EDC Talks Summer Tourism

OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) held its first meeting following the summer season this week, covering a wide range of topics from the handling of Hurricane Irene to the mid-summer boost from the Dew Tour to strategic planning for the future.

Perhaps because it was still fresh in everyone’s minds, the town’s handling of Hurricane Irene drew a considerable amount of attention during the EDC meeting on Wednesday. Ocean City officials ordered the evacuation of the town in advance of the arrival of the storm, no doubt costing resort businesses millions of dollars in the height of the summer season, and while no one doubted the wisdom of the evacuation, some questioned the timing and clarity of the orders.

“No one questions that the call to evacuate was needed,” said EDC Chairman and Carousel Hotel and Resort partner Michael James. “I’d really like some clarification, however. It was confusing on that day, and I’ve heard a strong difference of opinion on the language of the evacuation orders.”

James urged town officials to review the emergency preparedness plan, particularly how and when the order to evacuate is released.

“Maybe we needed to slow the process down a little and make sure the message that goes out is accurate,” he said. “There seemed to be a serious breakdown on how we prepared on Thursday and Friday.”

James also made a strong statement about the economic impact of the town’s decision to evacuate. While he didn’t question the decision, he said the storm in general, and the evacuation order specifically, was devastating economically.

“It was the single largest economic loss I can ever remember in my 30 years in this business,” he said.

Ocean City Councilwoman Mary Knight said town officials have already reviewed the hurricane preparedness plans.

“Immediately after Irene, we began critiquing what we did well and what we didn’t do so well,” she said. “I think there were lessons learned with this storm.”

Hurricane Irene blew through Ocean City in the midst of the town’s newest late summer promotion. Hotel Week, modeled after the successful Restaurant Week promotion, was hitting its stride when the storm arrived, said Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones.

“We were building a lot of momentum in late August with Hotel Week, but Irene kind of knocked the thunder out of it,” she said.

On a more positive subject, EDC members generally said the summer season was a successful one although the books are still not closed on 2011. The demoflush numbers were up for the most part including a near record Labor Day crowd.

Ocean City Tourism Director Deb Turk reported the town was staying the course with its “Rodney” marketing campaign next year.

“We will be bringing Rodney back,” she said. “We are planning to film new segments now. Rodney lives on. The research shows without a doubt it’s a proven campaign.”

Turk had high praise for the mid-summer Dew Tour in the resort, resulting in valuable national exposure for Ocean City.

“All I can say is ‘wow,’” she said. “Getting the Dew Tour was one of the highlights of my career. It was one of the most reputable organizations I have ever been involved with. They did everything they said they were going to do and more.”

Turk said it remained uncertain if the Dew Tour would return to Ocean City. A final decision would not likely be made until after the tour’s last event in Las Vegas, but all indications are the Dew Tour would like to return to Ocean City.

Turk said the Dew Tour was a financial coup for the city and pointed out what other jurisdictions pay for similar exposure. For example, she said the Grand Prix race in Baltimore last weekend cost that city $1 million and brought in 100,000 direct visitors, while the Dew Tour cost Ocean City nothing and brought in an estimated 73,000 direct visitors.

Turk said the town’s tourism department is hoping to capitalize on the momentum from the Dew Tour’s visit this summer. For example, she has already been contacted by representatives from a large music festival featuring front-line acts. In addition, she has been approached by a television program that takes NFL players to destinations around the world to go offshore fishing that wants to include Ocean City for white marlin fishing.

The EDC meeting covered the gamut of topics including the real estate market, which has been slow to recover in the still sluggish economy, according to Coastal Association of Realtors representative Joan Strang.

“We’re holding our own,” she said. “We haven’t gone up, but we haven’t gone down, which is a good thing. We’re kind of moving in a straight line. Condos are doing better than single family homes in Ocean City right now, while the opposite is true in the county.”

Strang said the National Flood Insurance Program is set to expire on Sept. 30 and Congress is currently working on another extension. The measure has cleared the House, but has not come up for a vote in the Senate. She said resort residents and business owners should be keeping a close eye on that vote.

“If it expires, we’re in big trouble,” she said.