Optimism For OC Season Tempered With Caution

OCEAN CITY – Resort Economic Development Committee (EDC) members gathered this week for their monthly meeting on the front edge of a new season, and a recurring theme throughout the morning appeared to be hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

The meeting on Wednesday included much of the same rosy optimism expected for such a gathering of resort business leaders on the cusp of another summer season, but the confidence was tempered somewhat by underlying concerns of soaring gas prices and a sagging economy. As each of the various departments made their monthly reports, good news was balanced with the not so good and the need to reach out and promote Ocean City more than ever came up over and over.

Clarion Hotel owner Dr. Lenny Berger, chairman of the EDC, said he is cautiously optimistic for the 2008 season, but voiced concern about sagging bookings. Berger said the group bookings for conventions and events were solid, but raised concern about the weekly vacation traffic.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said. “Condo bookings are slow, hotel bookings are slow. If it weren’t for the group bookings, I’d have a lot of restless nights.”

The resort’s tourism and marketing machine is taking an aggressive approach to reaching out to the millions of potential vacationers within a half a day’s drive of Ocean City. Berger said exploiting the resort’s proximity to roughly a third of the nation’s population would be key to a successful summer season.

“With gas prices where they are and concerns about the economy, people aren’t taking long trips,” he said. “There are 35 million potential vacationers within a five- or six-hour drive from here and we have to take advantage of that.”

In an increasingly competitive tourism environment, marketing and promotion will likely be the difference between a successful season and a flat one. Ocean City’s Tourism Department, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign utilizing a wide variety of media and venues to pitch the resort to its traditional markets and reach out to new ones. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan commended the groups for their proactive approach in selling the resort.

“That’s what we need to do, what we need to be,” he said. “In this instant information age, things change by the hour. I want to congratulate everybody in this room for stepping forward and getting it done. You’re not sitting back and waiting to see what the season brings.”

Meehan said on his recent press junkets to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, one sentiment he heard over and over is the perception that Ocean City is overpriced. He said he caught himself defending the resort’s value several times, but has changed his approach in recent weeks.

“The perception of being pricey is out there and there is no denying it,” he said. “What we need to do now is acknowledge that perception and begin addressing it.”

Berger said fighting the perception Ocean City is overpriced is a constant battle, but urged his colleagues to continue to stress the importance of the value.

“There really is not a better time to come to Ocean City,” he said. “There are bargains galore. The message we have to get out is that Ocean City is a great value.”

Creative marketing and a budget to get the message out are paramount for a successful season, but in a beach community like Ocean City, the weather can be the ultimate trump card.

“We know it will get more consistent when the weather gets hot,” said Berger. “It always does. We have to be ready for that.”

Perhaps second only to the weather are the many special events the town offers during the shoulder seasons and the peak summer months. For example, EDC members pointed out the numbers were way up during the Cruisin’ event three weeks ago, but dropped off compared to last year on the traditional Memorial Day weekend a week later.

“Cruisin’ was a home run this year,” said Berger. “It just goes to show you how important the special events are in Ocean City.”

In other news from the EDC meeting on Wednesday, Ocean City Golf Getaway’s Mike Cleary told EDC members golf package rounds were down this spring, largely because one of the largest golf packaging outfits went out of business, but the number of rounds played at area courses were up. Cleary said many of the groups who return to Ocean City year after year made their own arrangements at courses and hotels. He pointed out there were 136,000 rounds of golf played to date, equating to 15,583 hotel nights.

While golf continues to hold its own, concerns were raised about another recreational staple in the resort. With soaring fuel prices and less disposable income for many visitors, sportfishing could be in for a tough year as evidenced by waning interest in the centerpiece of the summer season.

“I got a call from the White Marlin Open guys and they told me registrations are way down because of the fuel prices and asked me what we can do to help,” said Ocean City’s Assistant Executive Director for Tourism Debbie Travers. “We understand how much money fishing brings into Ocean City. We are aware of that and we’re doing everything we can to promote it.”