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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the July 7, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Borgata: No Boardwalk, No Beach, But a Jackpot

It’s big. It’s brassy — literally and figuratively. It’s boldly different.

The upstart Borgata Hotel and Casino opened last July 4th weekend in a town that was barely hanging on to its Queen of Resorts title, determined to change the town’s image and bring a bit of Las Vegas glamour and panache to the town.

A year later, the naysayers who figured this high-end property would never work in a town somewhat down at the heels may have to rethink their skepticism. The Borgata, a $1.2 billion joint venture between Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage is, in a word, booming. Its casino, restaurants, and nightclubs are jammed, and you can’t get into its spa until fall if you’re not a hotel guest — and even guests may have a tricky time booking a facial.

So what has the Borgata done to change the landscape — and perception — of a weary city? What has its impact been in one short year? And what’s all the buzz about?

Just ask Robert Boughner.

Boughner discovered the world of casinos as a college student on a jaunt to Las Vegas, and was so smitten that he left the University of Arizona and his journalism major to transfer to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he majored in hospitality administration. The education paid off: the 51-year-old Boughner is now CEO of the Borgata, the first new casino property to hit Atlantic City in 13 years.

This CEO has every reason to be smiling all the way to the bank. “Our projections were aggressive, but also realistic,” says Boughner. “The reality was that our research paid off. We understood that the time was ripe for a trade up, for a move to much more upscale. Everyone who wanted to play the quarter slots on a Tuesday afternoon was already coming to town, but there was a whole untapped market that wasn’t.”

Boughner and his colleagues wanted that market, one he describes as “a younger demographic, one that wanted a new gaming and hospitality environment.” And Boyd Gaming/MGM Mirage was ready to hand it to those between 25 and 45, and then some.

“For years, Atlantic City casinos have skewed older. From entertainment to removing bars from the playing floors, they were after an older crowd. We figured we could reverse that multi-year trend with a totally new product, an environment that looked different, felt different, and played differently.”

Set on a hill, its glass skin turning from gold to bright blue as the sun sets, the Borgata has a sort of modern Euro feel. There is lots of polished concrete and high ceilings are punctuated with abstract glass sculpture by famed artist Dale Chihuly. The sound of waterfalls of coins, ubiquitous at other casinos, is absent. The Borgata was the first in town to silence all of its coin slot machines by having them spit out slips of paper rather than coins.

Was it a gamble? Was the Borgata taking a chance by turning its back on tour buses and clanging slot machines?

“We didn’t see it that way,” says the silver-haired, perfectly-tailored Boughner, who reportedly nominated himself for the position of CEO when his boss at Boyd Gaming asked him for suggestions. Seen as something of a visionary, the articulate, soft-spoken CEO outlined how he saw Borgata’s place in the Atlantic City casino market. The encapsulated description has almost become Boughner’s mantra.

“Borgata is upscale, energetic, sensual, indulgent and international,” says its CEO. “We’ve actually made a point of capitalizing on sensuality and a little naughtiness, and it’s working.”

In terms of gaming, the new kid on the block also took a different approach from the standard Atlantic City emphasis on slots. Table games of all descriptions are now raking in the revenue, another calculated decision of Borgata’s planners, who have given ample floor space to those games. The decision was also made to emphasize truly fine dining, with some unusual choices. Philadelphia’s fabled Susanna Foo has opened a branch at Borgata, and so has Manhattan’s legendary steakhouse, Old Homestead. Celebrity chef Luke Palladino was brought in to offer two authentic, upscale, gourmet Italian restaurants, and again, the results are in: the Borgata’s restaurants will do over $12 million in sales in their first year. That’s well above the industry average.

The spa is the other major success story. Determined to make the Borgata a destination with — or without — gambling as a cornerstone, the creation of a lavish, unique spa became a central notion. Sure enough, the sprawling, elegant European-style Spa Tocarre, with its high-end services, pampering, and body relaxation treatments has been one of the Borgata’s greatest triumphs.

Without a boardwalk or beach at the location, the Borgata relies on a large indoor pool with adjoining outdoor garden to satisfy those yearning for a breath of fresh air. The property’s landscaping alone cost over $15 million.

The Borgata has plenty to crow about as it celebrates its first anniversary, but it has done more than earn money for MGM/Mirage. Revenue is up at casinos across town, on the boardwalk too, and Borgata, though it sits on a hill away from the ocean, is getting credit for lifting all boats. Beneficiaries include not only the other casinos, but also the retail and restaurant sectors of the city itself. Huge new projects, including a complete redo of the Inlet district near the Borgata, where condos, shopping, and dining, along with a restored boardwalk, are soon to appear. These are going ahead, many say, because of the success of the new casino.

So were there any mistakes? With everything going so right, what went wrong? Robert Boughner doesn’t miss a beat.

“We lost a lot of business during our opening weeks because we miscalculated on our phone system,” he says. “It was definitely not equipped to handle the volume of calls we received, and it took us seven weeks to right that ship. I’m sure we offended potential customers in the process.”

Plans are already underway for expansion after just one year of operation. In a recent statement to corporate executives and shareholders, Boughner noted that the casino/resort is running into issues that relate to capacity. Citing restaurants that are already over capacity, he announced plans for five new restaurants on the property, along with a new 100-table poker room, 20 additional table games, and a 30 percent expansion of the spa.

Boughner carefully notes that this expansion is by no means a way of keeping up with the Joneses. “In this case,” he says, “we are the Joneses, and we’re simply moving forward.”

And Boughner’s own plans? Are the rumors of his departure valid?

“I am at the Borgata because I enjoy the work, and I have no intention of leaving,” he says. “It’s much too much fun.”

— Sally Friedman

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