Memorial Day beach crowd

The Tourism Commission broached reviving the currently abandoned Demoflush formula as the city hopes to develop a key metric to accurately gauge visitor counts.

(Sept. 14, 2018) Searching for a reliable means to measure the number of visitors in the resort, the Tourism Commission Tuesday considered returning to the old and often criticized Demoflush formula, which used a wastewater volume-based equation to estimate daily population.

Tourism and Marketing Director Donna Abbott began preparing annual Ocean City tourism metric reports in 2013, using categories that ranged from weather to bus trips and parking revenue to generate a population figure.

“There has been some debate on what’s the key metric,” she said. “I’d love to have some feedback if we can narrow it down to just what is the important thing to be looking at.”

Beginning in 1971, population estimates were based on Demoflush, which used a formula based on a person’s estimated daily water use per gallon. As its figures became more suspect — partially because of the advent of low-flush toilets and other water conserving appliances, its estimates were supplemented with other data such as room tax receipts, hotel occupancy reports and bus ridership figures.

Abbott said the Ocean City tourism metrics report incorporates tax figures from food, room, sales and other tourism-related transactions.

“The latter two are collected by [Worcester] county,” she said. “The Tourism Economics report that is put together by the state … says Ocean City is responsible for about 89.9 percent of the number that’s collected by the county.”

In addition to online and social media traffic, Abbott said the tourism metrics report tracks visitor guide requests, bus ridership and revenue, inlet parking lot revenue, bus permits, visitor center traffic, solid waste, calls for service for police and fire, and zip code requests.

Abbott also said recent growth in room inventory from new hotels, including several in West Ocean City, could cloud occupancy rate comparisons.

“It’s not certain that’s an apple to apple comparison every year, at least at this point and time,” she said.

Councilwoman Mary Knight said the issue was brought up Tuesday following an email from Councilman John Gehrig about accurate tourism metrics.

The inquiry inspired a conversation between Abbott and City Manager Doug Miller, who were later joined by Knight and Communications Manager Jessica Waters.

 “In January, we are going to do just a half a day strategic planning with this group,” she said. “It just started a whole conversation that we need to look at this again.”

Knight said similar methods were last undertaken nearly three years ago.

“When we did it before, it was very formal and took a lot of people a lot of time,” she said. “It was successful, but we feel we can do it internally in [roughly] four hours.”

Regardless of other data points’ accuracy, Abbott said weather conditions, namely dour rain-filled forecasts, put a damper on tourism this summer.

“In June, there was a considerable increase in precipitation this year versus last,” she said. “There was one Saturday in June … it was like 7.5 inches in north Ocean City alone.”

Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said change in demand and supply rate reports could prove useful for the data disconnect.

“Then you can factor those numbers in with a mathematician to get a true occupancy number,” she said.

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel asked if the Maryland State Highway Administration could provide traffic counts for the Route 50 and Route 90 bridges, which Knight asked Miller to investigate.

Gehrig said universality is the crucial element for any metric to provide accurate counts.

“We need to identify what people use no matter what,” he said. “I believe we should bring Demoflush back [because] it at least allows us to compare period over period.”

Abbott said the state tracks visitor numbers through spending based on tax dollars collected, while also noting the city receives a Maryland tourism grant whose levels are determined by tourism coded sales tax

“That is a key number they look at because that’s showing lodging, dining and retail,” she said. “That’s something everybody has when they come to town, or they better have, is money.”

Getting in line behind Gehrig was Mayor Rick Meehan who suggested establishing a revised starting point for tracking wastewater.  

“Sometimes it’s building numbers for the future,” he said. “If we … start to use a Demoflush figure again, it might not be apples to apples for previous years, but it would be … for the years moving forward.”

Abbott said the concepts discussed Tuesday would be compiled for consideration during the strategic planning session in January.

“If anybody can come up with something that tells us how many visitors are in town … the media is always asking that question,” she said.

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