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Tourism evaluation proposed

(Oct. 18, 2013) Ocean City government could soon be ready to solicit bidders to conduct a strategic tourism study, a long-awaited project whose urgency was highlighted this week amidst the apparent divide in the resort’s business community, and debate over who should be involved in the subsequent discussion.

“Given the significance of the initiative, we should go to RFP now to find the right facilitator,” said City Manager David Recor. “In the meantime, we need to identify our stakeholders.”

What exactly such a study would entail was itself a matter of discussion, but would in theory provide a definitive answer as to where the city’s sole industry is heading, what sort of crowds it wants, and how it’s going to get them here.

“You still have a lack of consensus,” said Greg Shockley, owner of the Shoreham Hotel and Shenanigan’s Bar & Grill, at this week’s Tourism Commission meeting. “That’s what you need to figure out, is who you want involved in the process.”

Shockley, as part of the state’s tourism commission, was an integral part of Maryland’s statewide strategic tourism planning process earlier this year, and has provided insight into the possibility of the city conducting a study for itself.

The town’s own strategic planning initiative, done over this past winter, calls for some type of comprehensive tourism analysis as part of the resort’s short-term goals.

“The state’s plan is pretty broad-based,” said city Tourism Director Donna Abbott. “You really need to find out from your stakeholders what it is you really want.”

By all accounts, the summer of 2013 saw drastic highs and lows, with most businesses reporting a slow June. Some were able to recoup in July and August, and others were not, creating a greater disparity of success than the resort has seen in previous seasons.

“You have two rails, and when one is moving, the other is stopped,” Shockley said, noting that the matter has come up frequently at meeting of the resort’s Tourism Advisory Board.

The city has often tossed around new initiatives to tap into emerging or under-utilized markets of visitorship, such as eco-tourism, youth sports, and other niches. Some officials and business leaders have suggested that the resort  pursue such a targeted approach.

“If we want to market to, say, eco-tourism, we can just ask Andy [Malis, of MGH Advertising] to pull together some data on how best we can do it,” said Michael James of the Carousel Group.

“Andy’s information will help us afterwards,” Shockley said. “That’s something that needs to be talked about fundamentally, whether you want to stay event-based or go back to a family resort.”

“You’re never going to please everyone,” James said. “It seems like a shotgun approach.”

Moreover, the key question – before even starting such an effort – would be how inclusive the decision-making process would be, and how urgent it truly is.

“I think we would be best to take some time and look at the state’s study and see what we think we can get out of it,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “The people who can determine that are already in this room.”

“Putting it off another year is another year of ‘crisis management,’ of stringing things together without a plan,” Shockley said. “I really think time is of the essence.”

Even if the city were to solicit a coordinator for the study immediately, a selection would likely not be made until spring, with the study not completed until well after the 2014 season, Shockley noted.

The city is already beginning planning with MGH for 2014 marketing.

“If you say ‘this is how we’re going to go after it,’ we can go do it for you,” said Malis, whose company will hold the city’s contract for outside marketing and media advertising through next year.

“You come to your ad agency and say ‘this is what we want to say, go say it.’ My thought is that you need some outside help to determine what that is.”

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