OCEAN CITY — Expanding tourism year-round, improving Ocean City’s “curb appeal” and enhancing the tourists’ experience were some of the the challenges outlined this week when resort tourism officials began strategic planning brainstorming sessions.
The Ocean City Tourism Commission met on Monday for an extensive brainstorming session on how to maximize the existing summer season and enhance shoulder seasons in the resort. No formal action was taken and the meeting was largely a spit-balling session, but some groundwork was laid for how best to improve the overall visitor experience and expand visitor numbers going forward.
Ocean City Communications Manager Jessica Waters chaired the session and laid out several goals with objectives and challenges for each. For example, under the goal of expanding tourism year-round, some of the objectives laid out included increasing room occupancy for all seasons and increasing the number of visitors during mid-week in the summer season.
While Ocean City is within a few hours drive of many of the major population centers along the east coast, that often lends itself to shorter stays, long weekends and weather-driven decisions to come to the resort, Councilman and commission member John Gehrig pointed out.
“It’s both a blessing and a curse to have so many people so close,” he said. “That’s why they wait until the last minute so often and see what the weather is going to do.”
Some of the challenges under the banner of expanding year-round tourism included some special events that may create a negative image while increasing the demand for public safety and other resources. Another challenge identified was the cost of a typical hotel room in season, largely because the owners and operators have such a small window in which to make a profit.
Another key element in the tourism strategic planning session was identifying the competition, or those resort destinations with which Ocean City is vying for the same target audience.
“Who is our main competition?” said Waters. “I think we can safely say our primary competition is the Delaware beaches, Virginia Beach and the New Jersey shore. Our secondary competition is probably the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach and the millennial destinations.”
Another challenge identified was how best to measure the number of visitors coming to Ocean City.
“How do we define success?” said Waters. “Is it an increase in room occupancy or counting the number of visitors? The bottom line is we have to maintain our reputation as a safe family destination and keep sending them home with lifelong memories.”
Just how to count the number of visitors each summer and throughout the year remains a challenge. Ocean City’s tourism department does maintain a detailed metrics on the number of visitors including occupancy rates, room tax collected, web marketing results and the number of visitors to special events, for example, although commission members believe there could be a better way to track visitor numbers.
One idea battled around was utilizing State Highway Administration car-counting technology at the key entrances points to the resort.
“We already have license plate readers at Route 50, Route 90 and the Delaware line and the technology is there to count the number of cars coming in and out,” said City Manager Doug Miller. “Of course, we’d have to establish a baseline during the offseason to differentiate visitor traffic from local traffic.”
Another suggestion was returning to the old demoflush system to at least guestimate the number of visitors to the resort. 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 a clearly flawed system 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. It was abandoned a few years back when it became obvious the numbers were often skewed by heavy rainfall infiltration into the wastewater system, for example.
“Maybe we need to revisit bringing demoflush back,” said Tourism Director Donna Abbott. “There are still a lot of issues with it such as rainfall and infiltration, but it gave us a barometer. The problem is in some years demoflush showed us these great numbers, but when we talked to the business community, we found out that wasn’t the case.”
In a larger sense, Mayor Rick Meehan said the town’s challenge was getting visitors to Ocean City and it was up to the private sector business community to maximize that. Meehan used the analogy of the town as a shopping mall.
“I think we need centralized marketing to drive people here,” he said. “We need to attract people to the ‘mall’ and attract people to the destination, but it’s up to the businesses to get them to go where they want once they get here.”