Pennsylvanians target of tourism campaign

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Marketing may take a hit from presidential primaries

OCEAN CITY — A lot of things can get in the way of a strong tourism season. Variables such as weather, the price of gas and the economy come to mind, but in a presidential election year, Jersey Shore Resorts have another potential nemesis: the Pennsylvania primary.

With Republicans still battling it out, and the fight expected to last for a while, the potentially sizzling hot, April 24 primary election stands smack in the middle of Ocean City’s marketing campaign.

“We could get blown away by political advertising,” Rick Jones said, representing Universal Media, hired to coordinate placement of billboards, and television, print, radio and Internet advertising for Ocean City.

Jones analyzes data, information and statistics pertaining to tourism and marketing, providing reports for tourism officials to assist the city in getting the best bang for the advertising buck.

The Ocean City Tourism Commission unanimously approved an $183,600 investment for a nine-week campaign beginning on Feb. 21 aimed at Pennsylvania residents at its Feb. 9 meeting. The tourism commission works from a $750,000 annual marketing budget.

Jones and tourism commission members discussed “spreading their wings” beyond the traditional Delaware Valley market, going as far as Washington, DC, northern Virginia and New York, while keeping in place a much-needed “maintenance and reinforcement program” for the core market.

Though local tourism officials would like to expand Ocean City’s market, they know Pennsylvania residents are Ocean City’s bread and butter.

If the candidates want Keystone State airtime, however, the seaside resort takes a back seat. With former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum rising in the polls, Jones said it could be a huge big deal for Ocean City.

“What’s the magical window?” Jones asked tourism commission members.

A six-, eight- or ten-week advertising campaign should be strategically timed, he advised.

It was decided that advertising should begin immediately and run through mid-May. If the political winds blow them away, the missed airtime could be added at the end, bringing them to Memorial Day.

Political campaigns, Jones explained, buy massive amounts of advertising and often pay a premium to do so.

“We’re at the mercy of the system,” he said. Some advertising would get through during a primary surge, so Ocean City’s ads must be upbeat and positive, he said, to counteract a negative political advertising climate.

The ads will run on cable channels during the morning news 6-9 a.m. and the early news 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Tourism commission members carefully debated the proper starting date for the television campaign. Factoring in was the length, and cost. Do people start planning a vacation now, during the winter, or do some of them wait until it starts to get hot, and how do you create a marketing campaign that will effectively reach all these people and stay within budget?

“With the season we’ve had, with the beautiful weather, people are coming down and they’re looking to plan a vacation,” said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce who advises the commission.

Gillian suggested that the campaign begin immediately.

Nick Marotta, chairman of the commission, noted that boardwalk merchants are opening their businesses on the weekends and enjoying a good business. He agreed with Gillian.

Jones said starting too early could hurt in the long run, unless the campaign was extended.

“You don’t want to start and then not have the momentum when you need it,” he said.

“I think personally we’re already late, we should have been out there two weeks ago,” tourism commission member Skip Tolomeo said.

The television campaign was designed to hit the core market; expanding the market with limited funding was quite different.

Commission member Pat Gallelli said it was difficult to effectively penetrate a market without investing a substantial amount of money.

Washington, D.C, Jones noted, was in a state of “political mayhem” and the resort could not afford the cost of television.

“I’m a strong proponent of Philadelphia, Allentown and South Jersey,” he said, adding that Ocean City could carefully and tactically move outward.

Lifestyle publications, Jones said, would be helpful in the Allentown, Lancaster and Wilmington markets.

The Commission decided to try a new program with Redbook, Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day magazines that will bring them into thousands of homes in the Cherry Hill area. Lifestyle magazines, Jones noted, reach “the kind of consumer we’re looking for.”

Ocean City will be featured in the “weekend getaway” section.

Internet campaigns would continue, including the popular 10-week contest, which lures thousands of visitors to the Chamber of Commerce website in hopes of snagging a free weekly condominium rental this summer and other goodies worth several thousand dollars.

The 2012 contest is ready to launch at any time, Marotta noted.

“People are already starting to look, they’re asking questions, they’re really excited for it to start again,” he said.

Internet “paper clip” campaigns spreading the word about Ocean City only cost money if a would-be consumer “clicks” on to them. The Internet allows Ocean City to target key zip codes, but Jones said, as always, breaking into new markets is expensive.

Gillian recommended that the commission “take a look and seriously consider” expanding the market, going as far as Virginia, North Carolina, and the Chesapeake area of Maryland.

“The one thing they don’t have in the Chesapeake is a beach,” she said. “Only people who live on the water can enjoy it. Ocean City, Md. is a different atmosphere. These people are looking for alternatives.”

Internet hits from that area were up 150 percent, Gillian said.

Marotta noted that people from all over, not just the core market, are entering the contest, looking to come to Ocean City.

“There are generations out there, visitors, looking to go to different resorts,” he said.

The advertising campaign remains a work in progress as commission members look for ways to efficiently and effectively break into new markets.

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