(Nov. 1, 2013) Last month, the city’s Tourism Commission gave tentative approval for the city to seek a consultant for a strategic tourism study – a long-awaited initiative that could address the growing differences in the resort’s sole industry. Despite reluctance from some to take the leap, Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigan’s Irish Pub and the Shoreham Hotel, has been a proponent of such a study. As chair of the Maryland Tourism Development Board, Shockley recently completed a similar process at the state level, and provided insight as to what exactly the town would need, and would get, if it goes forward with the project.
OCT: You’re the only person who’s gone through it and done it at the state level, and I think that has already set the tone here in Ocean City.
Shockley: It creates some level of consensus. There’s been a lot of discussion over the past three or four years, however long TAB [the city’s Tourism Advisory Board] has been around, about the direction the town needs to go or where we really want to go. We all know we want to be successful. We all know we want the town to have a positive image. But there are several ways to get there. A strategic plan would give us a roadmap to get there based on a consensus.
OCT: When you did this with the state, how did you start?
Shockley: The state mandates the Maryland Tourism Development Board to have a five-year strategic plan, and to revisit it every year. I don’t know where that originated, but it has provided us guidance for the past six year, since I’ve been on the board. We started out trying to grow the budget, and then the budget was cut in half in ‘08-‘09 due to the economy. In the years since, it has grown, and we’re looking at one of our largest appropriations ever this year for tourism.
OCT: In the case of Ocean City, the town government already has a pretty absolute financial commitment to tourism, and I guess the bigger question there is what we’re going to spend it on and where.
Shockley: There’s a couple big issues on the table. Number one, people who live in Ocean City have to realize what tourism does for this town, and how much money comes in through that economy. Yes, we have expenses from it, but without tourism and tourism at the levels we enjoy now, people would pay a lot more for the services they get through this town. You have to understand that tourism drives our economy. And there’s a fundamental decision to be made at that point – is that the way you want to go? If that’s not it, and you want to close your ranks and your borders, you won’t be able to afford to live here and enjoy what you do. So the dollars have to be shown, and their specific effect on the town.
Your next question out of that is do you stay an event-based economy, or do you go back to the traditional visitor – who used to come for a week, but now comes for two or three days. We’ve basically become a weekend town. Very good weekends, and we have solid business during the week, but it’s a weekend-based economy. I think the days are gone where people would check into a hotel for seven days and spend all their time there like they did in the 80s. The condo market changed that, and I think most of the hotels have realized that they’re looking at three or four days as the goal. The condos keep what’s left of the week-long business, which makes sense, because they have kitchens, etc., and people are trying to save money.
OCT: Even the condos have said that their mini-weeks are very much up and their full weeks are down. They’re almost on the same schedule.
Shockley: That’s not a problem that’s exclusive to Ocean City, it’s a national problem. Americans take the shortest vacation period of anybody in the world. Most of Europe is six weeks off a year and two or three through the summer. We may get two weeks, as a rule of thumb, but people are afraid to take it in this economy for fear that if they’re not at work, they’ll get fired.
Top that with those of us with children and are involved with sports, which is a huge time thing and an economic entity unto itself. You’re taking the trip that you would take otherwise, but instead of going to the tourist stuff they’re sitting out on the soccer field. It just goes down the tree from there. The town has to decide whether it wants the events or the families. Those are the things that are identified in the strategic plan.
The other thing that’s identified are the assets, what you have to offer people and the infrastructure to deliver. I think we have a lot of assets. It’s not quantified at this point, but you can fish, you can kayak – there’s a lot for people to do other than just sit on the beach. You look at your strengths, weaknesses, where you can grow, where are your threats.
It’s a lot of discussion. As I see it, whoever is hired to do this, if they do the job correctly, a good bit of work will be done before they get here in interviews. Talking to the people who are involved. Starting with the Mayor, to Buddy [Jenkins], to Hale [Harrison] – the older generation, whatever you want to call it, people who are big stakeholders.
OCT: How do you identify where your input is coming from? Obviously there are a lot of people involved here, from people who have a lot at stake to people who might own a handful of condos.
Shockley: You have to pick it. Unfortunately, 20 to 25 people is probably your number in the room to really grind this stuff out. Obviously the Hales and the Buddys in the world will have their people in the room. But you have to pick a cross-section of the population, from the private citizen, someone to represent condo associations, retail, hotels, you have to pick a diverse group. I don’t know if politicians are involved. They were in ours, we have delegates and senators on the board. I don’t know if you put the Mayor on it, council people on it, that’s a decision that has to be made down the line.
OCT: In your experience with the state, and potentially here as well, were there any obvious differences in approach between the people involved? And how do you make those gel?
Shockley: Obviously everyone comes to the table with their own sphere of interest. But the reason you’re on the state board, or on a board here, is that you have some sense of the big picture and you understand the importance of the industry as a whole. They do the same thing at Hotel-Motel [the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association] every week. The hotel guys sit down, and they have different views on how to get to something. But in order to move forward – because if tourism moves forward, their business moves forward – they’ll find some area of consensus. Will they agree on everything? No, they never will. But the guiding light is that tourism is important to me, my business, and the town, and it’s worth the effort. I may have to give up something to get something, a process that is lost in today’s political world.
OCT: Instead of just yelling until you get what you asked for.
Shockley: I think people can posture all they want on the outside. In the case of Ocean City and the case of the state, people grab their position to make a point. But when it’s explained to them at that level, they realize its for the good and they can move forward.
OCT: Once that message is established, how do you get it to trickle down to everyone?
Shockley: It’s reported out and people can read it and ask about it. You put strategies in place, and once they’re agreed upon its up to staff. But you have the means laid out, it’s not just ‘here you go, make this work.’ At the state, that was very true in marketing tourism to the legislators and showing them how valuable it was and getting them to approve our appropriations and buy in to the tourism message.
OCT: It seems almost the opposite here. With the state, you’re really trying to get the legislature to buy into tourism stimulus, whereas here the town is already stretching itself to give as much money as possible. And all of the major tourism efforts are already funneled through the town, which has taken on the role as the central organ for destination marketing.
Shockley: I think the difference between the state and the city is that most of the people here really understand tourism, and they know what it does. So the strategy is fine, to continue to grow tourism. Where the work is here is tactics, how is it being done? It goes back again to event versus vacationer, and how the image of the town will continue to be nurtured. With the strategic plan, there’ something there that everybody can grab hold of and say ‘this is how we’re supposed to be doing this.’
There’s a debate in town right now on whether or not to put advertising on the website. But I look at the website, and maybe it’s time to redo the whole website. It’s been up five years now, which I think in that world is an eternity.
OCT: The life span gets shorter as time goes on.
Shockley: The state is getting ready to redo theirs right now, and their’s came out after Ocean City’s. It’s an expensive process, but that’s something that has to be looked at. I thought that was more important, deciding if you just want to redo it, than to put banner advertising on it. At the state, there’s a little more emphasis to go outside and have somebody look at it. Here, the town has been kind of jaded by studies and outside consultants. The state is a little more willing to spend money to do it.
The city would go to Andy [Malis, President of MGH Advertising, the city’s marketing agency] and say ‘what do we need?’ Whereas the state would go to somebody outside and say ‘what do we have and what do we want to do with it,’ and then come back to whoever is going to do the website. The city is much more on a line right to their own people.
OCT: You go through a study and it’s a lot of work, and when you’re finished people say ‘thank God that’s done and behind us’ and then go back to business as usual. I think that’s why they get jaded. How do you get past that?
Shockley: It’s terrifying to have to deal with consultants when you’re the one being looked at. I liken it to reality TV shows – like ‘Hotel Impossible.’ What would those guys say to me if they came in here? The city is the same way. It’s against human nature to want to be examined. Especially when the people elected you and are basically supposed to be trusting your judgment. It’s tough to let other people come into the process. But if you do let people come in, or look outside, you find out what other people are doing that’s really helping them.
OCT: It’s sort of a matter of letting go.
Shockley: I understand their desire to hold onto that. Particularly in Ocean City, where the tourism budget and tourism philosophy is the most important part of our town. As a mayor or councilman, you’re not going to want to give that up. For the most part, they’ve done a great job, but an outside look never hurt anybody.
OCT: Do you see it as possible, in the end, for the city to really go about re-vamping its message or its brand in a conscious way?
Shockley: Well, right now our brand is Rodney. He is the spokesperson/icon for Ocean City. He’s been out there for five or six years and done a pretty good job. I know there’s debate – I don’t know how it’s divided – but there’s a segment that doesn’t like Rodney and they think we need to go to something else, and there’s a group that says Rodney’s great.
The thing here is that we aren’t advertising to ourselves. For now, Rodney is a good symbol for us and when you go outside the city, he is recognized. But he doesn’t have to mean anything to us. There are guys who have a valid point in wanting to go back to that more emotional approach to it, the softer sell with a beauty shot. Rodney is a little more aggressive and makes you think a little bit. But that’s a decision as to what you want. It’s the same thing with restaurants. You have guys who advertise in a way that I would never advertise, and then you have guys who just want black and white text. The point is there are a lot of ways to skin that cat. You have a broad population base, and everything appeals to somebody, it’s just a matter of finding the right people and getting the right number of people.
OCT: That would have a lot of bearing on if you want to stay event-based or get more people consistently through the week, what demographics fit what and which ones you want to target. Did the state ever go so far as to say ‘these are the people we want, this is how we want to get them?’
Shockley: Ten years ago, everybody was the same. They’d just take numbers. That’s changed over time. The state is somewhat limited by its budget where it can advertise, but it attempts to market smart. And it has its own demographic.
Andy was telling us how the city moved the income limit back down to $50,000 in their marketing approach, and how when you move it up to say $75,000, you’re still getting all the people at the bottom and you’re not adding that much on the top side. And by moving your ages, pretty much the same people watch the same things. So his point was, by moving the age up or moving the demographics up, you’re still going to get this much and not much more because you’ve already reached most of the group.
OCT: Most people are paying attention to the same media. There’s not as much variation as you’d think.
Shockley: A lot of people have complained about where MGH advertises. But if you advertise on, say, Orioles games, you’re going to be everywhere. You’re going to be seen on the Eastern Shore, in Denton, and in downtown Baltimore. When you advertise on TV, it’s hard not to get all the people.
OCT: I think there’s a big difference as well when people talk about where we’re advertising versus who we’re advertising to. There’s not a whole lot of difference you can make with the placement, because honestly most people don’t watch the same stuff anymore. But if you tailor the message to a certain group of people, it makes a difference.
Shockley: There have been discussions about that, too, and I’m not sure where that will end up. MGH likes to make people think in their marketing, that’s Andy’s niche. It’s not your typical run-of-the-mill advertising. I mean, look at Mr. Boh proposing to Miss Utz. That’s off-the-wall. But the other way to advertise for Smyth Jewelers is to have a guy kneeling on the beach giving his girl a ring. But MGH leans more toward that thought-provoking, clever image. That’s how we got Rodney. Prior to that, we were doing the beauty shots that just said ‘come to Ocean City’ and all that.
OCT: I wanted to touch on what you said the other day as far as the division in TAB as far as who’s doing well and who isn’t, that one track moves when the other doesn’t. Where do you see that division lying and how would the study help that?
Shockley: I don’t know that the strategic vision will help or hurt that divide. But it will give everybody something that they can buy into and a message that says ‘here’s how we’re marketing’ and ‘here’s the direction we’re moving.’ So if you want to invest your business, you have an idea where the vision for the town is, not just ‘we expect to do the same thing year after year and see where we end up.’
Ultimately, the main driving factor in this town is something no one has any control over, and that’s the weather. We fought it all year this year, and that’s probably part of the reason some guys did better and some guys didn’t. If you have outside seating, you got torn up. You hear, anecdotally, ‘I had my best year ever’ and ‘I had my worst year ever’ and you’re looking at them and thinking ‘you had a bad year, really?’
The longer I do it, the weirder it gets. I’m just thankful I have the business I have, and its been good to me.
OCT: Even if what you decide on saying isn’t what exactly what everyone wants, I think a targeted message is going to get you more results than just going all over the place to try to accommodate everyone.
Shockley: It’s a problem of success. You aren’t looking at building infrastructure, or a new water park, or 30 more hotels to take care of the number you want. We have all that here, it just needs to be focused. And that may pass by some of the people who have come here before. But there are enough people out there that we can fill in whatever we lose.
In many ways, I think we’ve been successful in spite of ourselves. We’re blessed with a great location to start with. I’m not saying the process shouldn’t be without debate or conversation, but it’s become too much. When you start dividing into camps is when you lose sight of the main goal, which is to make tourism better than it is now and generate more to the economy.