That Atlantic City is beginning to look a bit like Las Vegas is by design, not accident. No, they haven't imported sand from the desert--with Atlantic City's unparalleled beachfront, there's no need to. And don't count on seeing palm trees anytime soon; southern New Jersey, despite its stingy snowfall totals, is northern in climate. What you can count on--and what is already in evidence--is the type of themed entertainment that Las Vegas has raised to an art form.

And so, Atlantic City is now home to a Hard Rock Cafe, an All Star Cafe, a Planet Hollywood and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, as well as a casino at Bally's Park Place with a Wild West theme, right on down to the croupiers clad in cowboy shirts. And just two years ago, there was none of this.

Then again, the past two years have been momentous ones in the quirky history of the old seashore resort, which, because of slick new casinos on Connecticut Indian reservations, finds itself without the East Coast gaming monopoly it had enjoyed for much of the past 20 years. Atlantic City now has a $7.3 million art-deco bus terminal and a newly expanded international airport that lacks only abundant commercial air service. In a project aimed at making the best first impression, the $84 million Grand Boulevard corridor, linking the main highway into town with the casino district, was completed in October 1997.

And, most important for associations, a new $268 million convention center opened last May, bumping the city's Depression-era convention hall, site of the Miss America Pageant, from the spotlight. The Atlantic City Convention Center has 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and the voice, video, and data communications technology one would expect from a convention facility opening just short of the turn of the millennium. It also has 29 covered loading docks, making for far easier move-ins and move-outs than at the convention hall. An adjacent hotel, a non-casino Sheraton hotel with 500 guest rooms, joined the new convention center in November.

The new center very quickly has raised Atlantic City's profile among association groups. As of January, 74 conventions and trade shows were booked into the center for 1998, including such first-time customers as the Mobile Electronics Show, in June, and the Association of the Non-Woven Fabric Industry's Filtration Conference and Exposition, in December.

More big projects are on the near horizon. Five huge themed casino hotel projects are on the drawing boards, with two--Mirage Resorts' 2,000-room Le Jardin Casino Resort and a 2,500-room property from MGM Grand--possibly breaking ground this year. If all five reach fruition, Atlantic City would have 17 casino hotels.

"Appropriately, we are trying to become multidimensional as a destination," said Bill Blaziek, director of convention development for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. "For a long time, we were known only for gaming, but the theming of the new casino properties is adding more of an entertainment element." He added this will be carrying over to the city's famous amusement piers, which the state has approved for redevelopment--ensuring that attendees will have some other place to go besides the casinos when their meetings are not in session.

Hotel News * Atlantic City's newest hotel is notable for what it does not have--a casino. What the Sheraton Atlantic City Hotel does have is a strategic location. It sits right next door to the new Atlantic City Convention Center, to which it is connected by skywalk. The 502-room hotel, which opened in November 1997, has 29,000 square feet of meeting and prefunction space, including a 16,000-square-foot ballroom.

* Caesars Atlantic City's new Centurion Tower, which opened in December, has 620 guest rooms, an 18,500-square-foot ballroom, and four meeting rooms totaling 2,500 square feet. The tower, part of the property's $280 million expansion and renovation, brings the total room inventory to 1,144 and meeting space to 45,000 square feet. An expansion of casino space, to 100,000 square feet, is scheduled for completion in June of this year, as are a 17,135-square-foot ballroom and exterior renovations.

* Last August, Harrah's Atlantic City completed a 16-story addition that includes 416 guestrooms and 13,000 square feet of casino space. The new Marina Tower, which connects to the existing hotel, brings Harrah's total room inventory to 1,174. The property has 25,000 square feet of meeting space.

* In July, the Atlantic City Hilton, formerly The Grand, opened a 300-room tower that increased the total guest room count to 804 and the number of meeting rooms from 5 to 14.

* The Seaview Marriott Resort in Absecon, ten miles northwest of Atlantic City, will complete a $1 million renovation of its lobby and 17,000 square feet of meeting space this month. Renovation of its 300 guestrooms will begin in December 1998 and is scheduled for completion in February 1999.

* Tropicana Casino and Resort, formerly TropWorld, is now New Jersey's largest hotel, with the 1996 opening of a 628-room tower. The property has 1,624 guest rooms and 45,000 square feet of meeting and function space.

* The owner of Resorts Casino Hotel, Sun International Hotels Ltd., is planning to construct a new tower with 600 guest rooms to replace the existing 160-room North Tower. The $150 million project also includes the renovation of all existing guest rooms and casino and public spaces. The project is still awaiting final government approval, and is expected to be completed in late 1999. The new tower will increase the property's guest room inventory to 1,100. Resorts has 44,450 square feet of meeting space.

Tax and Money Matters Guests at casino hotels pay a total tax of 12 percent (6 percent state sales tax, 6 percent luxury tax), plus a tourism fee of $2 per night. Guests at non-casino hotels pay the same 12 percent tax plus a one-dollar-per-night fee.

How's the Weather? Atlantic City, located on the coast near the southern end of New Jersey, is more temperate than many other cities in the Northeast. High temperatures average in the 40s in the winter, in the 60s in the spring, and in the 80s in the summer. It does snow in Atlantic City, but not as much as in New York or Philadelphia.

Getting There Atlantic City is 60 miles east of Philadelphia and 115 miles south of New York City, and is accessible by major highways. New Jersey Transit offers rail service from Philadelphia, which is on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Line. New Jersey Transit, Greyhound Bus, and Academy Bus provide bus service to Atlantic City; the rail and bus terminals are close to the new convention center. US Airways Express and Continental Airlines provide limited service to Atlantic City International Airport, which is 12 miles from the city. Shuttle and bus transfers are available.

Venue Menu Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey, is a refreshing counterpoint to the casino mecca 40 miles to the north. Whereas Atlantic City is modern and glitzy, Cape May is quiet and genteel. The town is best known for its restored Victorian homes, many of which are now bed-and-breakfast inns. Cape May is mobbed during the summer; spring and fall are the best times for meeting groups headquartered in Atlantic City to visit. For additional information, contact the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce at (609) 729-9000.

Established in 1864, the Renault Winery is the Garden State's oldest winery, and a popular special-event destination. The winery, 13 miles from Atlantic City, accommodates from 20 to 350 people for private events. Call (609) 965-2111.

Golf will never overtake gambling as the diversion of choice in Atlantic City, but those who prefer the greens to green felt will not be disappointed. Southern New Jersey has excellent golf courses within easy reach of the casinos, and there's even a Greater Atlantic City Golf Association that books tee times up to 13 months in advance via a toll-free number, (800) GOLF-222. The association has nine golf courses and 30 hotels as members.

Local courses include the Seaview Marriott's Bay Course, Brigantine Golf Links, Blue Heron Pine Golf Club, Frog Rock Golf Course, Greate Bay Resort & Country Club, Green Tree Golf Course, Latona Golf Course, Mays Landing Golf Club, and Cape May National, built around a 50-acre bird sanctuary. Southern New Jersey courses are open year-round.

Garden Pier juts out into the ocean from the boardwalk and is home to the Atlantic City Art Center and Museum and the Atlantic City Historical Museum and Cultural Center. The latter, housed in a building dating to 1913, recalls the resort city's history before casino gambling came on the scene in 1978, and has a hall that accommodates up to 150 people for lunches, dinners, and special events. Meeting executives can arrange to erect a tent on the pier for events requiring greater capacity. For more information call the Historical Museum and Cultural Center at (609) 347-5839.

Association Meeting Planners Say Yes, the casinos are quite a draw, but for the mostly small-town members of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), simply strolling the Boardwalk in the fading light of day was a greater pleasure, says Sandy Henderson, assistant meetings manager for the Arlington, VAbased association.

The NRECA brought the annual meeting for its Regions 1 and 4--primarily New England, the mid-Atlantic, and parts of the Midwest--to the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort from September 3 to 5 last year. Atlantic City proved to be an attendance-builder--1,300 people, including spouses-- but the coastal location and overall atmosphere were more compelling than the casinos. "Our people are rural and conservative, and they probably did very little gambling," Henderson says. "When our meetings broke, they just wanted to walk the Boardwalk and enjoy views of the ocean. The Boardwalk is comfortable and safe and offers a lot of things to do, including some very inexpensive dining."

Henderson praised the convention services at the Taj Mahal, and says the hotel even made a welcome suggestion: Hold coffee breaks inside the meeting rooms rather than in lobby or other public areas, so the association's attendees would not mix with the property's large population of day gamblers.

Henderson says the Taj Mahal is designed so comfortably as to make people want to stay inside the hotel and its casino. As for cost, Henderson says Atlantic City is more expensive than many of the middle-of-the-road cities the NRECA meets in, but compares favorably with major destinations in the traditionally expensive Northeast. In addition to the low dining costs, she noted the minimal cost for parking and the well-received room rate of about $110 a night at the Taj Mahal.

"There really is no comparison," says the U.S. Sign Council's Andrew Bertucci, speaking about the new Atlantic City Convention Center and the storied convention hall it replaced. "The old hall was adequate, but then again, its amenities were 60 years old and worn out. The new center is world-class, excellent. All the exhibitors found it to be superior to the old building, and they especially commented about the ease moving their materials in and out. The new building has lots of loading docks, but the old hall has just one. Used to be, the exhibitors literally waited on line on Pacific Avenue to move in."

The Bristol, PAbased U.S. Sign Council, whose members are in the commercial signage industry, got its first look at the new convention at its annual educational conference and trade show December 3 to 6. The meeting drew 9,000 people, including 400 exhibitors. "Atlantic City has drawing power, but not just because of the casinos," Bertucci said. "It's in a geographic area [where many of our members live], and the road system into Atlantic City is excellent."

The council, which used three casino hotels and two noncasino properties, did not avail itself of the convention center's adjacent hotel, the Sheraton, which had opened just two weeks before the meeting. But Bertucci says the Sheraton will probably be the headquarters hotel for the 1998 meeting, and that ought to trim the council's shuttle costs.

Bertucci says Atlantic City, like Las Vegas, can be financially advantageous for the association, not just because of its tendency to draw big numbers but because there is little need to make special efforts to keep attendees entertained. "We've discovered our people just want to take advantage of the sights and sounds--and the casinos. They don't necessarily need a planned social event," he says. But Bertucci does recommend giving attendees as much information as possible about the stage shows at the casinos, and how they can go about acquiring tickets.

For More Information Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority Bill Blaziek, vice president, convention development, (609) 449-7110 Fax: (609) 345-3685 www.atlanticcitynj.com