Rodney, Ocean City's official tourism pitchman, has become the center of a debate over how the shore destination should spend its advertising dollars.
In Maryland, the decision to extend the contract for Ocean City’s advertising company has renewed an intense battle over the town’s $5 million ad budget. When tourism is the number one game in town, even a “day at the beach” can become political.
If you look at the numbers, Ocean City has outperformed competing beach destinations on the East Coast by a pretty sizable margin since the economy tanked in 2008.
And while preliminary tourism statistics indicate the resort was up a few percentage points from last summer, opinions from business community about the summer of 2013 range from “smashing success” to “total epic fail.”
Greg Shockley owns an Irish pub called Shenanigans on the Boardwalk, and also sits on the town’s tourism advisory board and chairs the state’s tourism development board.
“I don’t think we’ve grown a lot and I don’t think we’ve declined a lot, but those dollars have helped us maintain what we have," he says.
Those dollars he’s referring to are the $5 million in Ocean City’s tourism advertising budget, which is funded by a dedicated percentage of the city’s room tax revenue. It’s performance based, and in hindsight, Shockley says the 2007 legislative change by the Ocean City Council enabled the town to not have to slash their ad budget like the state or even their competitors did when the recession hit.
But as that money continues to add up, the political power struggle over how that money is spent intensifies. “I think it all goes back to control… people want to say they rubber-stamped it, they put their hands on the agency and the campaign," says Susan Jones, the executive director of the Ocean City Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association.
The main debate is over Rodney, the beefcake lifeguard with the Jim Carrey-sized smile who's become the face of Ocean City’s advertising. So when the advertising company’s contract with the town was renewed without the council testing the market for new companies or ideas, Rodney’s critics realized they were stuck with the character for at least one more summer—and they say he doesn’t tug on enough heartstrings to attract what they see as the resort’s tourism base.
Jones and Shockley agree that a resolution could come from a clearer definition of who Ocean City is trying to market to, and maybe then they say answering the resort’s $5 million advertising question will be a bit easier.