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Ocean City

Leaner OC Experience promo gets reluctant council approval

(Jan. 11, 2013) With the potential debut of Ocean City’s travel and trade show exhibit only weeks away, the City Council moved this week to approve an even more scaled-back version of the OC Experience, the Sparks Productions project that caused a row last month after city officials suggested killing it and adapting aspects of Sparks’ idea to its own promotion.

“We looked at how we could refine it, reduce the costs, and — my biggest concern — bring the project in under budget,” said city Tourism Director Donna Abbott this week.

The three local events that the booth was to appear at have been eliminated, although Spark had previously agreed to do them free of charge. Instead, the out-of-town show schedule, previously cut to three venues, will again see four events. The first will be in Philadelphia on Jan. 26 and 27, with shows in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio scheduled in February and March.

Further, costs have been reduced to less than $70,000. This covers Hoffman’s services and the physical construction of the booth, which the city will own.

“I think David [Recor, the City Manager], Donna, and Brad [Hoffman, Spark President] have worked together to modify this proposal … to come up with the best package possible,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

The project was pitched nearly two years ago, when Hoffman proposed a tractor-trailer that would travel to tourism conventions and trade shows around the county 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 2012 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 final 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 staff 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 at the Dec. 17 meeting of the mayor and City Council, the city’s stance changed significantly from the overt enthusiasm displayed in March. Tourism Director Donna Abbott suggested that the city take on only two shows and use the pre-existing Rodney the Lifeguard marketing materials developed by MGH instead of Hoffman’s project.

As was revealed at the meeting, there appeared to be much confusion over who was responsible for developing a formal memorandum of understanding between the city and Spark, and who exactly had the right to modify the show schedule. Hoffman’s final proposal actually gave an $83,000 price tag for three shows, but it was Abbott who had cut the schedule.

The idea that the MOU was a conditional factor for the project 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 at the meeting.

“This was Spark Productions intellectual property,” he added. “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.”

“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 last month.

Although a motion was made and seconded to go with Abbott’s alternative, the council ultimately decided to table the issue and have Abbott and Recor meet with Hoffman as soon as possible to work on an MOU that would provide parameters satisfactory to all.

Last week, Hoffman reported that such an agreement had been reached.

Despite the reconciliation, Meehan, who was not at the December meeting that caused the initial uproar, said the video of the session was “painful to watch.”

“Unfortunately, this was an item that was passed onto this council by a previous council,” he said. Limited buy-in had been achieved from staff and other stakeholders, leading to confusion, and Meehan said he felt that city staff and local associations may have been “better equipped” for the trade show task.

He also objected to the idea that the city was planning to unjustly benefit from Spark’s work, particularly with regards to Hoffman’s assertion that he had worked to direct Abbott to the trade shows she had scouted and booked for the project.

“I don’t think that was proprietary,” Meehan said. “I was the one that asked her [Abbott] to attend the Washington trade show. Brad had never given any indication via his research that he had attended shows in recent years … I’m not really sure they fell into his expertise.”

Nevertheless, Meehan said he appreciated that Hoffman had subsequently worked to “modify your idea to fit the concept,” and suggested that council “follow through with a commitment … made in their previous vote.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight told Hoffman, though while she still had reservations about the efficacy of trade shows in general, relative to Internet solicitation, “never did I doubt your professionalism.”

“A lot of people don’t trust what they hear from strangers, but they do what they hear from friends,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas. “You [Hoffman] are a friend of Ocean City and I know that you’ll come across that way [at the shows].”


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