Atlantic City is renowned all over the world as one of the premier gambling destinations of the United States. What Vegas is to the West Coast, Atlantic City has been for the East, and it’s been that way since New Jersey legalized gambling back in the 70s. Many people argue that the struggles AC has been facing in recent years has been due to the city’s failure to diversify its revenue sources. Many of us in the events industry are asking whether the conventions business can be an opportunity for the city to revitalize itself as a resort destination. That’s funny; because as far as American history is concerned, Atlantic City was actually the country’s first and original convention capital.
Rewind back half a century before people went there to gamble. America was in its Roaring 20s, and along with the Italian Mafia, Atlantic City was singlehandedly boosted to prosperity by a golden goose of a law passed in 1919 called Prohibition. Speakeasies at the time could be found in most cities for those who knew where to look, but all over the country, it was common knowledge that Atlantic City was the one place where Prohibition essentially didn’t apply. The city was run by a political boss by the name of Enoch Johnson, a real life total badass who got butchered down to being a smalltime crook by the acclaimed show Boardwalk Empire. Unlike the loser that Buscemi portrayed, the real life Nucky never competed with the violent criminals like Luciano and Capone. He instead wielded his power through the pursestrings of Atlantic City, controlling the Boardwalk beachfront that freely imported liquor and distributed to local restaurants. It’s not strictly legal anyway, so why not take it a step further and add gambling and prostitution to the mix? Atlantic City under Johnson’s rule became colloquially known as “The World’s Playground”.
As glorious as this all was, AC during this time was still in its essence, a resort town. And like any resort town, the business cycles were sadly dependent on seasonality. Springs and summers were fantastic, but once the weather drops, so does the revenues the city brings in. It was through this dynamic that Nucky Johnson showed his real business acumen. He saw that AC being the playground to the world has led the city to attract many corporate events, with people coming to mix business with pleasure. So, in 1926, Nucky set about constructing the Atlantic City Convention Hall. At the time, this was the largest convention center anywhere in the world, at a quarter million square feet, sitting right on the Boardwalk. It’s still around today, being used as basically AC’s version of a hybrid between Madison Square Garden and the Javits Center. It hosts sporting events, musical concerts, and conventions, being a space that can accommodate well over 10,000 people.
In three years the Convention Hall was finished, and Nucky held the inaugural event with his friends from the underworld in what is considered to be America’s very first convention of organized crime: The Atlantic City Conference. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torio, and virtually every member associated with the mafia at the time showed up. Some say this was the moment in American history when Organized Crime was formed. If you saw the finale of Boardwalk Empire, the show portrayed this meeting as a lame little lunch for like 5 people. No. In real life, this was one of the most epic gatherings of criminals the world had ever seen. Lucky Luciano organized and ran the meeting. Nucky Johnson was the host. And Atlantic City, its now seemingly forgotten reputation for being the convention capital of America, was formed.
See you at the next exploration!