Tourism Summit Reveals OC’s Positives, Negatives

OCEAN CITY – Well over 100 business owners, elected
officials and concerned citizens turned out on Monday for the first-ever
Tourism Summit in Ocean City to discuss where the resort has been and where it
should go in the future in terms of attracting visitors in an increasingly
competitive market.

Before ideas could be batted around in an open forum
during the summit at the Convention Center on Monday, attendees got an overview
of how the combined efforts of the town’s tourism department, the Chamber of
Commerce and the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association are marketing the resort
now and what the agencies’ collective plans are for the future. Also presented
was an overview of the demographics of Ocean City’s current visitor base, who
they are, where they come from, how long they stay and what they do when they
get here.

The presentations were sprinkled with equal doses of good
news and bad news. On the good news side, the resort continues to attract its
share of the tourist market with tradition and loyalty at the center of what
keeps visitors coming back year after year, but on the bad news side, those
loyal visitors are coming less frequently and staying for shorter periods of
time, according to some of the data collected.

west o bottle shop

A recurring theme throughout the nearly three-hour summit
was the increased cost of a vacation in Ocean City, from the cost of lodging to
restaurants to a Happy Meal from McDonalds to a gallon of milk in the grocery
store. One unidentified attendee said, “It’s not about the dollar amount spent,
it’s about the value perceived for it. If they find things cost much more and
are not as nice as what they have at home, they’re going to go away

Another major issue tied to perceived value is the level
of customer service in Ocean City. With an increasingly foreign summer
workforce on the front lines in the tourism industry in the resort, many in
attendance voiced concern with issues such as language barriers and
indifference among the front-line workers. One resort area hotelier explained
how at her business, the foreign workers were trained well and made to feel
welcome and included, which improved their attitude and spilled over to their
relationships with her guests.

The issues debated during Monday’s summit were certainly
not all negative and there is a strong base established for decades upon which
to build in the future. For example, the beach is among the best in the world
and the Boardwalk is constantly noted in the national media as one of the best
in the country. In the end, the feeling for most who attended the summit was to
continue to exploit all the resort area has to offer, be more proactive in
problem solving and value perception, and instill a stronger commitment to
customer service.

“It’s all about hospitality,” said Dr, Leonard Berger, who
owns and operates the Clarion Resort. “It’s about being nice and making people
happy. We have to listen to the people and try to correct what they perceive isn’t
right. That’s what keeps people coming back year after year.”

Typical Resort
Visitors Identified

Through the visitor surveys filled out and returned
throughout the summer, the allied tourism agencies were able to paint a picture
of the typical visitor. The data is being used to determine how best to target
the resort’s marketing to reach out to the guests identified, but can also be
used to determine if there are markets Ocean City is overlooking.

When asked what the best part of an Ocean City visit is,
most referred to the time-honored trips to the beach and the Boardwalk. For
example, 82 percent said they go to the beach frequently and 53 percent of them
said they rate their beach experience as excellent while 30 percent find it
very good. Similarly, 74 percent go to the Boardwalk frequently and 43 percent
of them find the experience excellent while 31 percent find it very good.

For years, it has appeared the typical visitor has moved
away from the traditional Saturday-to-Saturday summer vacation and the data in
the survey appears to bear that out. For example, 47 percent of those surveyed
said their typical stay in Ocean City is now two to four nights.

While last-minute Internet bookings have become
commonplace in recent years, a majority of those surveyed, 44 percent, said
they still plan their Ocean City vacation one to six months in advance while 30
percent plan their vacations seven or more months in advance. Twenty-seven
percent said they plan their trip to the resort less than one month in advance.

Pennsylvania continues to be Ocean City’s largest target
audience according to those surveyed. For example, 46 percent of those who took
the survey are from Pennsylvania, while 32 percent are from Maryland with
single digit percentages in other mid-Atlantic states.

Typical group size is another factor explored by the
visitor surveys and the results seem to reaffirm Ocean City is still a family
resort. For example, 46 percent said they came to Ocean City with three to five
people, while 24 percent said they came to the resort with six or more people.
Couples make up the third largest segment at 27 percent.

Comments Varied

In preparation for the tourism summit, the allied
departments and agencies prepared lists of comments and feedback from the
business community on what they perceive are some of the problems. Their
comments unveiled on Monday ran the gamut from fears about the perception of
being overpriced to the concerns about the hospitality of the workforce to the
need for more events and attractions to keep visitors returning.

For example, one business comment said the summer
workforce lacks common courtesy skills and needs better training. Another
comment said visitors want to see and do new things and, to that end, the town
needed new attractions, events and other reasons for return visits.

Other comments from the business community raised concerns
about the perceived value of the resort. For example, one comment suggested the
town is becoming overpriced and the perceived value has not kept pace. Another
comment submitted urged business leaders not to get too greedy when it came to
successful off-season events, such as Bike Week for example, and resist the
temptation to raise rates and prices.

Other submitted comments from the business side raised concern
the resort has moved away from its target audience in recent years. For
example, one of the comments submitted said Ocean City is leaving the middle
class visitor behind and targeting a more affluent market. The concern raised
is that there are only so many affluent families to target and they typically
aren’t loyal to the resort because they prefer to travel all over.

Other comments from the business sector dealt strictly
with the nuts and bolts of doing business. For example, one comment suggested the
cost of doing business has become astronomical, while the profit margin has
become very narrow. Others said the mid-week in-season business has been
minimal with heavy demand on the weekend. Along the same lines, another
business comment said Saturday has become the new Friday with many visitors
staying just one weekend night.

Visitor Opinions

Just like the comments from the local business community,
the comments received from visitors to the town were varied and ranged from the
positive to the negative. However, some of the comments mirror the input given
from the business community, but from the other side of the counter or the
front desk.

For example, one visitor comment said the town in general
looked “very dingy” as they drove through the resort, while another said there
are a lot of properties that could use updating considering the prices they are
charging. Another visitor comment, and a point echoed throughout the summit on
Monday, is that visitors feel it makes it difficult to spend money at the local
businesses when the accommodations are costing them so much.

Other complaints from visitors focused on issues related
to day-trippers and short-timers. For example, one comment said the public
restrooms and bathhouses were filthy and there was no place to go for people
here for the day. One of the biggest complaints is that there are only a
handful of hotels that will do one-night stays. Some patrons have been told by
front desk personnel at some hotels and motels that they have plenty of
vacancies but cannot accommodate them because of their minimum-stay policies.

Like their business counterparts, some visitors commented
on the overall lack of courtesy they sometimes encounter in the resort and
their comments weren’t limited to just the front line workers. For example, one
visitor comment said patrons sometimes feel they have been treated rudely by
hotel or business staff and if they have a complaint and have to speak to
management, they are treated even worse.

It is important to note the visitor comments cited here
represent those with a negative tone and there were an in-kind number of
positive comments about Ocean City and the resort experience. Obviously, it
isn’t all bad because eight million people visit every year and many of them,
or most even, have been returning for generations. In addition, many of the
negative comments have and are being addressed. For example, the various
tourism agencies host countless training seminars for front-line hospitality
workers each year and many business owners take advantage of them by sending
their employees to them.

What Happens Next?

Clearly the information presented during Monday’s tourism
summit suggests a need to continue to exploit all of the things that make
visitors to Ocean City return year after year while addressing the wide variety
of concerns raised by both the local business community and the visitor base.
It appears to be a daunting task, but the general sense from the meeting
suggests a tweaking is needed and not a complete overhaul. OCHMRA Executive
Director Susan Jones summed up that sentiment in her closing remarks.

“The important thing is to not think so much about where
we’ve been, but where we need to go in the future,” she said.

Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38B), former Ocean City mayor and
chief cheerleader for the resort, said the summit achieved what everyone hoped
it would.

“Sometimes, you have to take the top off and look inside
to see what’s good, bad and ugly,” he said. “In that respect, this has been a
healthy exercise.”