A handblown glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly graces the hotelâ€™s entryway.
The casino at the Borgata boasts row after row of slot machines.
With its glass-enclosure, the Borgataâ€™s stunning foyer is visible to guests upon their arrival.
Tom Ballance, the president of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, was the casinoâ€™s first employee in 1998.
It’s an early Friday morning at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, and Tom Ballance seems completely at ease. He takes a seat at one of the glossy dining tables inside the Society Club, the exclusive lair to which only the highest of the high rollers have access. Following a string of busy weekends in early spring, it’s going to be yet another packed house at the Borgata this weekend. But that’s no concern for Ballance. Every day is busy for him. “All my days are full, from the time I crawl out of bed in the morning to the time I crawl back into bed,” he laughs.
And they’re only going to get fuller. Ballance took over as president and chief operating officer last December amid the fallout from Hurricane Sandy, the legalization of Internet gaming in New Jersey, the Borgata’s launch of in-room gaming (the nation’s first), the completion of a $50 million property renovation of the hotel, and the planning of the casino resort’s 10th anniversary festivities this summer. Couple that with media appearances and general day-to-day business and, “there has been little time to settle in,” he says.
There’s also no typical day, Ballance adds. Borgata is one of the few casino hotels in Atlantic City—and in the US—that owns everything in the building. “The reality is we are running not one business, but 45 businesses—including two spas, 11 restaurants, a table games business, a slots business, and a plumbing and electrical company. [Their] problems are our problems… and [their] profits are our profits.” Ballance is used to the unpredictable nature of his job, not unlike his early days with the Borgata. Hired in October 1998, Ballance was the casino’s very first employee. Prior to that, the longtime resident of Egg Harbor Township had spent 17 years with Harrah’s Resort in a variety of operations and development positions. “Borgata’s first executive office was my dining room,” he says with a laugh. “We had no offices—nothing. When I first got here, there wasn’t even a drawing of what Borgata was going to look like.”
As Ballance has been with the Borgata since day one, its 10th anniversary is all the more important to him. He says that, aside from his family, the Borgata has been the biggest part of his life for the past 14 years.
“I’ve been here for the development of what we were when we first opened, what we became after we opened, and how we have evolved as the business has changed and matured. So it’s deeply personal,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean that Ballance spends his time ruminating on previous trials and tribulations. His way of thinking about business has always been to focus on the future. That’s the type of forward planning that has allowed Borgata to be a leader in the market, with many notable “firsts” to his credit over the years: attracting celebrity chefs, carving out a new nightlife segment, and bringing the first true non-gaming resort to AC with The Water Club in 2008. The Borgata also introduced cashless slots and the first players cards, which replaced handwritten comp slips.
For the next 10 years, the focus will be equally divided between leading the charge in Internet gaming, which Ballance sees as the future of the industry, and serving the property’s customers. “We have this melting-pot demographic that has been one of our biggest strengths. If you’re here on a Saturday night, we could have Frankie Valli at the Music Box and Tiësto at the Event Center. Borgata is one of those places where various age groups not only coexist but also enjoy one another’s company. We intended that from the beginning.”
“In many ways our concept is still the same as in the past,” he adds. “We want to attract new customers and keep our existing ones happy.” That drive to maintain an eclectic pool of visitors is mirrored in Ballance’s role as the newly elected board chairman of the Atlantic City Alliance, an organization that champions the city as a year-round tourist destination. A year ago, the nonprofit group embarked on a campaign to rebrand the city’s dusty old image as a casino town. It has already made great strides, as evidenced by the increase in non-gaming revenue. And that will be the sweet spot for the success of Atlantic City—and the Borgata—in the years to come.
“This is the first time in 30 years that Atlantic City has had a public relations plan,” says Ballance. “This market will go as the Borgata goes. You can’t have one in every four dollars spent at the Borgata and not have the Borgata drive the market. Our continued success is critical to the success of the city.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Ballance makes time to wander around the property at least three times a week and always on Saturdays, when the place is running at full tilt. Is it hard to look at the Borgata, a personal labor of love, after all these years with a fresh point of view?
“What’s hard to do is have dinner [there] with my wife,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll zero in on something and she always says, ‘Will you just leave it alone? You should have more fun when you’re here.’”
photography by eric ryan anderson