Ocean City Bails Out Air Show With $100K Funding Boost; State Finds Ticketed Areas Violate Pandemic Directives

Ocean City Bails Out Air Show With $100K Funding Boost; State Finds Ticketed Areas Violate Pandemic Directives
This year's headlining act -- the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds -- will perform Aug. 14-16. File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — The OC Air Show, slated for next weekend, was briefly in jeopardy this week after an interpretation the traditional show center and ticketed areas on the beach were in violation of state COVID-19 directives, but the event will go on after resort officials agreed to supply an influx of cash to offset the revenue losses.

The OC Air Show was slated for mid-June, just as it has been for the last dozen years. However, with the COVID-19 situation, it was postponed in June and new dates were later determined for next weekend, Aug. 15-16. Throughout the process, air show officials worked with the Town of Ocean City and the Worcester County Health Department on a plan to make sure the state directives in place regarding social distancing and other directives were met at the official events on the beach in the downtown area.

Naturally, the air show can be viewed all over the resort area and up and down the roughly 10-mile stretch of beach, but the official events including the ticketed areas and VIP areas and the like are focused in the show center on the beach. The audio and narration that accompanies the air show are featured in that downtown area, resulting in large crowds gathered on the beach and Boardwalk.

Everything was a go for the air show over the last several weeks since the new dates in mid-August were announced with the county health department signing off on the plans to eliminate large crowds gathering in one area and the compliance with the other state directives on distancing and the wearing of masks, for example. However, last Friday the air show promoters and the Town of Ocean City received an email from the state’s Attorney General’s Office passed through the Maryland State Police that essentially said the planned ticketed areas and other events around the show center were in violation of the state’s current COVID-19 directives. Eliminating those areas put the air show in jeopardy because of the potential revenue losses.

Special Events Director Frank Miller first broached the issue during a Tourism Commission meeting on Monday afternoon and it later came before the full Mayor and Council on Monday night. Miller said eliminating the show center and the associated ticketed areas would result in significant revenue losses for the show’s promoter and threatened to derail the event.

Miller said the promoter was looking to the town to provide an influx of funding to offset the revenue losses and allow the event to go on next weekend as planned. Earlier on Monday, the town’s Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) discussed the funding request and unanimously agreed to provide the funding from its budget. For the record, TAB is a quasi-public-private group directed to seek out and support special events in the town.

Each year, TAB has a $300,000 allocation as a line item in the tourism budget to promote and support new special events, and in the case of the air show, TAB has funding available to meet the event’s request for funding to offset the loss of revenue from losing the ticketed areas. At Monday’s tourism commission meeting, Miller explained how the state’s interpretation of the ticketed areas threatened to scrub this air show this year.

“The Attorney General’s office provided interpretive guidance on the air show and questions were raised about the ticketed areas on the beach,” he said. “In their interpretation, those ticketed areas are in violation of the health department directives put out in mid-June which state concerts, shows and similar events can resume without audiences.”

Miller said the ticketed areas accounted for a large portion of the event’s revenue.

“If they remove the ticketed spectator areas, the air show can still go on,” he said. “However, removing those ticketed areas takes away a good bit of their revenue source.”

At the tourism commission meeting, Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones said TAB agreed the funding should be provided to ensure the air show was not lost like so many other special events this summer.

“We feel the air show needs to go on,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it gives the impression Ocean City is shut down. The live streaming all around the country reaches audiences we might not have seen before. The hoteliers want and need this. We didn’t think we needed it in August, but we need it now. We’re really hurting right now.”

Jones was referring to the planned live-stream of the OC Air Show this year. Event promoters are producing a live-stream of the air show that will encourage people to physically watch and feel their air show from their balconies or the beach or from backyards while listening to the narration remotely. The concept is to eliminate the convergence of huge crowds of people in the downtown area while still enjoying the sights and sounds of the air show.

After Monday afternoon’s tourism commission meeting, Miller briefed the full Mayor and Council on the situation a couple hours later during the regular Monday night meeting, which was a virtual meeting through Zoom.

“The ticketed areas on the beach would be in violation of a document put out in June that allows things to happen without an audience,” he said. “They would like to see those spaces removed. The air show can still go on without those areas, but removing them takes away a large amount of revenue. Basically, if we get rid of those areas, we’re going to have to stand this up financially.”

OC Air Show promoter Bryan Lilley explained the proposed changes to the Mayor and Council remotely via Zoom.

“We would remove all of the infrastructure on the beach between 13th Street and 14th Street,” he said. “We will eliminate anything that would encourage a convergence of people. Basically, it will be one long stretch of beach for people to watch the air show.”

Lilley said the live streaming of the air show would be a state-of-the-art production akin to the broadcast of an NFL game.

“It will be a sporting event-style presentation with multiple cameras, interviews with the pilots and a broadcast team in different areas,” he said. “We’ll have cameras down at Wallops Island. We have the best lineup we’ve ever had with the top three Air Force demonstration teams. You’ll be able to see the jets in the lineup and see the Thunderbirds doing their walk down.”

However, losing the ticketed areas and producing the live stream comes at a price perhaps too large for the air show to absorb and still host the event successfully. Lilley said the ticketed areas and show center areas generated around $187,000 last year. In addition, because of the uncertainty if the air show would even be held this year, sponsorship revenue was down around 40%. Lilley said the net loss in revenue with the ticketed areas removed at around $202,000. He asked if the town could meet him halfway and provide $100,000 in additional funding to ensure the event can still go on next weekend.

Lilley said despite the changes including the removal of the show center downtown, there was a great opportunity with the live stream to reach a much larger audience with Ocean City featured as the primary sponsor. Of course, local residents and visitors can watch the air show and listen to the live stream from anywhere around the resort, but the live stream will also be available all around the country and beyond.

Lilley explained because air show have been grounded for the most part throughout the COVID-19 situation, air show and aviation enthusiasts are thirsty for an actual event and will tune in to the live stream all over the world.

“The silver lining in all of this is the live stream, which creates a great opportunity for Ocean City,” he said. “Through COVID, there hasn’t been any air shows with the top demo teams from around the world. We have the opportunity to be the first. The live feed will really reach a national and global audience and it’s an opportunity to really promote Ocean City and all it has to offer.”

Councilman Mark Paddack made a motion to approve the $100,000 funding allocation to ensure the OC Air Show goes off as planned next week.

“There is nobody on the east coast that has the staff, the training and the resources to pull this off like we do,” he said. “This event is a staple for Ocean City. People can decide on their own to come or not come, but we really need this event.”

Councilman John Gehrig said the Town of Ocean City would be the premiere sponsor of the air show with potential exposure to a global audience including a share of the advertising revenue from the live stream of the event.

“Basically, I look at this like we’re an investor in the live stream and we would be the primary sponsor,” he said. “We get our investment back in future ad sales and we get a lot of positive exposure for Ocean City. This isn’t just a handout. We’re partners going forward.”

While all agreed supplying the $100,000 was a sound investment, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out eliminating the controlled ticketed areas represented the loss of an opportunity to ensure social distancing and the other directives.

“It’s just ironic that we had a chance to control distancing at the show center and require people to wear masks,” he said. “We also had an opportunity for contact tracing if we had an issue. Now, we have none of that.”

Councilman Matt James supported the funding allocation, but wanted assurances the money was being used to the intended purposes.

“I want to amend the motion to not just give $100,000,” he said. “I prefer to pay invoices and not just hand over $100,000. I completely support this, but I just want to make sure we’re being responsible and everything is accounted for.”

In the end, the council voted 6-0 with Councilman Tony DeLuca absent to provide the $100,000 supplementary allocation to the air show. It’s important to note the town already provides $35,000 to the air show through a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The council agreed to supply the additional $100,000 with a couple of stipulations. For example, the money will be used to pay invoices incurred by the air show, Ocean City will be one of the primary sponsors, the town will receive 50% of the advertising revenue from the live stream and the town will also gain access to the thousands of the air show’s email subscribers to promote future events.

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.