OCEAN CITY — An overview of an independent study on visitor perception of Ocean City this week was generally positive, although it is clear the resort still has areas to work on.
As part of Tourism and Business Development Director Tom Perlozzo’s overall attempt to identify Ocean City’s brand and how to best direct its tourism and marketing resources, the town contracted with independent research firm OpinionWorks to conduct visitor surveys. OpinionWorks President Steve Raabe presented a detailed report on the perception study to the Ocean City Tourism Commission this week. Perlozzo said the study provided a lot of insight into perceptions of the town from frequent visitors, one-time visitors and even those who have never been.
“We ran across a few things,” he said. “People often think perception is the reality. We need to look at this with an open mind.”
Perlozzo said closing the gap between perception and reality continues to be a challenge.
“There is definitely a gap in the mindset,” he said. “We want to learn what our customers think. We are attempting to change the page. I’m excited about what we learned.”
Raabe outlined his methodology and the perceptions of the different demographics of those surveyed and interviewed.
“The purpose is to evaluate the Ocean City brand and look at how visitors perceive the town,” he said. “There might be some things in here you know are wrong, but we need to care about what the visitors think. It’s almost all good news.”
The perception study painted a clearer picture of where visitors to Ocean City come from, what they tend to do when they are in the resort and what they like and don’t like.
“We need to find your core market and identify new markets,” he said. “This highlights your strengths and also identifies weaknesses or soft spots. We know perception doesn’t always match reality.”
Through the process, OpinionWorks conducted over 5,500 interviews and intercepts with the general public including those who frequent Ocean City and those who rarely visit or have never visited. The perception survey also included 10 in-depth interviews with conference planners, travel writers and critics and other travel influencers.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that among the 5,500-plus visitors surveyed, 91% rated their overall experience in Ocean City as a positive one. Just 9% of those surveyed rated their experience as negative, for a ratio of about 10:1.
In terms of the town’s perceived strengths, most of those polled said Ocean City was fun with a lot of things to do, and that it represented the beach and relaxation. Others pointed out Ocean City was generally family-oriented and a traditional beach town with a good variety of restaurants and the potential for an active vacation.
According to Raabe, among the challenges identified in the survey, some opined Ocean City was a busy place in the summer and often overcrowded with heavy traffic. Some saw Ocean City as a little dated and limited, an opinion popular among meeting and event planners.
Others pointed out the accommodations were expensive and there were fewer nationally-recognized brands than in other resort areas. However, the latter cuts both ways as many surveyed indicated a “deep and emotional connection” with Ocean City and its traditions.
Raabe said the survey indicated some of those polled thought the town’s accommodations were overpriced, particularly in the height of the season.
“There is definitely a motif that accommodations are a little pricey,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a challenge. The core audience is somewhat older, working class and a little bit lower on the income scale. That’s the base and you want to build on that.”
Raabe also said the traditional hotels and motels draw a significant number of visitors pining for nostalgia and the vacations of their past.
“Ocean City has the potential to build on what you have with traditional accommodations,” he said. “Local flavor is very important. A lot of what you have is already on the road to be attractive for a lot of visitors.”
Raabe said those surveyed were asked to use three words that best described their perception of Ocean City. He said one stand out was the beaches are free, likely because much of the target audience is coming from New York and New Jersey where visitors often have to pay to use the beaches. Other words to describe Ocean City that popped up frequently in the surveys were calm, peaceful, rested, relaxed, content, happy, fun, excited, nostalgic and comfortable.
Those surveyed were also asked what activities they took part in while they were in the resort. The beach, Boardwalk and shopping were the top three. Also making the list were the rides and amusements, fishing, boating, golfing, water sports, nightlife and entertainment.
Of the 9% who rated their Ocean City experience as negative, chief among their reasons were the perceptions of crime and safety issues, crowds and traffic, the atmosphere was disorderly and chaotic at times and that it was generally too expensive.