Everyone has their own perception of what Ocean City is.
For some, it could be a place of nostalgia, filled with memories going back generations, and for others it could be a place for kicking back and relaxing on the beach or taking a stroll up and down the boards.
According to a study conducted by Opinion Works LLC 91 percent of the more than 5,500 people surveyed have had positive experiences in Ocean City resulting in a favorable perception, while the other 9 percent had a negative perception of the resort.
“People think perception is reality,” Ocean City Director of Tourism and Business Development Tom Perlozzo told the tourism commission on Monday just before the perception study results were revealed. “We are now attempting to turn a page on that chapter. We’re no longer writing a blank check for our tourism and marketing efforts.”
Perlozzo said one of the key components to moving Ocean City into becoming a year-round resort for tourists from 2022 to 2023 and beyond was understanding people’s perception.
Steve Raabe, the president of Opinion Works, said the report he was presenting was a draft, and while many things in it could be wrong, they were how visitors perceived Ocean City to be.
The purpose of the study was to define the resort’s core market, identify new market opportunities, highlight Ocean City’s strengths, and uncover its weaknesses.
“This is audience perception, which does not always match the reality of what you are delivering,” Raabe said.
Perception, he added, drives decision making of potential visitors as well as where they plan to spend their money.
For the study, Opinion Works intercepted 221 visitors in Ocean City, interviewed 4,444 people from the tourism database, and 874 members of the general public across the region, totaling 5,539 interviews, between August and October.
Surveys were also conducted with meeting and conference planners as well as travel influencers, according to Raabe.
Some of the strengths included things like being a fun place, having all the benefits of a beach, giving visitors lots of options to eat and drink, and providing a nostalgic family-friendly experience for multiple generations.
On the flip side, some people said the resort area can be very busy and sometimes overcrowded, dated, and limited, pricey, and having a core audience that is somewhat older and working class, with average incomes skewing below $100,000 per year.
The resort area also appeals more to the northeast corridor rather than the DC-VA metro area, with Marylanders falling in between.
Along with the pricey accommodations, some felt there were far fewer recognizable national chains, missing out on people not familiar with the local brands.
Perlozzo said there was an opportunity to improve upon this perception, saying those who visit places like Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach may be overwhelmed by their larger brands, and Ocean City may appeal more to those folks with boutiques.
“Ocean City can build on this,” Raabe said.
During the survey, participants were asked to describe Ocean City using three words and the results were words like entertaining, clean, beautiful, nice, exciting, family-oriented, crowded, Boardwalk, and safe.
Participants were also asked what makes Ocean City special for them, and the results were things like the beach and ocean, good memories, family vacations, activities, and convenience and proximity.
The top attraction for visitors was the beach, followed by the Boardwalk, shopping, rides and amusements, and night life. At the bottom were things like golf, tradeshows, and sports tournaments.
When asked what makes Ocean City different, one person said, “OC is much more of the vibrant city feel. Cape May is low key, relaxed...even when you drive into Ocean City, it’s the big high rises, and you go down that street that’s got everything to your right, left, and you’re looking around. You sort of mosey into Cape May.”
Another person said, “Beaches and proximity to large East Coast cities for driving,” and another said, “The variety of activities, restaurants, and shopping.”
Planners and influencers said there were some key drawbacks of Ocean City that people should be aware of such as run-down hotels, lots of competitors and not enough awareness of the destination, and very congested.
Three of the nine comments provided by the influences also dealt with the Boardwalk and the negative publicity surrounding behavior on the boards.
“Two Boardwalk comments were hearsay and perception,” Council Secretary Tony DeLuca said, which Raabe suggested could be changed.
Of those surveyed, college educated people over 40 with incomes over $100,000 gave fewer positive ratings, while the more positive ratings were from the opposite.
“There’s a core group that is multi-generational,” Raabe said. “They’re spending power may be a little less, but this is how they want to spend their money.”
Ultimately, Raabe said he hoped the study would foster more discussion.
Perlozzo said the perception study is not closed at this time, but it has sparked a few areas that the city can work on. For example, figuring out how to market to those in the 40 and 50-year-olds and elevating the consumer base to those with a $100,000 household income and above.
“We won’t blanket the market with one message,” he said. “We’re going to be proactive, not reactive, as we move forward.”