by Lisa A. Grimaldi | February 01, 2013

Four months after Hurricane Sandy struck, much of the New York and New Jersey coastline remains devastated. Damage from the storm is still being assessed, but officials estimate the toll for the Garden State alone will be just shy of $37 billion, while New York's tab is expected to reach about $32 billion.

At press time -- and after much drama -- Congress finally approved a $50.5 billion aid package for relief and recovery efforts. In the meantime, a number of communities and organizations have been working to restart the local economies and restore the public image of hard-hit towns, attractions and event facilities. Among these proactive agencies are the region's four largest destination management organizations: the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, the Jersey Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau, NYC & Company and the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.

Following is an account of how these DMOs are striving to quash misconceptions and lure group business back after the storm.

Atlantic City:"When you are ready, we are here"

Atlantic City  beachOne of the most haunting images of Hurricane Sandy's impact on New Jersey was that of Atlantic City's famed Boardwalk being swept away by the surging Atlantic. The footage certainly was dramatic, but it also was misleading, according to Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City CVA. Only a very small portion of the Boardwalk north of the casino resorts was affected -- a section that had been weakened by previous storms and closed to pedestrian for several years.

"The rest of the Boardwalk was fine," Vasser says. "The beach was OK, the casinos were OK -- in fact, when Gov. [Chris] Christie lifted the evacuation order and mandatory closing of the casino resorts just five days later, we were open for business."

However, the damage to the seaside mecca's image was done. Not long after the storm, a national poll commissioned by the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit marketing entity funded and overseen by the city's casinos, showed that 41 percent of Americans believed the Atlantic City Boardwalk had been destroyed.

Though little physical damage was recorded, the storm dealt the city a major financial blow, particularly in the meetings and conventions realm: Nine events scheduled at the Atlantic City Convention Center, including the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Education Association conventions, and 90 meetings booked at the city's 12 casino resorts, were canceled within days after the hurricane.

The city ended up losing 13,000 room nights and $30.7 million in delegate spending at a time when it could least afford it. Atlantic City concluded 2012 with its casino earnings down 8 percent from 2011 figures, perpetuating a six-year slide in gaming revenues.

But the storied entertainment district didn't fold up shop. Almost immediately, the ACCVA, along with other industry groups, went into overdrive to recoup some of the lost business by getting the word out that area attractions and meeting facilities were open and running.

For starters, the Atlantic City Alliance relaunched its sleek "Do AC" ad campaign on East Coast radio and TV stations, tweaked to include new images of unharmed stretches of the Boardwalk and casinos, reinforcing the message that the city's landmarks were not affected by Sandy (view a promo at bit.ly/VOrurw).

To boost events business, the ACA and ACCVA debuted a program to attract business for 2013. The campaign, funded by the destination's 12 casino resorts, pledges to give a total of $1 million to planners to help defray event expenses such as transportation from the airport, receptions, rent and electric bills. To qualify, new group or meetings business booked must take place in 2013 and generate a minimum of 1,000 room nights.

Jeff Vasser also is betting that, with the increased focus on post-Sandy Atlantic City, two new developments will catch clients' attention: the newly opened (and unharmed) Revel Resort, with 1,800 meeting rooms and 160,000 square feet of meeting space, and the recently approved new conference center at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, which will add 100,000 square feet of meeting space to the property by 2014.

"These developments are huge for us," Vasser notes. "They give us more in our toolkit to offer corporate groups."

Still, recapturing Atlantic City's biggest tourist segment -- leisure visitors from New Jersey and New York -- remains the primary challenge. Vasser has a message for these elusive customers: "We realize visitors and supporters are still suffering and, in some cases, repairing damage to their own homes. We know coming to A.C. is not your priority, but when you are ready, we are here."