That Atlantic City is beginning to look a bit like Las Vegas is by design, not accident. 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 that has a wild-west theme, right on down to the croupiers clad in cowboy shirts. Two years ago, there was none of this.

Then again, the past two years have been momentous ones in the quirky history of this 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. Last spring, a sorely needed $268 million convention center opened; several months later, it was joined by an adjacent non-casino, 502-room Sheraton hotel. Casino hotel expansions have brought another 1,000-plus guest rooms on line. And in a project aimed at giving visitors the best first impression, an $84 million Grand Boulevard corridor that links the main highway into town with the convention and casino district was completed in October 1997. The Grand Boulevard has lush landscaping, cascading water, and even a simulated boardwalk.

What's more, five huge themed casino hotel projects are on the drawing boards. Two of these, Mirage Resorts' 2,000-room Le Jardin Casino Resort and a 2,500-room property from MGM Grand, may break ground this year. If all five projects reach fruition, Atlantic City would have 17 casino hotels.

All these improvements are targeted as much to meeting attendees as they are to weekend gamblers. And the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority (ACCVA) is actively courting corporate meetings and incentive programs. "In many of the casino hotels, the corporate base is even bigger than the association base," says Bill Blaziek, vice president, convention development.

For the past two years, a division of the ACCVA's sales team has focused on booking small, short-term meetings. This spring, Blaziek says, the convention and visitors authority is rolling out a system which allows meeting planners to access its Web site, quickly determine individual properties' space availability, and get rate quotes. Corporate groups can snare the most favorable rates by meeting mid-week and booking during Atlantic City's off season from mid-December through March, when rates can drop as much as 30 percent.

Atlantic City is easily reached by highway, bus, and rail, but one shortcoming is the lack of commercial air service into Atlantic City International Airport. Most groups from outside the Northeastern corridor fly in and out of Philadelphia International Airport, some 60 miles away. However, air service is likely to improve as the city's planned mega-properties come on line.

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 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 guestrooms, 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 1998, 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 guestroom 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 $1-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. Notable courses include the Seaview Marriott's Bay Course, Brigantine Golf Links, 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.

New car introductions, incentive meetings, product training seminars, sales training Thomas Steely's view, Atlantic City is an all-purpose destination. Product planning manager for Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, NJ, Steely finds Atlantic City not only to be convenient--his attendees generally come from the mid-Atlantic region--but well poised to host anything Subaru throws its way.

"The level of expertise at the convention authority and in the hotels' convention services departments is phenomenal, and I've always gotten platinum level treatment," he says. This despite the fact that Steely often stages quick, in-and-out meetings in Atlantic City--the type that allow attendees little or no time to patronize the casinos.

Steely notes that for longer meetings, the presence of casino gambling means that he does not have to find ways to keep his attendees entertained. They find their own ways. Last year, Steely tried out the new convention center, bringing 75 people in for a day of sales training. The meeting room space, he says, "was state-of-the-art in every way." Noting such new attractions as the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Bally's Wild Wild West Casino, Steely sees Atlantic City trying to mold itself as something more than a gaming town. "It's trying to be an entertainment center, going the route of Las Vegas," he says. "The city isn't quite there yet, but it's getting there."

For More Information Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority Ronnie Burt, Regional Sales Manager (609) 449-7100 Fax: (609) 345-3685