OCEAN CITY — Throughout the marathon two-day strategic planning sessions this week, a recurring theme was defining exactly what Ocean City’s brand is and how best to market it.
During the strategic plan work sessions this week, the town’s elected officials along with department heads and other key staff began the arduous task of updating the plan revised just two years ago.
Communications Director Jessica Waters, who moderated the work sessions, asked attendees to supply one word in each of two columns — a column entitled “future” and a column entitled “challenges.” The responses varied, especially in the “future” column, but one consistent word offered in the “challenges” column was funding.
“These words sum up this entire exercise,” said Waters. “Whatever we do today and tomorrow will come back around to these words. The strategic plan is a road map for success and we’re going to develop that road map. It’s a living document.”
Beyond the various capital improvement projects and other initiatives discussed, the purpose of the strategic plan work sessions was to begin to redefine Ocean City’s brand and how best to sell it. For many, that meant deciding to move forward with various town-sponsored and privately produced special events throughout the offseason. Essentially, the question boiled down to keep promoting Ocean City as a year-round resort, or going strong in promoting what Ocean City does best in the summer and shoulder months.
Long gone are the days of flashing yellow traffic lights in the winter months and a handful of essential businesses keeping the sparse year-round population afloat. In its place is a year-round calendar stocked with special events practically every weekend, some more palatable for the local community than others.
While those events put heads in hotel beds and backsides in restaurant seats, they come with an increased cost to the town in terms of staffing and resources required to properly and safely service them. In some cases, the costs associated with servicing a year-round community do not match the return on investment.
“We’re at the point where we have to decide to pull back or plow forward,” said Councilman John Gehrig. “Do we plan offseason events, or do we pull back and say we’re content being a summer resort? That’s where we are right now. If we decide to plow forward, we have to go all in. We have to be all in or all out.”
Gehrig said “going all in” would likely require a clearer definition of the town’s brand, followed by an aggressive plan to sell that brand.
“The selling of Ocean City is our business,” he said. “We need people to go out and sell our brand because we have a lot to sell. This is how we can replace some of the less desirable events. We need to be constantly active in economic development and that is people out there selling Ocean City and all it has to offer.”
Gehrig has been a strong proponent for tapping into the blossoming youth sports market and many of his comments focused on that aspect. Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed that would be an important element of the town’s brand going forward, but said a broad-brush approach was needed to define the brand and then selling it.
“I agree we have to sell,” she said. “I think we have to plan what we’re selling. I just think it has to be broader.”
As she is wont to do, Budget Manager Jennie Knapp pointed out the costs associated with a year-round special events calendar and the strain on personnel and resources needed to accommodate them.
“The more we push the season out beyond May 1 and Sept. 30, the more resources we need,” she said. “I hear it all the time from the police department, the fire department, public works. It creates a lot of pressure on the budget.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said there had to be balance. He said there was no going back on growing and nurturing a year-round community.
“This is a year-round community,” he said. “It has grown into that over the years. If we continue to grow year-round, we have more businesses open, more employees working, and we can increase the year-round population.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed to a similar crossroads the resort met nearly three decades ago.
“In the 1990s, we wanted to expand the shoulder seasons and we expanded the convention center, which we’re about to do again, we built the golf course and we added special events,” the former city manager said. “Maybe if there was less concentration on the special events, the impact on public works and public safety wouldn’t be as great.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said Ocean City needs to continue to go after the offseason months.
“I’m in favor of anything that helps us grow to a year-round community,” he said. “I really don’t like the terms ‘shoulder’ or ‘seasonal.’ I’m in favor of economic expansion wherever possible.”
Throughout the discussion, Gehrig pointed to the need for a salesperson or a sales team to go out and aggressively sell the town’s brand and its amenities.
“We need to see if all of our products are in the same store, not on the same shelf necessarily,” he said. “Like any business, and that’s what we are, a business, we need a sales force. A salesperson has a different mindset. We need somebody to go out and sell what we are.”
Councilman Matt James agreed perhaps a different approach to defining the brand and going out and pitching it was needed.
“We have to define our brand and our season and sell that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s one person or a whole team. I think we need to brainstorm on how best to maximize the resources we have.”
Meehan said the aggressive sales and marketing approach pitched by Gehrig and others seemed to focus on the need for a quarterback.
“I think bringing in an economic development director is the way to go moving forward,” he said.
Dare pointed out the tourism department and the special events department sells the town in terms of special events. The convention center sells its space to events that meet the town’s image and bring in the best return on investment, while the recreation and parks department markets and sells space for tournaments and events that put heads in hotel beds. Dare agreed maybe the time was right to bring in an economic development director to bring all of those components together.
“We already know we have an unbelievable team,” he said. “I think what we’re saying is we need a coach or a coordinator.”
In terms of marketing the peak season in Ocean City, Gehrig said perhaps the message needed to be redefined.
“I think we need to look at the trends and determine what our target audience is,” he said. “We’re selling ‘spend a week in Ocean City’ to all of our markets, but we’re so close to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. In those markets, it’s become a weather-related thing.”
For years, Ocean City, at least during the summer months, was a typical Saturday to Saturday vacation destination, but societal and familial differences have changed that. In recent years, the challenge has been to fill in the midweek dates during the summer and that hasn’t changed, but Gehrig said the town should embrace the weekend trade for what it is.
“We need to dominate and own the weekends,” he said. “That’s our wheelhouse. We need to celebrate the weekends. The family thing is great and we’ll never go away from that, but we’re more than that and we need to go out and sell it.”