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Consultant: Improve Transportation to Attract Millennials

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By Bill Barlow

OCEAN CITY – Easier transportation, for reaching the resort and for getting around town, will be an important part of keeping visitors coming to the beach town that has long billed itself as ‘America’s Greatest Family Resort,’ a consultant told a group of business leaders at a recent meeting.
Having a variety of options for those staying overnight is also important, Lee Huang said to a gathering of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce at the Ocean City Library Dec. 10.
Huang is vice president and one of the principals of Econsult Solutions Inc. (ESI), an economic development and consulting firm, based in Philadelphia, which was hired by the city to help keep it a popular option with the next generation of families.
In a project that began in the spring and continued through summer 2019, ESI staff spoke with business people, city officials and visitors in preparation for the recommendations. Ocean City has a dedicated population of visitors, and a strong reputation in the region, the report found.
Interviewed by phone after the meeting, Huang said destinations like Ocean City face a choice as consumer demands and expectations change: continue along the same path and hope for the best or to try to reinvent their brand.
“We felt there was a third way open for Ocean City, to really lean into that brand, but to look at ways to adapt to new expectations, and to ask what does that mean for the next generation of travelers,” he said.
One of the least popular suggestions was to embrace new systems for accommodations, such as online platforms like VRBO and Airbnb. Realtors are a big part of Ocean City’s business community. Many in that industry, and the owners of traditional accommodations, like hotels and bed and breakfast inns, see options for owners to rent properties online as a new and unfair competition.
In March 2019, the New York Times reported on efforts to tax short-term rentals, in the context of online rental systems that threaten to upend the existing business plan, like Uber and Lyft did with transportation, and Amazon did with retail.
Huang knew the room would get chillier when he spoke well of VRBO.
“We anticipated that,” he said, but he argues that it is very important for destinations to offer a range of options, from the weekly summer rentals that have long formed the backbone of the local economy, to less expensive or shorter-term options.
“Vacation destinations always benefit from having a portfolio of options. One size doesn’t fit all,” he said.
Many travelers want shorter stays and more spontaneity, he said. Just as important, he said, is to offer an affordable option for people who will one day rent beach houses or purchase houses in the city.
The report cited travel trends toward shorter trips, along with other trends, including prioritizing acquiring experiences over stuff, particularly if those experiences can be shared through social media.
Families have less vacation time, the report states. It also said the millennial generation is driving more of the travel decisions.
According to the report, there are almost as many millennials now as there are Baby Boomers, coming in at more than 79 million each. These younger travelers value diversity and authenticity, according to data cited in the ESI report.
They also drive less than previous generations and are less interested in getting a license, according to numerous studies and reports in national media. A Wall Street Journal report from the spring states that many also live in cities where transportation options are readily available.
“It’s not just for younger markets. I think people of all ages are moving away from dependence on private car ownership,” said Huang. In his presentation, he said fewer travelers have private cars, presenting new challenges for resorts like Ocean City.
Decades ago, a daily train ran to Ocean City. Today, bus routes remain an option for reaching the beach.
Huang suggested improvements to mass transit systems connecting Ocean City to Philadelphia and other population centers, and to improve transportation within the city. That included trying to get a regular morning bus route on weekends, leading to the city.
In the summer, there is a regular trolley route running most of the length of the island. The consultant’s report recommended improving the city transportation system, to include better connectivity through smartphone apps.
Getting around is part of the vacation experience, Huang said.
“Sometimes, driving is not an enjoyable experience in Ocean City because it involves parking,” he said. The city also sees intense traffic congestion on summer Saturdays as rentals change for the week. He suggested a reliable transportation system could be convenient and fun for visitors.
The main conclusion of the report was that Ocean City has a strong brand as a summer resort, with much of that brand connected to nostalgia. For generations, people who have enjoyed the rides on the boardwalk and days at the beach as children eventually grow up to bring their own children.
“I want to make sure that it’s understood that Ocean City is quite strong and the brand is very good,” Huang said. He added that the city and the business community are already doing a great job. “Yes, we had some recommendations, but we’re building from strength.”
According to city spokesman Doug Bergen, the city had a $75,000 contract with ESI. Ocean City Council approved the contract April 11.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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