OCEAN CITY – When slots were approved in Maryland last month, some residents vocally feared that Ocean City was going to turn into Atlantic City.
Some might cringe at any comparison of Ocean City and Atlantic City, but doing so could shine some light on how to proceed with current issues facing the town, and surprisingly enough, it has nothing to do with gambling.
Although the towns differ in size, target markets and generally draw visitors to their resort for different reasons, it is undeniable the two towns share some similarities other than both geographically manning real estate on the eastern seaboard.
Largely misconstrued as a “good block, bad block” destination or one simply for gambling or nightlife, Atlantic City has quietly been transforming its image, trying to shift the focus away from the casinos and more to what the town has to offer in way of tourism.
Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitor’s Authority, said that people who haven’t visited New Jersey’s number one tourist destination in five years wouldn’t recognize Atlantic City.
“I realized that people had been walking around with a 10-20-year-old misconception of our town, and we thought it was time to do something about that. I had heard what perceptions were of Atlantic City about it being dirty or just a place to gamble, so we decided to try a different and edgier approach at promoting the town,” he said.
What resulted was full on public relations blitz that attempted to show Atlantic City in a whole new light, most notably a change in the town’s ad slogan from “America’s Favorite Playground” to “Always Turned On.”
“We’ve added 42 new restaurants in the last few years, we started the process to green our town long before it was popular to do so, and we have been fully committed to adding new things each year to stay on the top of people’s minds,” said Vasser.
Ocean City tried the “More Fun Here” approach several years ago and though it was widely scrutinized, the campaign, created by the town’s advertising agency MGH, helped triple the amount of traffic that was coming to the town’s website and was deemed successful as far as helping to sell Ocean City as a destination.
Websites have proven not only valuable but also essential in order to draw visitors to tourist destinations as Ocean City Council controversially approved MGH’s plan for $178,000 and the need for a revised site has caused Mayor Rick Meehan to call the website “the infrastructure of advertising the town.”
Vasser said that Atlantic City recently underwent a $300,000 upgrade to its website, which boasts many of the database driven aspects and aesthetic components that are included in MGH’s proposal, and hinted that the investment is already proving to be a wise one.
“There’s no way to tell exactly how much of our 10-percent increase is because of the website, or the convention center, or entertainment,” said Vasser “but it has certainly helped, and we are seeing a tremendous amount of traffic all while conveying our new image of the town.”
In the 2008 AC Convention Center and Visitor Authority’s Annual Visitor Report, the website was cited as helping to generate over $400,000 in economic impact in just the month of July alone, which was almost double what it was credited with the year prior in economic impact.
Vasser said that Atlantic City not only wanted to “improve the curb appeal” by establishing a cleaner image but also wanted to make a statement as being ahead of the curve for alternative energies.
As a result, the Atlantic City Convention Center is set to unveil the largest single roof array of solar panels anywhere in the country, a feat that Vasser says will not only save AC millions of dollars in utilities, but is a great selling point to consumers.
More than 13,000 solar panels will cover two-thirds of the convention center roof, producing enough solar energy over the course of their 20-year life expectancy to save the town a projected $4.4 million, and prevent 2,349 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of taking almost 400 cars off the road, or saving 15 acres from deforestation. Vasser said that the town already boasts a large wind turbine when you enter the Atlantic City limits and more like it are bound to pop-up both on and off shore as an energy alternative.
Ocean City has been entertaining ideas for usage of wind turbines with the Planning and Zoning Commission recently approving conditional and accessory usage of either roof mounted or free-standing wind turbines in Ocean City and there have been more talks concerning the creation of an off-shore wind farm off the Ocean City coast. In addition, the Park Place Hotel is installing 36 solar thermal panels and expects to see about a quarter of a million dollar savings over 20 years.
Yet the most notable comparison or category that Ocean City may want to look to Atlantic City for guidance is the usage of the convention center.
Vasser said the need for a technologically-savvy convention center is “absolutely vital” in not only drawing major shows but also keeping these shows coming back.
“These big shows expect free Wifi and wireless capabilities all over the center. You need to be on the cutting edge to remain competitive. It’s the little things that bring conventions back,” he said.
If the proposed $5 million upgrade to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center is approved, Ocean City will get not only technological improvements but also energy efficient upgrades to the electric and water heating components of the building.
In phase one, the most scrutinized part of the upgrade is a 1,700-fixed seat auditorium that will be used as a performing arts center.
Vasser said that Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, a 12,000-seat, state-funded arena, has grown to the largest mid-level arena in the world and helped bring some of the biggest names in music and theatre to AC, but also brings in tons of visitors who wouldn’t come to town if it were not for the show.
“Entertainment venues can really provide a shot in the arm for tourism, said Vasser. “If you can bring new people in that haven’t been to the area and give them something new and fun to do with entertainment, then the word starts to spread.”