Council Tables Tourism Realignment Proposal

OCEAN CITY – The future of Ocean City’s tourism industry structure remains in a state of confusion, thanks to the Mayor and City Council tabling a proposed realignment supported by the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) on Monday.

TAB returned to the Mayor and City Council this week recommending an internal re-alignment within Ocean City’s tourism structure and seeking a decision or at least further discussion on the topic. TAB and was shot down once again because Councilwoman Margaret Pillas was absent from the meeting and asked for the discussion to be postponed.

“It’s frustrating,” TAB member and Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones said this week. “All the planning for next season needs to be going on right now and we really don’t know where we’re going now. The board is frustrated and we’re hoping for some sort of resolution very soon.”

According to Jones, TAB met with the Mayor and City Council in April and there was a consensus that the “functionality of tourism needed tweaking and improved.” Specifically, there were concerns aired about the communication aspect between the various departments involved with tourism and the private sector.

In September, a report was given by an independent consultant, President and Founder of OCG Joe Lathrop, who was hired to lay out the concerns of Ocean City’s tourism industry structure. Through his research, he found that there is a lack of trust between the city and the tourism industry, and that city tourism related departments need a structural realignment to optimize communication and prevent splintering of efforts.

Other areas of improvement included building the support and confidence of the Mayor and City Council in order to reduce micromanagement of destination marketing, develop an agreed upon system to track performance of sales and marketing efforts, better leveraging of convention center and special events more aggressively to promote tourism, creation of aggressive sales and marketing posture and separation of sales and marketing from operations.

In November, TAB returned to the council recommending re-organizing Ocean City’s tourism structure through an internal re-alignment, rather than a 501c6 organization. The City Council made no decision but called it a “good first step”.

A 501c6 is a non-profit organization responsible in representing and selling the destination in order to bring in revenue to local businesses and tax revenue to the city. The organization would be funded through a portion of the room tax occupancy. It would be governed by a Board of Directors with by-laws and run by a Tourism Development Director (TDD).

Internal realignment keeps the destination marketing within the government and it moves all sales and marketing functions to the same department. It would be led by a Tourism Development Council and the TDD.

On top of bringing its recommendation of internal realignment back this week, TAB made two other suggestions regarding city positions that would benefit Ocean City’s tourism structure in its re-organization.

“In light of the changes with the resignation of Rick Hamilton [Convention Center Director], there is an opportunity to address … the situation of how we are going to handle the TDD position … as the new Convention Center Director that will likely be hired and combining those positions to provide that dynamic leader that could oversee both aspects of Convention Center sales and marketing as well as tourism,” TAB member John Gehrig explained.

A Convention and Tourism Development Director (CTDD) position is proposed to be a visionary who can guide Ocean City tourism by organizing, prioritizing and leading all tourism sectors toward a streamlined process resulting in increased visitors.

The CTDD would work hand-in-hand with TAB and would report to the city manager who would in turn report to the Mayor and City Council. Other departments such as special events, the convention center, advertising and marketing, recreation and parks and communications and public relations would work underneath the CTDD.

The last recommendation made was to create a convention center sales position.

“There is a need for a sales person over at the convention center especially considering the expansion in the new facility,” Gehrig said.

Councilman Brent Ashley started off by saying he agreed with a sales position but followed with an unexpected accusation.

“It is a mistake to combine a convention center director with a TDD,” he said. “In my mind, we have a Tourism Director [Deb Turk] right now and I think that is often overlooked. To me, Deb Turk does a terrific job and I think we are in the middle of many projects and many events coming up and I think giving additional support to Debbie and a load of confidence is the way to go here.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight and Councilman Joe Hall also voiced their support in not combining the two positions.

“We need a convention center director that directs the convention center, manages that building, and has one sole goal, keep that building cranking as many days and as many opportunities as possible, and then I think we need a person full-time marketing Ocean City as a destination,” Joe Hall said. I do not think that is a blended position, and I don’t ever see myself supporting that.”

Mayor Rick Meehan announced that TAB’s recommendations came before the council in a timely manner. He said that in the near future a suggestion was going to come forward regarding an additional sales position at the convention center, which was a recommendation made by Hamilton before he resigned.

“I think what TAB is telling us is that when that comes to us they support that,” the he said.

Meehan added that their recommendation for a Convention and Tourism Development Director is also timely because the council is going to have to move forward in fulfilling a job description for a new convention center direction in the near future so that the position can be filled.

“The recommendation is not only someone that can be a convention center director but somebody that can be the head of the entire department,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they do marketing and those kinds of jobs that are already being done.”

Joe Hall also took the opportunity to say that he is not in favor of internal realignment but instead a 501c6, which he has been voicing since the beginning.

“I think it is a mistake for TAB not to legitimize or become a 501c6,” he said.

Gehrig, along with other members of TAB in the audience, wanted to continue the discussion, but the council wanted the matter tabled for another day.

“These are the type of conversations that we need to have in a meeting,” he said. “We have been talking about a Tourism Development Council … the only difference is in light of what happened with Rick Hamilton … and now it seems we have a major shakeup and it is shakeup that no one has been aware of until today because nobody can get into a room and have a conversation unless it is in one of these meetings.”

TAB member Tom Perlozzo added that the Mayor and Council can assist the board by providing insight so that action is not continually delayed.

“We are frustrated because we feel that we have been pounding the pavement with the business community, meeting week after week, hours upon hours, and we come in here and then there is a different decision,” he said.

Perlozzo added that TAB has never had any intention of replacing or altering a city department head’s position.

“We fully expected that whether there is CTDD or TDD that Deb [Turk] is a part of that,” Gehrig said, “All of a sudden it seems that it is coming out of nowhere.”

Council President Jim Hall said that he will schedule a meeting in January to further discuss TAB’s recommendation so that the entire council can be in attendance.

“We’ll get this done,” he said. “We are re-building the convention center with a performing arts center and that is a monster in itself … and then on the other side we have a tourism director so we will get it hashed out and we will get the right people and the best people in there.”

Meehan said that it is a relief to see everyone working together to do what is best for the town.

“I have seen a lot of lines drawn in the sand lately and it is time to take your foot and brush out those lines and all work together,” he said. “If we can come together and have a meeting … talk about that position to see what the strengths in that position are, what they need to be, and how we need to basically realign I think we will be able to have a consensus and move forward.”