By Donald Wittkowski
There are 80 million millennials living in the United States, and Ocean City has a message for every one of them: We want you. Come visit us.
The Jersey Shore town that touts itself in its tourism slogan as “America’s Greatest Family Resort” would also like to be known as a favorite vacation spot for millennials.
Hoping to tap what is now the country’s largest demographic group, Ocean City is planning to make an aggressive push to attract more tech-savvy millennials by offering them vacations that combine their desire for digital communications with traditional, family-friendly experiences, local business leaders said Thursday.
“There are more millennials on Earth than any other generation,” said Tricia Ciliberto, a marketing expert and vice president at OceanFirst Bank, a New Jersey-based financial institution that has a presence at the Jersey Shore.
Ciliberto, who was part of a panel discussion during an economic summit sponsored by the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted that millennials already outnumber the baby boomer generation and will become even more dominant by 2020.
“Their strength and the sheer magnitude of them is a force to be reckoned with, and they know that,” Ciliberto told the audience at the Flanders Hotel.
Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials currently represent 25 percent of the U.S. population. By 2020, they will comprise one-third of the population and will also enjoy a surge in their spending power. Altogether, they will inherit $30 trillion in wealth from family members, Ciliberto said.
Citing statistics from national surveys, Ciliberto pointed out that millennials have an overwhelming desire to travel, a profile that fits well with Ocean City’s vacation market. According to the statistics, 70 percent of the millennials cite travel as “their main motivation” to work every day.
“They love to travel, and they love to travel often,” Ciliberto said, adding that millennials enjoy spending their vacations at the beach.
A recent travel survey conducted by AARP found that 29 percent of the millennials plan to take a summer vacation, and more than 35 percent plan to take multiple weekend trips – more factors benefiting the Ocean City marketplace.
In addition, 41 percent of the millennials who have children will visit a beach resort this year, according to another travel survey by Resonance Consultancy, Ciliberto said.
Their enormous financial resources and strong desire for travel make millennials a particularly attractive demographic group for a tourist-dependent beach town such as Ocean City, the panelists emphasized.
“I say, let’s give them a place, let’s give them a story, let’s give them a destination and let’s get them out here,” said Kim Davidson, an independent finance consultant and former executive vice president at Ocean City Home Bank.
Another panelist, Ken Wisnefski, owner of the digital marketing company WebiMax and the news site OCNJDaily.com, said Ocean City has jumped “much further ahead” of neighboring seashore towns in the competition for millennials through its innovative use of social media.
Wisnefski also noted that the Chamber of Commerce has made Ocean City more inviting to millennials and other demographic groups by creating a tourist-friendly vacation app to promote the town’s special events and attractions.
New features on the mobile app for 2018 include geo-location technology that will notify users as they are driving over the bridges into Ocean City and give them information about local retailers as they walk along the Boardwalk or the Asbury Avenue downtown corridor, Wisnefski said.
Beach tags and tickets for special events can be ordered directly through the app. The app also includes a daily beach report.
“This is just the beginning of the app,” Wisnefski said.
Having so much information at their fingertips caters to the convenience, flexibility and immediacy craved by millennials and other vacationers during their visits to Ocean City, Wisnefski explained.
Another panelist, Jeff Whitaker, a communications specialist and speaking coach, described smartphones as “the new appendage” for vacationers seeking information about Ocean City.
“I am a baby boomer, and I use that all the time,” said Whitaker, holding up his mobile phone for the audience to see.
During her remarks, Ciliberto said millennials love to chronicle their vacation experiences using social media. She also said that most of them feel “it is their responsibility” to share those experiences with their fellow travelers.
“They love to immerse themselves in local culture. That’s what they do,” Ciliberto said.
For example, millennials will patronize local shops or restaurants and often use those businesses as the backdrop for their social media posts. Those posts, in turn, will help to promote local businesses and drive more customers to their doors, Ciliberto said.
“They are our best advertisements that we have,” she said.
Ocean City’s image as a clean, safe and family-oriented resort appeals to multiple generations of tourists, including millennials, especially those who first began vacationing here as children, the panelists said.
Millennials “may be one of the most nostalgic generations ever,” another huge factor that influences their choice of vacation spots and works in Ocean City’s favor, Ciliberto noted.
Whitaker stressed the importance of having local businesses connect with Ocean City’s visitors. To underscore his point, he flashed a list of once-prominent corporations that have since faded into history because they failed to maintain a strong relationship with their customer base.
“If you don’t connect with your intended audience, you will die, literally,” Whitaker warned.
The Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, plans to help local businesses strengthen their e-marketing – and their relationship with millennials – through special programs, webinars and a partnership with the Ocean City Free Public Library.
“The millennials are the future, but it all depends on you,” Michele Gillian, the Chamber’s executive director, told the audience in closing remarks.