OCEAN CITY — Expanding the resort’s stranglehold on weekend summer travel was a topic of discussion this week during the Tourism Commission meeting.
During Monday’s meeting, Bob Rothermel of TEAM Productions outlined the proposed special events calendar for next summer and the discussion inevitably came back around to how to expand weekday visitor numbers. With close proximity to several major metropolitan areas within a few hours drive, Ocean City has dominated the weekend summer travel market in the region, but it’s no secret the resort still struggles to fill in the weekdays through much of the summer.
A report released last month confirmed as much with a survey revealing the average stay is just two-and-a-half days. During Monday’s meeting, Councilman John Gehrig suggested chipping away at that ominous number by finding a way to promote the midweek dates.
“I’d like to get that average length of stay from two-and-a-half days to three-and-a-half days,” he said. “I know that doesn’t sound like much, but that would be a 20% increase.”
Gehrig said figuring a way to increase visitor numbers during the week could start with promoting Thursday as a means to start the weekend early.
“We need to figure out a way to extend the weekend, so maybe we need a weekend kick-off party of some sort on Thursday nights,” he said. “We already own the weekends, so let’s brainstorm and figure out how to extend it. It could be beach concerts punctuated by fireworks or something like that. Let’s figure out how to market ‘summer rules’ and encourage people to take Friday off.”
Gehrig said ramping up Thursday with some special events coupled with deals from lodging establishments could result in an uptick for extended weekends.
“It would be a way to kick off the weekend early,” he said. “Let’s reclaim Friday night and figure out how to get some action on Thursday. We always talk about increasing weekday visitor numbers, so let’s start with Thursday and work back from there. We already dominate the weekends.”
There was some discussion about the timing for the proposed Thursday weekend kick-off events. Councilman and tourism commission chair Matt James said later might be better if the goal in encouraging people to start their weekends on Thursdays.
“We’re talking about marketing this as take off Friday and start your weekends early,” he said. “Maybe later is better because they will be leaving work and coming here on a Thursday.”
The tourism commission was generally receptive to the idea and directed Special Events Director Frank Miller and Tourism Director Donna Abbott to work with Rothermel to begin exploring some potential Thursday event packages. Even some potential catch phrases were bandied about. City Manager Doug Miller suggested “Thursday is the new Friday,” while Abbott suggested “Make Casual Friday Really Casual.”
Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones said her organization has been closely following the ongoing re-decking project on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which has snarled weekend travel for many visitors to the resort in recent weeks. Although the project is slated to be suspended during the summer months, Jones said it could be utilized as part of the come early, state late weekend marketing strategy for Ocean City.
“I think this is a great idea,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the Bay Bridge and encouraging people to come early and this ties right into that.”
In terms of the Bay Bridge project in real time, commission member Michael James said it is already causing an impact on offseason visitor numbers in the resort.
“It’s imperative that we learn how long it will go on,” he said. “We’ve heard March, April and even May. I know so many people that have gotten stuck in back-ups. I’ve had friends tell me they aren’t coming down because they don’t want to deal with it.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he has made recent trips to the state’s western shore utilizing the roundabout way through Delaware and down Route 95. He suggested a marketing campaign illustrating that route as a means to avoid the Bay Bridge altogether.
“I think we need to promote there is another way to Ocean City,” he said. “It is an easy trip and they are great roads. It really is a pleasant trip.”
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and CEO Melanie Pursel agreed the alternative route could be marketed.
“Maybe we need a concentrated effort to promote the alternative route,” she said. “Maybe we can get the right message out there and turn a negative situation into a positive one.”