OCEAN CITY — Resort tourism officials this week debated how best to track and count the number of visitors to Ocean City in a given time period and, despite its obvious flaws, the old demoflush system actually got some traction.
During Monday’s Tourism Committee meeting, Tourism Director Donna Abbott presented some information on the number of visitors to Ocean City derived from the relatively new tourism metrics system. The tourism metric report gathers information from occupancy rates, room tax collected, web marketing results and visitors to the various special events in an attempt to pin down an actual number of visitors to Ocean City.
While it works to a certain degree, there are some challenges to the metrics system in determining the actual number of visitors to the resort on a given day, weekend or even a month. For example, while it relies heavily on room tax revenue or hotel occupancy rates, it doesn’t account for day trippers, which make up a large percentage of the daily population in town on a given summer day.
For years, the town relied on the demoflush system to provide an estimated population count. In simplest terms, demoflush used a formula based on amount of wastewater handled by the town’s treatment plant. It was clearly flawed for a lot of reasons, but for decades it at least provided a somewhat of an apples-to-apples comparison from week to week and from year to year.
Demoflush was abandoned as the town’s primary source for determining population counts about five years ago, but there is at least some sentiment for bringing it back. Councilman and Tourism Committee member John Gehrig on Monday said the best way to determine how many people are in town at a given time is to figure out what everybody does when they are here. He said demoflush, for all of its warts, at least provided that to some degree.
“I think we need to consider what do people use when they are here,” he said. “That’s where demoflush came from in the beginning because everybody uses water. I understand that demoflush wasn’t an exact number, but it was our number. It gave us a week-to-week, year-to-year comparison. I think we should bring demoflush back.”
Tourism committee members continued to explore ways to best determine how many people are in town at a given time and each had its own flaws. Taken collectively, the room tax reports and the occupancy rates and other measurable factors are successful in determining the number of visitors, but there could be other things added to improve the accuracy. Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones said the number of new hotel rooms coming on line needed to be added to the equation.
“Maybe we can get a change-in-demand, change-in-supply report,” she said. “We need to look at the new inventory to get a better handle on the occupancy numbers.”
Abbott suggested traffic count figures from the State Highway Administration could help with the real number.
“We should look into getting traffic counts for Routes 50 and 90 from the State Highway Administration,” she said. “And not from the Bay Bridge because that’s traffic heading to all over Delmarva, but traffic counts closer to Ocean City. Then again, when you look at the license plates in town, many are coming from New York and New Jersey and they aren’t coming that way.”
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel suggested cell phone data could help improve the accuracy.
“Is there a way to tell how many unique phone numbers are in the area?” she said. “Everyone has and uses a phone while they’re here. Maybe we can get information from the providers from their cell towers.”
Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino suggested possibly outsourcing the population count dilemma.
“We should look into a company that does this,” he said. “Other than putting a traffic count strip down on Route 50, Route 90 and Route 54, I’m not sure what else to do.”
After considerable debate, the discussion came back around to the old demoflush system. Mayor Rick Meehan said the old numbers would likely have to be tossed out, but it could work to some degree going forward.
“I think for the most part, if we started with demoflush again, it might not be apples to apples for the previous year, but it could be going forward,” he said. “We might have to establish a new starting point.”
Demoflush worked for years to a large degree because of the way the wastewater treatment plant handled the amount of water from toilets, showers and appliances such as washers and dishwashers was consistent. However, it began to become obsolete when improvements in technology at the wastewater facility improved. Also, it did not accurately account for rain water that found its way into the system, for example.