Pulse: The Schlock Market

Of the six heart attacks John has endured in his lifetime, two have happened at Trump Marina. That’s not the reason he and his wife Madge come here, Madge says (we changed their names at their request), but let’s just say the Trump Marina has grown old with septuagenarians from Pottsville. They’ve been coming since it was called Trump’s Castle, in the mid-’80s. In those days, of course, Ivana ran things. “It was beautiful,” Madge remembers. Madge spends a lot of time reminiscing about the days when men wore jackets on the Boardwalk, when Atlantic City was a place of glamour and excitement and mystery.

Surely she and John could re-create those days a few yards away at the Borgata?

“Oh, we’ve been there,” Madge says, with a little sneer. “Fancy-schmancy.” They probably won’t go back.

We think of casinos as places that are supposed to create illusions, to inure us to the passage of time. But there are a lot of folks — older ones in particular — who just don’t trust all that. Gaming analyst Barbara Cappaert, of KDP Investment Advisors, calls this the “schlock factor.” Older people like the schlocky Atlantic City casinos, Cappaert says, because “they don’t feel like they’re being tricked. They think the slots are looser, that they’ll make more money at the casinos that aren’t spending a lot on decorations. It’s not true, but it’s the perception.” Trump Marina, for its part, is plastered with signs advertising its “certified 95%” payback rate on slot machines.

Few businesses in our capitalist society treat old folks with respect anymore. Their incomes are fixed. Their consumption habits are long solidified. Nearly eight million people a night watch the CBS Evening News, but their median age is 60, so a 30-second spot costs a mere $30,000 a pop, while Entertainment Tonight fetches as much as five times that for the same number of viewers.

Atlantic City is different. In part because its casinos were largely financed in the ’80s on the backs of high-­interest junk bonds, they can’t afford to focus only on their most profitable customers. And many fixed costs go into running a 24-hour casino, so the casino companies have to get money wherever they can. “Donald needs us to pay for the fuel in his helicopter,” John says with a smile.

But now that cash is flowing into A.C. revitalization efforts, casinos are struggling to figure out how to balance their new visitors with customers like Madge and John, the people who helped the place ride out the bad years. At the Trump Marina, a ­favorite of seniors because of its secluded, non-­overwhelming location, executives haven’t decided how to spend their chunk of the $110 million made available thanks to Trump’s recent restructuring agreement. The Marina “might just be for a more mature customer,” mused chief operating officer Mark Juliano during a recent interview.

Still, the casino is testing out a few things. It’s competing more aggressively for convention business, and allotting fewer of its weekday rooms to “comping” regulars like Madge and John. It has also updated the old soundtrack. On a recent Tuesday, the Strokes, the Killers, the Smiths and the Clash all blasted on the casino floor. “The customers hate the music,” laughs Bob, a manager at the Upstairs Cafe.

As we stand and chat, five or six regulars, all seniors, welcome Bob back. He was only in Jamaica seven days, but it was noticed. “The customers all want to hear opera,” he says. “I tell them I’m very sorry, that if they want to hear opera they can dine at the Italian restaurant.”

“BOB!” exclaims a rotund woman in her 60s. “How was Jamaica?”

“Great!” Bob grins, content for the moment to be back at the same, old, Marina.