Ocean City To Fund Gas, Golf Campaigns

OCEAN CITY – A free gas giveaway promotion and a golf advertising co-op were approved this week in one fell swoop through a compromise made among City Council members.

Councilman Brent Ashley began the discussion by proposing to have an assessment completed on Ocean City’s summer seasons to examine data collected on its visitors. For example why or why not people come to town or if advertising efforts affect people who come or don’t come.

Tourism Director Deb Turk explained that the assessment would be completed by an outside company on an annual basis as other large destination areas, such as Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks, do currently.

Ashley moved the discussion to the gas giveaway promotion that he had initially brought up a few weeks ago. The initial concept was to offer visitors a free gallon of gas for every night they stay in town to ease visitors into traveling the distance despite gasoline prices. Part of his initial proposal was to take $1 million from the fiscal year 2012 advertisement budget to fund the promotion.

Ashley returned on Tueday with a new proposal to reallocate $100,000 from the advertising budget to go towards the gas giveaway. His main point was that the concept is to promote Ocean City through the giveaway and estimated that the topic has already created around $50,000 in free advertising since the discussion has begun.

“My thought was let’s make you a hero Rick [Mayor Meehan],” Ashley said. “Where you have to go for these promotional events…if we can get MGH [town’s advertising company] to set it up with a gas station where you could actually be out there putting gas in people’s car…I think it would make national headlines and create a PR bonanza.”

Ashley added that the last two Memorial Day weekends in Ocean City have been successful but they were followed by “soft summers”.

“Memorial Day isn’t necessarily an indicator on how the summer’s going to go,” Ashley asserted as he offered the gas giveaway as a new way to promote Ocean City.

Mayor Rick Meehan responded that although he appreciated the efforts made to promote Ocean City, the gas promotion sends a negative message.

“I think the numbers of people that traveled here this weekend and last weekend certainly show that gas didn’t detour them from coming,” he said.

Councilman Lloyd Martin said that he has been in the gas business for 35 years and for the first time in a Memorial Day weekend he decreased his gas price twice.

“It’s a positive thing … I don’t want to resonate anything negative in gas prices right now when they are going down,” he said. “I would much rather see the mayor in a booth giving away free tolls. I just want to make sure they [visitors] come to Ocean City and I think $100,000 in gas is not going to go that far.”

Council President Jim Hall agreed with the mayor and Martin and said he did not agree in repeating negatives and does not support the gas promotion.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said the gas promotion does not mean Ocean City is conveying the message that people cannot afford the gas to come here or that the economy’s down but it just adds another item to the list of free items Ocean City offers.

Councilman Joe Hall agreed, saying, “I think we can create a unique and creative buzz out of this promotion. Certainly, the $100,000 is a lot different than the $1 million proposal originally … the thing about this is everyday there is conversation about gas and gas prices. It’s a topic of discussion no matter where you go or who you’re talking to and if we can infuse into that conversation a topic about Ocean City and it can be in a positive light, I think we’re capitalizing on a hot topic at this time.”

Councilman Doug Cymek revealed that he has been “sitting on the fence for this one” and offered a compromise.

“I would tend to support this if I can get some concurrence toward the golf advertising co-op program … I would like to possibly get two things wrapped up at the same time,” he said. “I see the taxpayers having a direct return on the $60,000 as far as the golf promo goes.”

The Golf Co-Op Marketing Plan has been brought to the council four times and has not yet passed. The objective is to intensify the marketing of Ocean City as a desirable golf destination by partnering with Ocean City golf packagers to increase related revenue to the town and increase rounds booked at the town-owned golf course Eagles Landing. The marketing dollars that the eligible packagers match will double the investment made by the town, resulting, at least conceptually, in extended reach, frequency and increased bookings. The proposal directs $60,000 towards the golf co-op but out of the already allocated golf advertising budget.

In a rare disagreement between the two, Councilwoman Mary Knight did not agree with Cymek’s attempt to compromise. She said that the gas promotion and the golf co-op are two different items.

“The golf co-op is a very good idea that shows direct revenue impact on the Town of Ocean City and the taxpayers,” she said. “I see $100,000 as an additional billboard, or another TV spot.”

She added that if the $100,000 is allocated towards the gas promotion it is still unknown whether the concept will be successful and she would rather see the funds be put toward advertising that has already been proven to be successful.

Joe Hall initially opposed the golf co-op because it included the golf packager Pam’s Golf, which previously went bankrupt owing the town money.

“I have been the swing vote on the golf proposal,” Joe Hall said. “I had a hang up on a few details but if Doug [Cymek] is suggesting that he is willing to give the gas an opportunity…I would certainly come over to support the golf proposal.”

Ashley set the motion to move forward with the gas giveaway promotion as well as the Golf Co-Op Marketing Plan. The council voted to approve both in a 4-3 vote with Jim Hall, Lloyd Martin, and Mary Knight in opposition.

The plan is to have the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB), MGH and Tourism Director Deb Turk formulate the promotion and report back to the Mayor and City Council with their concept.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it very clever and to grab attention,” Turk said.

On Wednesday, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and TAB Chair Melanie Pursel said TAB is in unanimous support on the golf co-op and they’re excited and surprised to see it passed because they thought it was a “done deal.”

“We think it is a great use of funds and that there is very little spent in the town ad budget on golf,” Pursel said.

Pursel added that TAB was originally nervous over the proposed $1 million to be reallocated for the gas promotion but $100,000 is a better amount that can be worked with.

Pursel said that “off the cuff” the gas promotion will most likely be formed into a contest Ocean City visitors can participate in through the town’s website.

“I was happy with the fact that we will be able to be very strategic with the promotion and we will be able to be creative with it and do something really fun and cool with that money to fulfill what the council wants,” she said.

On Thursday, The Dispatch asked Meehan if he is going to be seen pumping gas and he responded, “I don’t think so. We’ll have MGH take a look at it and let’s see what they come up with. We have so many positive things to emphasize, why we would want to emphasize a negative? My message has always been raising gas prices is what it is and we can’t let gas prices hold us hostage from the things we want to do. In Ocean City we’re trying to add value to the vacation and offset that expense by offering all the free things we do and by our businesses offering their own special promotions. That is the positive message and the message we should continue with.”