(July 26, 2013) As they say in the entertainment industry, no press is bad press.
Except when the press is about consecutive bank robberies, or near-stabbings of bar owners, or arresting a pregnant woman and allegedly causing her to require an emergency c-section.
With all that and more expected to hit the national news media this week, the question remains as to whether the city’s recent high-profile crimes will have anything to do with its so-far spotty tourism performance.
“I can certainly tell you that there’s a lot more news about negative things in Ocean City than I normally see, but it would be tough to say that it definitely affects tourism,” said Andy Malis, president of MGH, the city’s contracted advertising firm.
June data from the Smith Travel Report, which compiles booking data from franchise hotels, pegs the city’s room occupancy as down three percent from last year. But competitor resorts are taking an even bigger hit, with Atlantic City showing a 20 percent drop, even when room availability lost to Hurricane Sandy is factored in.
“There’s a huge question here as to what’s really going on,” Malis said. “If the trend from June’s business holds for the whole summer, and you look at how worse Jersey is doing, then where’s everybody going?”
Some public officials have asserted that the city’s image could be a factor in its inconsistent performance this summer season.
“There’s still this intimidation going on … people are emailing us and saying, ‘This is what I saw on 8th Street or 12th Street or on the Boardwalk in front of my hotel, and they’re not happy about it,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas at a recent council session.
“Some of these visitors [who contact the council] are really angry, and I think the community doesn’t necessarily see that and it makes it seem like we’re trying to make something that’s not there, but it is,” said Councilman Brent Ashley
Ashley has come under fire from some of his colleagues recently for the amount of attention garnered by his proposed “saggy pants ordinance,” which would establish a public decency code for the Boardwalk to help combat what Ashley sees as a growing “thug” image to the venue.
But at the same time, the Ocean City Police Department reported earlier this month that its overall calls for service were down 6.3 percent for June, indicating that less police activity overall has been needed. But this has done little to assuage public doubt, it seems.
“It seems to me that if the visitorship is down 10 percent, the calls should be down 10 percent,” Ashley said, citing the 5 to 10 percent average drops that have been seen so far this year in the resort’s room tax receipts and demoflush numbers, which estimate population based on wastewater flow.
“The calls or service are not necessarily indicative of the environment,” Ashley added. “This is what I’ve been saying – it’s the perception visitors have of us.”
Perception, it would seem, is less influenced by the OCPD’s hard data and more by the number of headline-grabbing crimes in the resort, of which there have been many this year.
“A lot of the evidence is anecdotal,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “The police have said their numbers are down, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get a call from a hotelier when something happens right outside their place that they aren’t happy about.”
Comparative arrest data for this year is difficult to read given that it has been somewhat lowered by new state laws. Maryland is now allowing certain minor criminal offenses to be dealt with via citation, instead of a full arrest and arraignment.
Many of the offenses affected are drug-related – a category of arrests that made up the bulk of the OCPD’s work last June. The Ocean City Police Department made 505 drug arrests in June 2012, according to its year-end report, almost as many as in July and August combined. That number has plummeted for this year to 236.
But what does appear to be on the rise are weapons arrests, which the OCPD’s latest data show totaled 65 for June 2013, more than double the 32 reported in June 2012. This would, ostensibly, support the theory pushed by Ashley and some others that what crime remains in the resort is of a more severe and onerous variety than the minor drug infractions that have padded numbers in the past.
Whether or not crime is a factor, the consensus among business owners seems to be that success is more temporal this year than last, with visitors no longer committing to longer stays or coming in spite of the weather.
“We used to have people who would book four or five nights [in advance],” said Joe Jobson, a motel and condominium owner who spoke at last week’s City Council meeting. “That doesn’t happen anymore. Even on the Fourth of July, it took us until midnight to fill up.”
As of May, Smith Travel showed the resort’s average revenue per available room – occupied or not – on weekends as down 1.2 percent year-to-date as opposed to 2012. For weekdays, this drop jumped to 8.9 percent.
“June was rough,” said another prominent local business owner. “When the weather was good, we were up, but when it was bad, we were really, really down. It’s going to take a lot to recover.”
“It’s been a wacky season,” Jones said. “The wet weather in the spring will probably impact the bottom line unless we see some big upsurge soon.”
The Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce has sent out a survey asking members how their businesses has been affected, and by what, so far this year.
“You hear anecdotally that business is off because of the weather, or because of this or because of that,” said Chamber Executive Director Melanie Pursel. “I put together a survey that was a sort of season status. I actually listed every major event that we’ve had up through the Fourth of July and asked our members to gauge how it impacted them.”