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Tourism Comm. reviews enterprise options

(Sept. 12, 2014) In yet another bid to make more city services self-sustaining, the city’s Tourism Commission discussed this week the revenue-generating options available for the resort’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and its associated flagship website, ococean.com.

Namely, the commission re-visited the idea of adding additional “tiers” of extra features to the town’s official commerce website, but for an additional fee from member businesses.

Further, the idea of offering a weekly “featured listing” – which would guarantee seven days’ top placement on the site, for a considerable premium – also gained traction.

One of the major hurdles to getting more money out of ococean.com and the CVB is the fact that the website service is already so good. CVB members have become accustomed to paying a relatively low rate of $200 annually for a full-featured membership, meaning that there aren’t many yet-unimplemented features that the town could start charging extra for.

“I think the price is still just too low…and there’s not enough separation between the tiers,” said commission member Todd Ferrante, echoing the general sentiment of the group.

The city’s marketing agency, MGH Advertising, recently re-vamped ococean.com to include better photos, package deals and specials, and other features on the site’s business listings. Most of the member listings are for hotels, although restaurants and retail stores are also included.

Listings on the home pages are displayed randomly, but are also searchable by a number of different criteria.

City Tourism Director Donna Abbott’s original pitch called for a regular “Tier 2” membership, which includes all of the current features introduced by MGH this past year, as well as a top-level “Tier 1” membership that would give listings a yellow highlight and star icon when their info boxes appeared on the home or search pages.

The price of regular memberships would be raised to $250, and “Tier 1” memberships would be $300.

However, it was doubted as to whether an extra $50 for a highlight and star was actually going to make any difference for the businesses, or raise more money for the town.

Two possible solutions were offered – one being to try to further differentiate between tiers.

“The thing I think you could do to distinguish is have the ‘Tier 1’ be a larger space…a bigger box on the page,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “Your eye is going to go toward the larger block.”

A higher premium, perhaps $400, could then be charged for the top-tier while keeping regular membership flat.

“Just keep the ‘Tier 2’ at $200 and raise money through the ‘Tier 1,’” Dare said.

A second option would be to simply scrap the idea of different tiers and gradually raise the rate to match expenses. The 335 member businesses currently generate $67,000 in revenue, versus $97,000 spent to maintain the website as well as the physical visitor’s center in the convention center, as well as administrative costs of associated personnel.

“I think you’re better off without the enhancements,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic. “Just charge more across the board.”

Although it would be possible to strip some existing features for a cheaper, lower-tier membership, this would run the risk of losing existing members, or having too many members opt for the lower tier and thus having a less impressive site.

“I didn’t want to lose members by offering a lower-level listing,” Abbott said. “We have a pretty robust site as it is…we didn’t want to charge so much that we end up with a site that isn’t worth going to for the visitor.”

The commission eventually settled on Mitrecic’s recommendation of a $50 rate increase each year for the next three years, at which point revenue would likely be meeting or exceeding expenses, allowing for some growth in operating costs.

The commission also endorsed Abbott’s idea of selling weekly featured listings, which would appear in a much larger box at the top of every page, outside of the random order or search results. Abbott pegged the price for this at $1,000 per week – although the actual value of such a listing is admittedly unknown.

The most revenue would likely be garnered by allowing CVB members to bid for the week’s privilege, although the commission agreed that this was somewhat out of the purview of a government website that is supposed to represent the town evenly, regardless of how much any given business could afford to pay.

Similarly, the city floated the idea last year of selling banner advertising on ococean.com – but this was contested by business groups such as the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, which argued that more lucrative establishments would simply buy up the ad rotation and make the website disproportionately representative of higher-end properties.

Rather, the consensus this week was that any business wishing to pay a flat rate for a featured week would be entered into a lottery. However, this would need some tweaking, given that certain weeks are more valuable for advertising than others.

The city could either charge more for higher-demand weeks, or charge the same $1,000 for a featured listing that rotated with other listings during peak times.

“I think there’s a way you can make more revenue, and make more people happy who want to participate, by rotating the listing,” said commission member G. Hale Harrison.

The issue will be forwarded to City Council at an upcoming session.

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