City Council Approves $20K OC BikeFest Event Sponsorship; Debate Results In 6-1 Vote For Marketing Plan

City Council Approves $20K OC BikeFest Event Sponsorship; Debate Results In 6-1 Vote For Marketing Plan
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved a shared marketing opportunity with OC BikeFest at around $20,000, but not before a spirited debate on the return on investment and the value of the event to the town.

At last week’s Tourism Committee meeting, Tourism Director Donna Abbott presented a request for the marketing opportunity with OC BikeFest. Abbott recommended the sponsorship investment as a means to promote the town’s other fall special events during OC BikeFest, the most attended of the shoulder season events each fall.

Abbott explained the proposed $20,000 shared marketing investment would put Ocean City’s tourism banner on all OC BikeFest websites and social media platforms with links to the town’s other special events and goings-on around the resort area. In addition, the Ocean City banner would be displayed on all OC BikeFest signage at events along with a two-page advertising spread in the OC BikeFest guide.

The tourism committee forwarded a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council to approve the $20,000 share marketing initiative with OC BikeFest and the town’s elected officials took up the debate this week. Abbott explained the OC BikeFest website attracted roughly 480,000 visitors in the ramp-up to last year’s event and the website includes direct links to the town’s tourism websites.

Abbott said in addition, the marketing buy-in includes BikeFest’s social media outreach, billboards, radio spots and printed advertising materials. She said the proposed $20,000 marketing buy-in was down from the $25,000 the town committed last year.

It’s important to note OC BikeFest pays the town rent for its venues at the Inlet parking lot and the convention center, while Ocean City has money tied up in additional police, public works and other in-kind contributions. Abbott said the money paid by OC BikeFest and the town’s in-kind monetary contributions essentially canceled each other out or the town came out ahead by a couple of thousand dollars. However, it’s no secret Bike Week events bring hundreds of thousands of people to town and Ocean City benefits from heads in beds and participants supporting local businesses.

Councilman John Gehrig said the $20,000 for the shared marketing opportunity with OC BikeFest was included as a line item in the tourism budget, which is supported by the room tax collected. Gehrig made a motion to approve the requested $20,000 investment in the shared marketing opportunity.

“The thing to remember is this is paid for by the room tax, not the property tax,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the rooms in Ocean City are rented during this event. How many other weekends throughout the year are 95-percent rented?”

While he supported the OC BikeFest event, Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned if the town got enough bang for its buck with the $20,000 investment in the shared marketing opportunity. Hartman asked Abbott if there was any hard data on how many of the roughly 480,000 visits to the OC BikeFest website led to clicks on the town’s links and the answer wasn’t entirely positive.

Abbott said of the 480,000 visits to the event’s website, the town saw about 376 direct clicks on its own links. She also said the website clicks were only part of the equation and pointed to the radio, billboard and printed advertising and programs as reason to support the $20,000 investment.

Gehrig said he believed the $20,000 sponsorship for co-marketing OC BikeFest represented a good return on the investment.

“The bottom line is we cover our costs plus a couple of thousand dollars,” he said. “On top of that, we get all of this economic activity in our local businesses including the hotels and the restaurants. I just want to be clear. We’re not losing money with this. We’re gaining money.”

Councilman Dennis Dare said he couldn’t support the $20,000 share marketing agreement for different reasons.

“This is probably a good business decision, but my feeling is we have all of these other motorized events, and to give them another grant, I’m just not feeling it,” he said. “I’d rather keep the $20,000 and use it to pay for the extra police we need during this event. I don’t think we need to give them another grant on top of what we already give them.”

However, Council Secretary Mary Knight pointed out OC BikeFest scored well on an event ratings matrix created by the Police Commission last year in the wake of a troublesome fall motorized event season.

“They rated very high with compatibility,” she said. “This is a big offseason event and we’ve seen firsthand what they can do. I think this event works for the three days. They don’t have all of their events in town. They get out of town for a while, but then they come back into town and stay in our hotels and support our businesses.”

Gehrig pointed out the formula for room tax allows for the sponsorship of special events like OC BikeFest and also pointed out it’s short-sighted to start counting website clicks as a means to determine whether to support the $20,000 shared marketing opportunity.

“First of all, for every dollar of room tax collected, 56 cents goes into the general fund and that pays for extra police and other expenses,” he said. “The other 44 cents goes directly to marketing and advertising. This is not a grant, it’s a sponsorship. We don’t ask for click counts on any other special event, and we can’t even count clicks on billboards and radio ads.”

Gehrig said OC BikeFest has proven over the years to be a strong shoulder season event.

“Sometimes we need to take care of a good customer and that is what this is,” he said. “We also haven’t done anything to replace it with something else. We spend double this amount on marketing the Air Show and that creates as much or more noise, but we don’t ask for click counts on that event. It seems like we have this mental thing about motorcycles.”

For his part, Hartman said he supported OC BikeFest and merely asked about the number of clicks to the Ocean City links from the event’s website to gain a better understanding of what the town was getting for the $20,000.

“I was trying to understand the click-through rate and if it had been looked at or discussed,” he said. “The marketing money has a lock-box on it and if it is for this purpose, I can support it. I just hope there is a future discussion about the value of this.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with Gehrig and Knight that OC BikeFest represented a valuable return on investment.

“Bike Week was among the highest rated on the events rating system last fall,” he said. “These are repeat visitors. They come for Bike Week and they come back for our other special events. I do think we get a good return on this investment.”

The council voted 6-1 with Dare opposed to approve the $20,000 investment in the shared marketing opportunity with OC BikeFest.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.