OCEAN CITY — A potential major marketing tool for Ocean City has been temporarily put on hold after gaining a unanimous endorsement from the former City Council last spring as a low-cost alternative surfaced in the 11th hour this week.
Last March, the Mayor and Council unanimously approved an $85,000 investment in the OC Experience, an interactive marketing booth designed by Spark Productions scheduled to be displayed at major consumer travel trade shows in the resort’s target markets and at events in the resort. With the apparent blessing from the council, Brad Hoffman and his Spark Productions team spent the next seven months designing the interactive display booth, gathering data and conducting research in advance of the actual construction of the booth. The team was preparing to hit the first of three major trade shows next month when a snag in the plans surfaced at City Hall Monday night.
Ocean City Tourism Director Donna Abbott told the council on Monday despite the 7-0 vote on the Ocean City Experience last spring, no memorandum of understanding (MOU) had been presented and agreed upon by the city and Spark Productions and that an alternative plan had surfaced for the consumer travel shows for which the city had already booked space. Abbott said the new plan was to utilize the Rodney the Lifeguard campaign at the trade shows with Rodney himself making appearances and city staffers manning the town’s displays at the events. Abbott’s plan comes in at a price tag of around $26,000, depending on whether a photo booth is leased or a photographer is hired.
While Spark Productions had a 7-0 vote of confidence with the council to produce the OC Experience booth and a hand-shake agreement for an $85,000 investment to produce the high-tech interactive booth and take it on the road, the lack of a formalized MOU has threatened to derail the project in the 11th hour.
It remains uncertain whether Spark Productions should have obtained an MOU with the city before moving forward with the expense and time of designing the booth or if the town should have come forward with the MOU on the heels of the 7-0 council vote last spring. What is certain, however, is that the lack of an MOU, essentially a contract, is the source of much consternation between the parties.
“I was blindsided by this late alternative,” Hoffman told the council on Monday. “The unanimous vote should be a blessing to move forward and that’s what we did. You all should be embracing this. Instead, I feel like my efforts are being undermined. If it sounds like I’m disgruntled, I am.”
OC Experience is designed as a 10-foot by 20-foot three-panel portable booth with a high-definition television in each panel. One of the televisions would show nostalgic footage of vintage Ocean City from years past, while another would show videos of all the resort has to offer now. The middle panel television would offer Internet-based, interactive content providing access to information about where to stay, where to eat and what to do while visiting Ocean City. In addition, it would offer travel show attendees “beach bucks” to local businesses and offer a grand prize package vacation to the resort.
The tentative agreement called for the OC Experience booth to be displayed at four major consumer travel shows in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Canada, along with four special events within the resort. However, the four major out-of-town events were reduced to three when it was determined two of the shows would have been redundant.
Hoffman told the council on Monday he moved forward with the OC Experience plan in good faith after receiving the endorsement from the council and was of the understanding the MOU was a mere formality.
“The booth is energetic and engaging and will be the best booth at the shows,” he said. “We touch and see more people in this town than you can imagine. To say staffers would do a better job I think is a slap in the face. We’ve done the prep work, we’ve been spending money and I think it’s very disingenuous that an alternative has been brought forward. That wasn’t what the council majority voted for.”
However, the lack of an MOU and some apparent confusion over the final price tag had the council scratching their heads on Monday as the alternative was weighed. For example, the original $85,000 cost included the initial production of the booth along with the entry fees and staffing costs to attend the four big out-of-town shows and the four local events. However, when the fourth major show was dropped, the number was reduced to $83,000, a figure the council could not wrap its collective heads around on Monday.
“What I’m hearing is that we’re supposed to have an MOU,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “Donna’s concern is that we’re now doing three shows instead of four and the cost is already near budget. We need an MOU to move forward with this. You need to focus on working with the tourism director because it sounds like the relationship isn’t great.”
However, Hoffman said he was moving forward with the project in good faith after council approval last March and raised concern why the MOU issue surfaced just recently.
“When I got a unanimous vote of confidence, I started working on this project,” he said. “Why did it take seven months for this MOU issue to come up?”
Martin said the lack of the MOU and the discrepancies in the final cost to the town made it difficult for the council to move forward with the plan, leaving them with little choice but to consider the alternative.
“We have numbers that don’t work right now,” said Martin. “You and Donna need to work together. We have two different proposals and one of them has a much lower cost.”
Hoffman said much of the preparation, research and design had been completed at the cost of a great amount of time, effort and expense by his team and voiced concern the lack of a formal MOU threatened to derail the project as the first major travel show date looms next month. Hoffman said the company that will actually build the booth has promised a five-day turnaround and it could be completed in time for the first show.
“We want to be the best booth out there at these shows and that’s what I’m delivering,” he said. “It’s so important to put our best foot forward and we want to knock it out of the park.”
Spark Productions had at least one councilmember in its camp. Margaret Pillas said despite the lack of an MOU in hand, the unanimous vote last March should be seen as a tacit agreement to move forward.
“Time is money,” said Pillas. “We gave you the go-ahead and you invested a lot of time and effort into this. I hope you get your MOU so you can move forward with this.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said a decision was made several years ago to move the town’s marketing efforts away from the regional trade shows.
“Fifteen years ago, consumer trade shows were cut from the budget,” said Dare. “They’re just very expensive. I’m not in favor of delving back into that a decade later. It worked well for Golf Getaway, but that’s a unique niche.”
However, Dare said he did not intend to disparage the efforts of Spark Productions or Hoffman, who has been a fixture on the resort’s marketing and special events landscape for decades.
“If you give Brad Hoffman a bone, he’s going to run with it,” he said. “If I say I don’t support this, it’s not because I doubt your abilities or your efforts.”
Nonetheless, Hoffman said the council’s backpedaling was difficult to take.
“I feel a little hurt,” he said. “I feel like the rug was pulled out from under us. I want to move forward with the MOU, get the booth built and do these shows and put our best foot forward for the town of Ocean City.”
Councilman Doug Cymek suggested it might have been a poor business decision to get this far without the MOU.
“An MOU is like a contract,” he said. “It’s not a good business practice to start spending money without a contract in your hand.”
At one point, Councilwoman Mary Knight made a motion to move forward with the alternative plan for the upcoming year and revisit Spark Productions’ OC Experience plan in the future. However, Councilman Joe Mitrecic later said there was still hope for the project for this year if the MOU could be approved.
“I’d like to see the motion tabled,” he said. “It seems like we’re getting a lot of ‘he said, she said.’ We need to sit down with Spark and the tourism director and work some of these things out. We need to discuss it with the new council because this is a different council than approved it.”
The motion was tabled and plans were discussed for Abbott, City Manager David Recor and Hoffman to work out the details within the next few weeks in advance of a council work session in mid-January. They will be on the clock, however, as the first show for which the resort has booked space is set for late January.