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CITY COULD BACK OUT OF TRADE BOOTH AGREEMENT: Row erupts after cost, scheduling confusion threaten to have city scrap ‘OC Experience’

(Dec. 21, 2012) City staff may be under the gun this holiday season to hammer out a formal memorandum of understanding with a local promoter whose trade show production was on the verge of being cancelled this week, following some disagreement about what exactly the council was expecting out of the arrangement.

Brad Hoffman, head of local event marketing firm Spark Productions, told the City Council this week that he had devoted considerable time and resources to the “Ocean City Experience” project after his proposal garnered unanimous support in March, “just like any vote of confidence given by this council.”

“I feel it’s very disingenuous in many ways and on many levels, when that was not the intent of council [to support the project],” Hoffman said.

The project had first been pitched nearly two years ago, when Hoffman proposed a tractor-trailer that would travel to tourism conventions and trade shows around the country to promote the resort. The original price tag was upwards of a quarter of a million dollars, and the project remained bogged down for many months.

A second proposal in February of this year by Hoffman offered an elaborate trade show booth — sans vehicle — with extensive photo and video features, at a reduced price tag of roughly $180,000. The council instructed Hoffman to work with the city’s Tourism Department, the Tourism Advisory Board and the resort’s advertising agency, MGH, to complete the design.

The subsequent recommendation, presented in March, suggested that the city could halve the size of its booth and still make a splash at most shows where its competitors — such as Virginia Beach and Atlantic City — also had a presence.

A final price tag of $85,000 for Spark to create the booth and man it at four national-level shows was unanimously approved. Hoffman also offered to staff the booth at four additional local shows at no extra cost.

But this week, the city’s tone seemed to have changed significantly from the overt enthusiasm displayed in March.

“While it [the OC Experience project] is in our budget, we’ve not yet gotten a memorandum of understanding to approve going forward,” city Tourism Director Donna Abbott said this week.

“It was suggested that the town’s Rodney the Lifeguard marketing campaigns have been very effective … we looked at another way to further reduce costs in the subsequent budget year, and the council requested that I come back with an alternative proposal.”

This alternative proposal would be to use already-existent Rodney the Lifeguard materials from MGH to take to the two most influential trade shows, at a further reduced cost of $27,000.

“We should be represented at these shows, but perhaps not to the degree of the OC Experience,” Abbott said.

Her recommendation, instead, would be “that we revisit the OC Experience following the development of a comprehensive marketing plan, which we do not yet have.” In the meantime, a Rodney the Lifeguard photo booth would be the main attraction at the shows.

Three members of council – President Lloyd Martin, Secretary Mary Knight, and Councilman Doug Cymek – were immediately receptive to Abbott’s proposal. Knight asserted that she had never been completely on board with the OC Experience, and that the council had “approved a concept, and you [Abbott] evaluated it.”

“It was kind of thrown in your lap. I respect that you looked at this and came up with an idea that involves people who really know Ocean City.”

“I know Brad is very good at ‘promotion,’” Knight said, making quotation marks with her fingers. “But at those events you need to have more substance.”

“Was that entity given any authority to proceed?” Cymek asked Abbott, in reference to Spark.

“Not at all,” Abbott said. “I didn’t, until recently, get a plan on the OC Experience. I did tell Spark Productions that we need to have that first to spell out what was what.”

But Hoffman was quick to offer the council his side of the story as well – namely his own assertion that he was not just providing conceptual advice, but that Abbott was knowingly receiving concrete services from him.

“To be clear to the public and the media, this was engineered by myself. This was Spark Productions intellectual property,” Hoffman said. “I moved this idea forward with the mayor and council and the Tourism Department. I scaled it down to the price that they wanted. It was designed to go to the travel shows I articulated. Donna Abbott did not study those shows. I studied those shows.”

In fact, Hoffman noted, the two shows that Abbott was still planning on taking Rodney to were shows for which the city had already made payments on earlier with the intent of taking the OC Experience.

“Donna took action and booked the shows that I articulated. That’s our intellectual property,” Hoffman said. “She went there … on behalf of the OC Experience being there.”

He also objected to Knight’s inference that the city’s own shows, using MGH materials, would have an advantage over his.

“I’m not just a promoter, I’m a marketing professional,” Hoffman said. “To say that [city] staffers would know more than my team seems like a slap in the face.”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Knight replied.

However, Martin reiterated that the issue was that the project had never established a memorandum of understanding and had never communicated what exactly it would be providing.

“What I hear is that we were supposed to have an MOU from Spark Productions,” Martin said. “You need to focus on working with the tourism director. We need to you to go back to the drawing board and look at how you work with the tourism department.”

However, Hoffman objected to the idea that it was entirely his ball to drop. After receiving nothing definitive from the city, Hoffman offered his own MOU this fall, he said.

“The MOU would be something you guys give to us. Why did it take seven months?” Hoffman asked. “Why was Donna looking at alternatives, why didn’t I get a phone call saying, ‘Come in, we need to work on this?’”

The idea that there was a contract issue at stake only came up through “the fact that I was called back in here to give an update and was blindsided by another option,” Hoffman said. “If that’s the case, don’t we discuss contracts in closed session?”

What seemed to be the heart of the problem, however, was the financial side of the agreement, and who exactly had the authority and responsibility to define what that was. According to both Abbott and Hoffman, the fourth trade show – in Canada – had been cut because of overlapping commitments.

Hoffman then redistributed most of the cost of that show into the other three shows, for a total proposed cost of $83,000, which had been presented to the city this past fall. But council seemed to object to the fact that the March agreement had been changed at all.

“We budgeted $85,000 for four shows. That’s why the MOU is so important to us,” Martin said.

“What you’re doing is you’re value engineering your product to meet the number,” Cymek said.

“If we had sat down with Donna and were told we had to do four within $85,000, then we would’ve made it fit,” said Brian Stoehr, one of Hoffman’s partners in Spark. “Will it be the caliber of those other three? Not necessarily … we could’ve set it up for four, but we did what we were told to do.”

“We’re not saying we can’t [do four shows in budget], you’re saying we can’t,” Hoffman said.

“But your packet says you can’t,” said Cymek, pointing to the latest proposal.

“We weren’t instructed to,” Hoffman retorted.

Knight then made a motion to go with Abbott’s alternative, which Cymek seconded.

The only member of council who seemed to object to the move on principle was Councilwoman Margaret Pillas.

“I would hope that we could get your MOU,” she told Hoffman. “I’m uncomfortable with this … I feel like we’re reneging on a contract.”

Although both said that they would likely not have supported the original idea to go to trade shows, new Councilmen Dennis Dare and Joe Mitrecic seemed to be less secure with the idea of moving past Hoffman as well.

“I would like to see that motion tabled until we can sit down and talk … there seems to be a lot of he-said, she-said that’s not sitting well with me this evening at all,” Mitrecic said.

He motioned to table the issue and have Abbott and City Manager David Recor meet with Hoffman as soon as possible to work on an MOU that would provide parameters satisfactory to all.

Recor said he expected to be able to provide a solution quickly “if there is indeed a draft memorandum that articulates the expectations [that Hoffman had in the fall].”

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