New NJ casino-owner is known for offbeat marketing

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - October 25, 2010

As head of Atlantic City's Tropicana Casino and Resort, he pitted a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken against customers and used billboards of Fidel Castro to hype a Cuban-themed shopping and dining mall.

To promote the opening of an Indiana racetrack casino, he hired a Barack Obama lookalike who pitched the gambling hall as a fiscal stimulus package, knowing the White House would object and generate free publicity.

Now Dennis Gomes is buying Resorts Atlantic City, the nation's first casino outside Nevada and one whose fitness to operate he once investigated as a gambling regulator. When Gomes takes over the financially ailing casino in December, one thing is certain: folks should expect the unexpected.

"One of the ways you can tell an idea is really great is when everyone you talk to tells you it won't work," Gomes said.

That philosophy may help explain why Gomes and his business partner, New York developer Morris Bailey, are taking on the monumental challenge of reviving Resorts, New Jersey's first casino and one of its most endangered.

An old building with a clientele to match, the 942-room Resorts fell behind in the casino arms race as newer, larger casinos expanded to 2,000 rooms or more and added amenities to attract a younger, hipper crowd.

The opening of casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania, popular with senior citizen slots players who make up a good portion of Resorts' customer base, hurt even more. When the recession hit, Resorts stopped paying its mortgage. It last made a payment in October 2008 and by December 2009, former owners Colony Capital LLC and minority partner Nicholas Ribis had two choices: turn it over to lenders or close the doors.

Those lenders, including Wells Fargo on behalf of Credit Suisse First Boston Mortgage Securities Corp., struck a deal to sell the casino to Gomes and Bailey for just $35 million - by far the lowest price ever paid for an Atlantic City casino. By comparison, the upscale Borgata cost over $1 billion when it opened in 2003.

Gomes' plan to revive Resorts involves rebranding it with a "Boardwalk Empire" theme, capitalizing on the hit HBO series about Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Resorts occupies a 1920s building that was a luxury hotel in the days of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, Atlantic City's real-life political and rackets boss.

Dealers, cocktail servers, bellhops and others will dress in 1920s-period costumes, music from that period will play, and even the drinks and casino shows will have a roaring '20s theme.

It's the latest in a string of offbeat ideas Gomes has used to promote casinos.

He is perhaps best known for using a live chicken to play tac-tac-toe against customers in 2002 when he ran the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

"People were actually lining up to play tic-tac-toe against a chicken - and they almost always lost," said Mark Giannantonio, Tropicana's current president and a vice president there at the time. "It was a lot of fun. One thing you can always say about Dennis is he's very innovative when it comes to marketing."

When the Tropicana opened a Latin-themed entertainment mall that included a Cuban restaurant, Gomes decided to plaster the area with billboards of former Cuban president Fidel Castro exhorting the masses to "join the REAL revolution."

To promote an underutilized poker room, Gomes commissioned billboards of a nearly nude woman reclining on a table under the word "poker." The double-entendre did not go over too well with gambling regulators, but the entire city was talking about it.

In early 2009, Gomes was looking for a way to draw attention to the impending opening of the Indiana Live casino. He hired a Barack Obama lookalike, along with a second actor whose voice sounds incredibly like Obama, and filmed an ad that appeared to show the president of the United States exhorting people to go to Indiana Live for their own economic stimulus package.

It was all over the news. Within days, Gomes said he got a call from the White House legal staff asking if he would please discontinue the ads. Naturally, he leaked word of the call to the media - generating even more publicity.

"I thought, by design, people will come after us forthis," Gomes said. "It's exactly what I wanted to happen."

Analysts and casino industry executives are split on Resorts' outlook. Some feel the casino's time has passed it by and the headwinds of competition are simply too strong. Others say that because Gomes and Bailey are getting in at such a low price and will carry virtually no debt, they'll be able to hold expenses down, ride out the storm and make a lot of money when things improve.

"If people weren't pessimistic about Atlantic City, we couldn't have gotten the bargain of a lifetime that we got," said the 66-year-old Gomes. "It would have cost 10 times more money. Now is a great time to invest here. I've been very successful in this industry and I think Wall Street has got it all wrong."

Gomes said he anticipated hiring most of, if not all, Resorts' 1,600 employees, albeit at somewhat lower salaries.

Among his many jobs in the industry, Gomes was chief law enforcement officer for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, supervising the investigation of organized crime figures who were convicted of skimming casino cash. The case, and a composite character based on Gomes, were featured in the 1995 film "Casino."

Gomes also worked for Donald Trump, helping turn around the struggling finances of the Taj Mahal Casino Resort in the early 1990s.

"Dennis did a very good job for me," Trump said. "I like Dennis personally, and I was very happy with him. I know he'll do a great job with Resorts."

Roger Gros, publisher of Casino Connection and Global Gaming Business, two casino industry publications, is confident Gomes can turn Resorts around.

"He has no debt, and he's bringing employee costs down," Gros said. "If he can drive a little more business onto the casino floor, which I'm sure he'll be able to do, he'll do well. I'm crossing Resorts off my list of casinos to be worried about."

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