the "Cake Boss" reality series, to help celebrate the casino's 30th birthday last week. More than 2,000 people turned out on a Saturday afternoon to see him – giving the casino a nice bump when many of them stayed to gamble afterward.
Using TV stars to attract new customers is part of a trend that's taken hold in the nation's casinos in recent years. Gamblers have been able to play slots with cast members of "The Sopranos," taste offerings from celebrity TV chefs, sip vodka with Dan Aykroyd, hear "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Milan tell them how to train their mutts and see "Dancing With The Stars" champ Kelly Monaco dance in pasties and a G-string.
Casinos say they see a definite increase in revenue on such nights, although none would give specific numbers. They say the appearance fee they have to pay celebrities is more than made up for by the additional business they generate.
"There certainly are a lot of hard-core gaming customers who come to play," said Dan Brockdorf, Bally's marketing director. "But what puts it over the top are the casual folks who visit mainly to see a celebrity, then stay and play a little or have dinner at one of our restaurants or do some shopping. You definitely get more bang for your buck."
Reality TV stars are particularly well-represented in the gambling halls. Valastro made a casino-themed cake for Bally's, including a craps table, slot machine, dice, poker chips and cards – all frosted to the hilt.
"I look at it as an opportunity to see the fans and mingle with them, talk to them a little, get some feedback on the show and present them with an awesome cake," said Valastro, whose show airs on the TLC cable channel. "I want them to be floored by it, ya know?"
Tamara Wetzel of Whiting definitely was.
"We're big fans of `Cake Boss,' and I was there to see Buddy and have my picture taken with him," said Wetzel, who frequently patronizes Bally's. "It drives people in the doors, and they say, `Oh, I'll get a players card and I'll play here.' I was in line with several people who said that."
Atlantic City desperately needs new customers and new business. The nation's second-largest gambling market is in the fourth straight year of a revenue decline that began when the first of many slots parlors in neighboring states opened in the Philadelphia suburbs. Suddenly, day-tripping gamblers could play close to home without a 2-hour round trip to Atlantic City.
For the first two months of the year, Atlantic City's 11 casinos are down 12 percent from the $631.7 million they won in the first two months of 2009. And Pennsylvania and Delaware soon will be offering table games, which could further cut into Atlantic City's customer base.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has gone all in on television, letting customers play in a slots tournament with cast members of "The Sopranos." The casino awarded a head chef job to last year's winner of the "Hell's Kitchen" reality show. And TV starlets regularly show up to shimmy at the mur.mur nightclub.
Resorts Atlantic City used "Sopranos" actors to sell a line of wines inspired by the show, and brought in former "Saturday Night Live" and movie star Dan Aykroyd to sell vodka. "Dog Whisperer" star Milan met with gamblers at Resorts and Caesars Atlantic City.
Celebrity chefs including Guy Ferrari, Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis have cooked for customers at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City and Caesars.
The Tropicana Casino and Resort is hosting a premiere party April 13 for the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" with deckhand Russell Newberry. And after cast members of MTV's "Jersey Shore" spent a night in a Tropicana suite on one episode, viewers started calling the casino asking to stay in the same room that Snooki, Pauly D and The Situation were in.
So the casino is offering a "Jersey Shore" package built around a stay in the suite, with nightclub passes, dinner at an Italian restaurant and plenty of "gym-tan-laundry" thrown in. On July 10, The Situation will celebrate his birthday at two Trump casinos.
TV stars are staples of the Las Vegas experience as well, including Planet Hollywood's "Peepshow," a topless review headlined by a revolving cast of actresses including Holly Madison, from the E! network "Girls Next Door" show. Monaco, the Season 1 champ of "Dancing With The Stars," preceded her, albeit slightly clothed.
The Palms Casino resort hosted an entire season of MTV's "The Real World" in which roommates lived in a suite at the casino.
"Our society loves celebrities," said Kathleen McSweeney, Resorts' senior vice president of marketing. "But for the most part, the closest they will ever get to these stars is watching them on TV or seeing their photo online or in a magazine. So when you can give someone that chance to meet the likes of Dan Aykroyd, 'The Sopranos' or Cesar Milan, we essentially fulfill what normally would be a fantasy.
"These celebrity events have been proven successes in building our image, as well as attracting new and repeat business," she said. "Plus, guests share their celebrity experience long after their trip is over, and this word-of-mouth advertising is publicity you just can't buy."