OCEAN CITY – Among the takeaways from Tuesday’s lengthy discussion about planned special events this summer was a possible shift in the strategy to embrace the town’s weekend destination market and the potential of adding elaborate drone shows to the lineup.
Should Ocean City embrace its spontaneous weekend destination image or continue to go after the traditional week or two-week vacation market? Have the weekly fireworks shows become tired and stale and should the town go after bold new ideas for added-value special events such as the elaborate drone shows that have become the rage around the country?
Those were just a couple of the major talking points during Tuesday’s marathon work session, which veered at times in more of a philosophical discussion than the nuts and bolts of TEAM Productions representative Bob Rothermel’s presentation of the planned value-added special events for this summer. The list of special events is largely contingent on where the state is by summer in terms of COVID restrictions such as crowd-gathering sizes, for example.
“We tried to take into account the what-ifs and where we think we’ll be in terms of COVID restrictions,” said Rothermel.
Rothermel and TEAM Productions each year produces a wide variety of special events from weekly fireworks shows up north at Sundaes in the Park and weekly beach fireworks in the downtown area at the Boardwalk to concerts on the beach and other special events with a budget of around $300,000 from the town. The plan presented to the Mayor and Council included a budget increased to around $380,000 with significant new events added.
The plan calls for kicking off Memorial Day weekend with the popular giant flag on the beach on both Friday of the holiday weekend and actual Memorial Day Monday. Included in the Memorial Day plan is a Beacon of Light display shining into the resort sky all weekend honoring the men and women who lost their lives in the service of their country. The Memorial Day plans also include honoring the many men and women on the front lines of the COVID pandemic over the last year.
In early June, the special events plan includes a series of kid-friendly drive-in movies at the Inlet lot along with a weekend-long drive-in concert series also at the Inlet lot. The plan presented on Tuesday also includes a series of so-called mini-concerts on the beach throughout the summer, a major ticketed concert at the Art-X event at Northside Park and another major ticketed concert at the beach at North Division Street in late August with an as-yet-unnamed national act. The planned special events culminate with the popular OCToberfest events next fall.
Throughout the summer, the plan calls for the weekly Sundaes in the Park fireworks at Northside Park and the weekly fireworks shows downtown at the Boardwalk on Thursday nights. At the tourism commission level earlier this month, it was decided the Boardwalk fireworks should go off at 9:30 p.m. and that remains the consensus.
Last year, it was decided to move the Boardwalk fireworks to Thursday as a kick-off to jumpstart the weekend. Of course, the pandemic took hold and the benefits of moving the fireworks to Thursday was never realized. While all agreed the Sundaes in the Park fireworks should remain in place, the discussion on Tuesday gravitated to whether the Boardwalk fireworks were still relevant and should some new bold idea be embraced, such as the elaborate drone shows that are popping up around the country.
Most agreed scheduling special events on Thursday was a good idea to jumpstart the weekend, but there was no consensus if fireworks should continue to be the catalyst for that jumpstart.
Are Fireworks Still Relevant?
The plan presented on Tuesday includes 12 weekly fireworks shows at Sundaes in the Park and nine weekly shows on Thursdays downtown that would be fewer than the traditional number but larger in scale and duration. However, Councilman John Gehrig questioned if the downtown fireworks were still relevant.
“The weekly fireworks started because we were in the midst of a recession,” he said. “I think the fireworks are getting old and stale. Sundaes in the Park is an event that culminates with the fireworks. Thursdays on the beach just seems kind of random. They’re not related to any special event.”
Gehrig was bullish on the upcoming summer season with COVID metrics declining and state restrictions easing little by little.
“This is going to be a great season,” he said. “I’m not sure we need a lot of value-added free stuff. I would much rather be bold and do something different.”
Special Events Director Frank Miller explained the Thursday downtown fireworks shows would be fewer, but larger and longer, and how they tie into other established special events downtown.
“The concept for the Thursday fireworks is fewer shows, but bigger and better shows,” he said. “They are connected to other events. The Thursday concerts on the beach end at 9:30 p.m. and the Sunset Park concerts on Thursdays end at 9 p.m., so people could make their way over for the fireworks.”
Weekend Destination First?
The discussion of fireworks came around to a larger debate about Ocean City’s brand and how it should best be marketed. It’s no secret Ocean City has become a short-stay destination, especially for visitors from the major metropolitan areas within a few hours-drive of the resort. In a large sense, the traditional Saturday-to-Saturday summer vacations have long since become a thing of the past for many who choose to come for shorter stays and more often throughout the season. Gehrig said Ocean City should really embrace the weekend-destination market.
“I think we need to understand who we are and embrace it,” he said. “We’re a weekend destination. We’re a two-and-a-half-day destination within three hours’ drive for 14 million people. We need to figure out how to get to that third night. Summer weekends are what we do best, and we should own that.”
Gehrig said the town should really go after the weekend market and it starts with Thursday. He just wasn’t sure if fireworks were enough of a draw to make that happen.
“Let’s brand the weekend and it starts on Thursday,” he said. “People can take a Friday off, or work remotely and get down here on a Thursday night. There are a lot of things that have come out of the last year and they’re going to stick around.”
He pointed to the town’s proximity to major markets such as Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia as a reason to really go after the weekend destination market.
“Our primary market is short stays,” he said. “That’s the blessing and curse of having a resort so close to millions of people. People watch the weather forecast and what’s going on and call their friends or family and say let’s head to the beach. That’s our brand. That’s our wheelhouse.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he supported the weekend destination approach, but cautioned against putting all of the town’s marketing eggs into one basket. He said the town should continue to reach out to destinations further than a short drive in an effort to continue to fill out midweek.
“We expanded our advertising to Ohio and West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and it has worked,” he said. “You can tell be the license plates you see around town. Those are our longer-stay groups. I agree with some of what you’re saying, but let’s not abandon that.”
While Gehrig advocated for pursuing the weekend destination market, he was still in favor of going after all segments of Ocean City potential markets. For example, he too said he has seen more and more Ohio license plates for example. He suggested there are at least two market segments and the town should have different campaigns for the different markets. For example, one campaign could be focused directly on the weekend travelers from the nearby metropolitan markets and another could be directed at those consumers who travel from farther markets.
Councilman Frank Knight said he agreed the weekly fireworks shows downtown have become a little stale and asked for more discussions about adding the drone shows.
“I do think we need something new,” he said. “That’s where maybe the drone shows come in.”
Drones Or Fireworks Or Both?
Elaborate shows featuring hundreds of drones in the sky synchronized to music are popping up all over the country and Rothermel has been exploring the possibility of bringing the new craze to Ocean City as part of the special events package, but they are not cheap. Throughout the discussion on Tuesday, Rothermel referenced a recent drone show in Milwaukee and many in council chambers, including the elected officials, quickly went to their cell phones to pull up the elaborate video of the Milwaukee show.
Rothermel said if the town were to commit to a single drone show, the cost would be around $200,000. He said a high-quality show would need a minimum of 200 drones at a cost of around $500 each, for a total of $100,000, which along with start-up cost of around $100,000 would bring the total to $200,000 for a show with a quality and scale matching the much-ballyhooed drone show in Milwaukee, for example.
However, Rothermel said with a two-year commitment from the town, he could parlay that $200,000 investment into eight drone shows. He said he would be able to do that through a lease-to-own arrangement to acquire the drones, which could be re-programmed for different shows to correspond to different events. Rothermel also said the drone shows would not replace fireworks under his plan, but coordinate with them to enhance the entire experience.
“Having them together makes a huge difference,” he said. “That’s your big bang. They have to come together.”
Gehrig reiterated his position about the regular Thursday fireworks as opposed to going after something bold and unique like the drone shows.
“If we’re going to go all in on something, let’s do something that’s going to bring people to town,” he said. “Let’s not keep doing something that’s nice to have for the people who are already here.”
Frank Miller said it was late in the game to make the leap to drone shows for this summer, but said it could be done if that was the Mayor and Council’s desire.
“The question is do you want to add the drones,” he said. “The drones could come between the O.C. Dance Party on the beach and the fireworks on the beach on Thursdays. It can be done. It’s just a question of if you want to spend the money.”
Knight said he supported at least exploring the possibility of adding drones.
“I think the fireworks are a little tired,” he said. “I think the drone shows would be a great thing for Ocean City.”
Councilman Mark Paddack could hardly contain his enthusiasm for drones after watching the Milwaukee show.
“We do get some flak as councilmembers for some of these expenditures, but this could be totally worth it,” he said. “That drone show is amazing. It really is remarkable.”
Paddack agreed with Gehrig’s assessment of Ocean City as a weekend destination and urged the promoter and staff to explore the possibility of adding drone shows.
“We are a weekend destination,” he said. “We are a three-hour drive from 14 million people. Let’s have Frank Miller and Bob come back with a cost estimate. I’d like to see what it would cost because it’s absolutely amazing.”
Council Secretary Tony DeLuca made a motion to have Rothermel and Frank Miller work on some estimates and bring back a couple of cost scenarios.
“Let’s see some estimates from drones,” he said. “Maybe some things can be eliminated from this plan and maybe some things can be added. Let see some different scenarios.”
Rothermel said he could go back and come up with some new estimates and plans for special events, but the clock was ticking with the calendar already set to flip to March. When asked what his drop-dead date was, Rothermel was candid in his assessment.
“I was hoping that would be today, especially with the fireworks,” he said. “I have a pretty tight window to order them because they come from overseas and we all know how slow that can be right now. It’s a total package. If we’re going to talk drones, it’s going to be more money.”
Frank Miller asked if the council could approve the $300,000 request from Rothermel on Tuesday and give him and staff leeway to come back with estimates on adding drone shows. Councilman Peter Buas cautioned against that approach.
“My concern is we’re going to approve this today and then we’re going to see a proposal for another $100,000 in two weeks,” he said. “I’d like to see this go back to the tourism commission if there are going to be major changes.”
However, it was determined there was no time to send major overhauls in the plan back to the tourism commission, which doesn’t meet again until next month, and then get back to the Mayor and Council and still meet Rothermel’s window for ordering fireworks and accommodating other major changes in the plan. The council ultimately voted 6-0 with Buas abstaining to approve DeLuca’s motion to have the producer and town staff work on different options including potentially drones.
Drive-In Options Planned
With the uncertainty of COVID restrictions still looming, the plan presented on Tuesday includes some early season wrinkles including family-friendly drive-in movies at the Inlet lot on Monday’s in June. The plan also includes a weekend-long series of drive-in concerts at the Inlet lot in early June.
The latter would include national recording artist Billy Springs bringing his unique drive-in road tour to Ocean City. Springs and his crew last year embarked on a drive-in concert tour that led to a Pied Piper-like following, according to Rothermel.
“These are ideas for June when we don’t know what the protocols will be,” he said. “The Billy Strings tour is a drive-in event that draws people from all over. It’s a Grateful Dead kind of atmosphere. When I spoke to the producer and showed him the Inlet lot, he practically fell out of his chair.”
Rothermel said having the drive-in concerts in June, followed by a series of free beach concerts throughout July could provide a springboard to the major concerts planned in the resort later in the summer.
“With the mini-concerts in July, they could wean us back into the live music mindset,” he said. “We’re trying to get a major concert in August that draws 10,000 people. We’re trying to do the major concert on the beach at North Division Street. If we can’t get to that stage by then, we have a plan in place for pods for concert-goers. We’re still working on that.”
If Ocean City decides to pursue the elaborate drone show over the ocean concept, it could come at the expense of other special events in the plan presented on Tuesday. Rothermel said he stood by the family-friendly drive-in movie concept in June.
“It could provide a reason for people to come downtown,” he said. “They would be held on Monday around happy hour time, so people could come and enjoy the Boardwalk and stay for the movie, or they could come for the movie and stay after to enjoy all of the amenities.”
Last year in the midst of COVID, the town hosted drive-in movies at the convention center parking lot. Meehan said he wasn’t sure if the concept would still be relative this summer.
“The one thing I’m not sold on is the drive-in movies at the Inlet,” he said. “Last year, that was something unique and it was a great add-on. I’m not sure that’s the case this year.”