Industry Wants State To Add ‘More Money For Tourism’

OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) this week held its annual legislative meeting just hours before the start of the Maryland General Assembly session and the conversation ultimately came around to the state’s tourism budget.

Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association President David Reel, who lobbies on behalf of the hospitality industry in Annapolis, on Wednesday addressed the EDC on a wide variety of pertinent issues in the current General Assembly session from the budget to gun control to offshore wind and a proposed gas tax, but the message he hammered home the most was the need for the resort’s business community to rally in support of increased funding for tourism marketing.

Tourism Day, when the hospitality industry across Maryland including Ocean City and Worcester County, is slated for Feb. 8 in Annapolis, and Reel urged EDC members to make a strong presence at the annual opportunity to push for an increase in the state’s tourism budget.

“I’m on the hill all day, every day on your behalf, but grassroots lobbying does make a difference. I know there’s cynicism that they don’t listen or they don’t care, but they do listen and it can make a world of difference. They need to know that behind me are voters from their district that are aware of and knowledgeable about these issues,” Reel said.

EDC President and Carousel Hotel and Resort operating partner Michael James agreed a strong presence at Tourism Day would make state lawmakers take a closer look at the strong return on investment tourism provides. James said legislators and the leadership in Annapolis often turn a deaf ear to one of the strongest industries in Maryland

“We’re asking David to go to the highest ranks in Annapolis and remind them that tourism is an industry and the hotel business is an industry,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if they think it’s a hobby, but tourism is the fourth or fifth largest industry in the state. The Ocean City tourism budget is bigger than the state’s tourism budget and that is unacceptable.”

Ocean City Council President Lloyd Martin also agreed the resort’s public and private sectors should head to Annapolis in February to make a strong push for increased spending on tourism marketing in Maryland.

“Having a face-to-face presence in Annapolis is so important,” he said. “We’re going to rally the troops and make a strong showing on Tourism Day because it really makes a difference.”

Clarion Resort Hotel owner Dr. Lenny Berger, a former EDC chairman, recalled the halcyon days when the EDC was formed to advocate on behalf of the resort’s tourism industry in Annapolis. Berger also recalled “twisting Governor [Parris] Glendenning’s arm” to get the tourism marketing budget expanded.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Working with our legislators and working with the governor to get more money for tourism. We have vacant rooms in Ocean City in the summer and that shouldn’t be.”

Berger said Ocean City and the entire state should ramp up its tourism marketing efforts at a time of great opportunity and encouraged EDC members to rally in Annapolis and make their interests known.

“It’s all about marketing and promotion and expanding our reach further north and west,” he said. “We need to push for increasing the budget and increasing marketing and don’t give up the fight. We need to keep putting that message out there.”

In a larger sense, Reel presented the EDC with a brief overview of the tumultuous 2012 General Assembly session and a preview of what to expect in 2013. While there were few bills specific to tourism and hospitality, just about every piece of legislation will affect the industry in one way or the other, he said. For example, a proposed gas tax hike certainly could impact travel and tourism, but Reel said its passage was unlikely.

“There will likely be 2,500 bills introduced, and we’ll take a look at every single one of them,” he said. “There are no tax increases expected and the leadership has said as much. They are talking about a gas tax, but I don’t think they’ll get that through. I just don’t think they have the votes.”

Reel said 2012 was unique because of two special sessions, but he said it was unlikely a similar scenario would play out this year.

“It was an unusual year last year with not one but two special sessions,” he said. “They adjourned without a budget and a tax package. Actually, they passed a budget without a tax package to pay for it. That’s not likely to happen this year.”

Otherwise, Reel laid out a number of broad issues facing state lawmakers during the current session.

“Gun control will consume a lot of time and energy during the session,” he said. “They’re also going to take up the abolition of the death penalty and the comparative negligence act and, of all things, pit bulls again. That last one bears interest for us in the hotel business because a lot of our properties are now pet-friendly.”