By Maddy Vitale
Ocean City officials are discussing ways to help the Tourism Development Commission overcome a decrease in funding that has resulted in cutbacks to its advertising budget.
The tourism budget for 2019 is $620,000, down from $649,300 the year before. And it appears to be a trend with significant reductions the two years prior.
The funding decline is raising some concerns among City Council, which discussed it at the last meeting. The Council members expressed hope that the city would be able to come up with new ways to generate more money for the Tourism Commission.
Because of the decrease in funding this year, the commission has cut its television advertising campaign from 10 weeks to eight.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman, who sits on the Tourism Commission, noted that she was disappointed that two weeks were knocked off the TV advertising budget because of the reduction in funding.
Councilman Keith Hartzell also voiced his concerns.
“To me, it’s not a crisis, but certainly something to be concerned about,” Hartzell said.
Bergman said the city doesn’t want to reduce its traditional TV advertising, but she pointed out that the Tourism Commission will work on ways to upgrade its promotions thorough digital advertising.
A suggestion came from Council Vice President Tony Wilson for City Council and the Tourism Commission to get together to “brainstorm” and find new ways to generate money for tourism.
Tourism Commission Chairman Burton Wilkins said despite the funding cuts, the commission members continue to work well together. They are using their financial resources wisely to promote “America’s Greatest Family Resort” with a strong marketing campaign year after year, he added.
“From our standpoint, we look at what the projected numbers are for each year and try to do the best job we can with it,” Wilkins said Wednesday. “We are trying to keep the hotels full and the weekly rentals full because they are paying for our commission budget. We promote the downtown and the Boardwalk because they draw people to our town.”
In addition to Wilkins and Bergman, the board is also made up of a full scope of the community, including elected officials, Boardwalk and downtown merchants, hotel and restaurant owners and realtors.
During the Jan. 17 Tourism Commission meeting, Universal Media representatives provided a presentation of the marketing campaign, which included a discussion of the reduction in TV spots, how to make up for it and which weeks to advertise.
“A big chunk of the budget is the advertising,” Wilkins said. “I think as a group, we felt the need to cut back on TV because it is so expensive. In order to cover all the bases, that was the area we took the most dollars away from.”
Still, Wilkins emphasized that the advertising plan is solid and from this month through June, there will be plenty of advertising tools used to showcase the family-friendly shore town and also attract the millennials.
Ocean City Public Information Officer Doug Bergen explained that the Tourism Commission is funded through a tourism development fee of $145 annually assessed on owners who do business in vacation rentals.
Collections fluctuate from year to year but generally the Tourism Commission has an annual budget well over $600,000, he said.
However, a change in state law required Ocean City to stop collecting the fee from owners with year-round tenants starting in 2017, which is what has led to the deceases in funding.
In June 2017, City Council amended Ocean City’s municipal fee ordinance to cover these types of by-owner rentals.
“Like all other rentals, they are required to submit to safety inspections, smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and to pay the nominal annual fee of $145 toward our Tourism Development Commission, which helps fund marketing for the entire town,” Bergen said.
“Staff members in our mercantile licensing department keep tabs on compliant properties, and they monitor websites and advertisements to make non-compliant property owners aware of the local requirements,” he added.
Bergen also said there are other reasons for the decrease in fees that would have gone to the commission’s budget.
“We’re also seeing trends in which more second homeowners are renting through Airbnb, or other similar by-owner sites, or enjoying their Ocean City homes all summer without having to rent them out to make ends meet,” Bergen explained.
Wilkins, a realtor for the city’s Gold Coast Sotheby’s International Realty firm, said the Tourism Commission has had continuing discussions about the budget going down.
“It is not wonderful for the Tourism Commission, but in reality, it is a much larger budget than I envisioned when I came back to the board after serving years ago,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins continued, “I don’t think anyone wants to raise the fees. That is not our vision. It is just a matter of everyone paying the fees who should be paying. The city has done a pretty good job of making sure that is the case. I know we don’t have the budget of the Wildwoods. On the flip side, I think we do a lot with what we have.”