The selling of Ocean City


You would think a tourism strategy for Ocean City would consist of planting the beach umbrellas each Memorial Day and counting the receipts by Labor Day. Apparently, it's not that easy.

Room tax revenues were down 10 percent in June over last year, when they hadn't grown much from the previous summer. The resort's business community surmised several reasons: cheap air fares, which lured away more affluent travelers; the lingering recession, and dismal spring and early summer weather.

One of Ocean City's most devout visitors, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, suspected one more reason, something he abhors: timidity in promotion. He feels the state's prime resort must market more aggressively to prosper. The rest of Maryland has a great stake in this, too, since Ocean City creates about $70 million in annual state tax revenue.

For those of us who eagerly begin planning a vacation "downy ocean" the previous November, it may be hard to identify with others among us who travel to the beach on a whim. But, several businessmen say, an increasing share of business comes from impulsive vacationers, influenced by the forecast or an enticing commercial. And Ocean City's marketing has left lots of room for improvement; the TV spots in the Baltimore market show people popping up on the beach like swimsuited ghosts. The marketing pales in comparison to that for Colonial Williamsburg or the Orioles, to name two recreational attractions. Indeed, the resort just hired a new advertising agency and should see results soon.

The beach replenishment program, which was supposed to have concluded in early July but is still going on, has been another turnoff this summer. A letter we received from a Pittsburgh woman, who said her vacation had been ruined by the sights and sounds of bulldozers spreading sand outside her unit, probably spoke for many more. In a sign the resort is getting the governor's message, businesses have rallied to turn a negative into a positive: Exhibiting a sense of humor, they're offering prizes to people who can guess when the project will end. Federal and state officials have also pledged that beach replenishment will never again occur in the peak months of July and August.

Many of us so enjoy our experience at the beach, we would return to Ocean City even if they dimmed the lights across Assawoman Bay and tried to hide it from us. We would smell the salt air and the french fries, hear the gulls' cry and the sea's thunder and know we'd arrived at a place as comfortable as our own living room. Ocean City, however, is apparently going to have to try harder to entice the rest of us.

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