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OC Experience promising in first outings

(Feb. 15, 2013) Despite initial fears of destination marketing Luddite-ism, or embracing the old style while eschewing the technological advances in marketing, the Town of Ocean City’s re-entry into the old-fashioned trade show circuit has produced high hopes that the resort could recover some of the visitor demographics it seems to have lost since the 2008 slump.

Although it was nearly sliced from the city’s marketing plan earlier this year, the OC Experience trade show booth – a project of local promoter Brad Hoffman and his company, Spark Productions – has recently completed the first two of its inaugural four-show season, which Hoffman says has been highly successful in getting back to the roots of tourism promotion.

“The most effective dynamic is being able to talk directly to people about their vacation,” Hoffman said, “and to tailor that conversation directly to the family in front of me, to build a long-term customer out of the relationship we just made.”

“We were there with our competition, with our competitor resorts, and we blew them out of the water.”

The project has already appeared at the Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show, Jan. 26 and 27, as well as the Columbus (Ohio) Sports, Vacation, and Boat Show, Feb. 7 and 8, and is scheduled to be at the Baltimore Boat Show, Feb. 28 through March 3, as well as the Washington, D.C. Travel and Adventure Show, March 9 and 10.

The OC Experience is essentially a ramped-up, technologically-augmented version of the classic trade show kiosk. Not only are the usual flyers, magazines, and promotional tchotchkes disseminated, but visitors are also exposed to interactive video presentations – via Ipads and flat-screen TVs – that showcase the resort’s current attractions alongside nostalgic comparison footage of the classic American family vacation from the mid-20th century.

Even more crucial, however, is the active presence at the booth of Hoffman and his Spark business partners, Brian Stoehr and David Bafford. Admittedly “never afraid to talk,” Hoffman made a point of drawing potential customers in on a personal level. Most, he said, were families or couples who had come to the expos to look into vacation options for themselves, friends, and relatives.

“We really wanted to help people make their vacation decision right then,” Hoffman said. “We talked to them about what they wanted in their vacation, instead of just giving them a rack card.”

“A lot of our competitors don’t do it this way. They just sit behind a desk and hope someone talks to them.”

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 county to promote the resort. The original price tax was upwards of a quarter of a million dollars, and the project remained somewhat bogged down for many months, undergoing a number of drastic cost-cutting revisions. Support for a limited iteration of the project was backed by City Council last March.

But at the Dec. 17th Mayor and City Council meeting, the city’s stance seemed to have changed significantly from the overt enthusiasm displayed in March. Tourism Director Donna Abbot suggested that, instead, the city take on only two shows and use pre-existing Rodney the Lifeguard marketing materials 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, who exactly had the right to modify the show schedule, and how the project’s budget was to be made to fit that criteria.

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 that meeting.

Briefly afterward, and agreement was reached that saw the project move forward with a further cut in cost, but with the elimination of in-town appearances that Hoffman had agreed to do without charging the city for Spark’s staffing.

“It was a tough process, but I’ve learned that, while it’s never easy, by refining it like that, you get the best possible product for everybody. I think we pared it down to mostly assets with little liability,” Hoffman said.

Even still, the Town of Ocean City has been reluctant to get back into trade show marketing since bowing out of the venue at the dawn of the internet age in the 1990s. Rapidly falling ad prices, and wider dissemination on the web, meant that the cost-per-view of mass media was a fraction of that associated with face-to-face marketing. Even after several scale-downs, the price tag for the OC Experience’s inaugural run is $70,000, although this includes the price of creating the booth itself, which can be reused in subsequent years at almost no cost.

However, Hoffman submitted, face-to-face selling still produces a more reliable result.

“The impressions are multi-pronged, and the connection is much deeper,” he said. “That’s a different kind of impression….you can never remove the face-to-face interaction, which is the way we marketed before ‘cost per click’ became king.”

Having a physical marketing presence also provides the city with much more reconnaissance than would be gained by just media ads – particularly in last weekend’s Columbus show, where Hoffman was surprised to find that many Ohio residents considered Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to be their primary beach destination, despite being a 12-hour drive from the greater Columbus area. Ocean City, Hoffman noted, is a mere nine-and-a-half.

Ocean City does little marketing west of Harrisburg, although some increased advertising in the Pittsburgh area is slated for this year. But based on what he heard at the Columbus show, Hoffman said that some of the more distant of the resort’s potential customers could also be its most reliable, given that their lack of proximity means they have to plan further ahead and are likely to stay longer than those coming from a shorter distance.

“That’s the customer we want. We want to build the six or seven day customer back up,” Hoffman said. “I really think we can rebuild our business in a way that we get that longer stay back, bring the families back – one family at a time, if we have to.”

“This concept, if continued and pushed forward – I could see it nurturing a whole new makeup in our vacation population,” Hoffman said.

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