OCEAN CITY — Stopping short of throwing in the towel, resort tourism officials this week recommended not going after a fall marketing campaign and regrouping and utilizing the advertising budget for an aggressive campaign next year.
Throughout the COVID-19 situation, Ocean City’s marketing and advertising strategy has shifted almost as often as the state and federal directives have changed. At the outset of the outbreak, when Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home directive and closed non-essential businesses, Ocean City responded by closing its beaches and Boardwalk and later essentially closing lodging establishments.
During that time, the town’s main marketing message was “Stay Away from Ocean City,” and “We’ll be Here When the Time is Right.” When the state gradually went through the steps of its multi-phase recovery plan and businesses started to reopen on a conditional basis, the message shifted to “Welcome Back.”
Now, with the arrival of August, and Labor Day suddenly approaching in the coming weeks, the town’s tourism and marketing strategy is at a crossroads. The original plan discussed throughout the summer was for a fall marketing campaign focused on “Let’s Keep Summer Going,” but the state and the town are currently stalled in the current phase of the governor’s recovery plan.
There have been some modest spikes in Maryland’s key COVID-19 metrics over the last few weeks, but the numbers appear to have generally stabilized. In the interim, Ocean City has scrubbed many of its major fall special events with the Bike Week festivities postponed and a decision on Sunfest looming as soon as next week.
During Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting, Communications Manager and acting Tourism Director Jessica Waters outlined some of the alternatives for fall marketing. One option is to simply do nothing and let dysfunctional 2020 to run its course. A second option is to develop a full-press fall marketing campaign akin to the “Keep Summer Going” concept with a complete television, radio and digital approach in all of Ocean City’s major target markets. The catch on that option is Maryland is currently on the quarantine list in some of the major marketing target areas including New York and New Jersey. A full-on fall marketing campaign in all mediums would come with a $480,000 price tag.
Yet a third option would be to scale back the fall marketing campaign to just the town’s digital mediums and social networking, but that would still come at a cost of around $280,000. At Wednesday’s tourism commission meeting, Waters sought guidance from members on whether or not to aggressively go after fall marketing, take a wait-and-see approach, or simply lick the town’s collective wounds and save the town’s advertising resources for an aggressive campaign next year when the COVID situation has, hopefully, abated. The tourism commission ultimately decided on the latter.
“We have the opportunity to advertise in the fall, but there’s a lot to consider,” she said. “With the COVID restrictions still in place and the staffing issues for a lot of businesses, we can do nothing, we can advertise in all of our mediums or we can just go digital. Do we want to save the $480,000 for the spring? There are just a lot of uncertainties.”
Commission member and Ocean City hotelier Michael James said he was in favor of saving and advertising revenue and going after an aggressive campaign next year.
“My feeling is let’s lick our wounds for 2020 and get ready for 2021,” he said. “I think we should regroup and have a really robust program ready for 2021.”
Of course, the town’s marketing and advertising budget is largely fueled by room tax revenue and there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding those final figures for 2020. The spring was essentially lost because of COVID-19, and while June and July appeared relatively strong despite the coronavirus, the jury is still out on August and there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the fall shoulder season.
“We’re still not sure where room tax will be,” said Waters on Monday. “What we’re hearing is July was pretty strong despite everything, but we’re not sure yet about August. There are a lot of unknowns.”
Waters said the ever-changing COVID-19 metrics in Maryland and its surrounding target markets would likely impact visitor’s level of safety in traveling.
“Travel in 2020 right now is all based on one’s comfort level,” she said. “We can definitely revisit this if things change.”
After considerable debate, the tourism commission voted to pump the brakes on a fall marketing campaign and regroup next spring with an aggressive and creative advertising plan for 2021.