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What Went Wrong With Stronger Than the Storm?

Too little, too late, tourist industry representatives tell Assembly committee, criticizing high-profile marketing campaign that didn't bring visitors flocking to Jersey Shore

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Despite maintaining a near-constant TV presence, the much-ballyhooed Stronger than the Storm promotional campaign debuted too late to make enough of an impact on summer tourism, according to leaders in the state’s tourism industry.

Testifying at an Assembly tourism and arts committee hearing yesterday, destination marketing and economic development officials lauded the program’s modest successes but criticized its narrow scope and short run. They also called on the government to better fund the state’s official tourism arm and establish a sustained promotional campaign to bring more visitors back to the Shore.

The $25 million project launched in May with funding from a Housing and Urban Development recovery grant. The effort, which still maintains its website and social media activity, relied heavily on TV, radio, and Internet advertising to promote the Jersey Shore as “open for business” in advance of the summer season. But with a typical 90-to-120 day advance window for Shore bookings, disappointed speakers complained that the blitz should have started at the beginning of the year.

Still, there were some bright spots that broke through the general gloom -- Asbury Park made a very strong showing, for instance. But for the most part, widespread anecdotal evidence indicates a nearly nonexistent spring, or “shoulder,” season, an extremely slow (albeit rainy) June and July, and strong gains in August that lasted through the fall but don’t inspire confidence for celebratory year-end numbers.

“In January I asked (this committee) for an immediate $20 million infusion for crisis marketing to take control of the message,” testified Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the New Jersey Travel Industry Association. “Without it, we had no way to counteract the (destructive) messages delivered to our customers through media.

The media, she said, spent months portraying the Shore as one long sandy strip of devastation and heartache. And though the southern portion of the coast was largely spared, “The farther away people are, the more they consider the Jersey Shore as one place,” said Clark.

Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia seized on the opportunity the disaster presented. Almost immediately, New Jersey’s Mid-Atlantic neighbors broadcast commercials designed to prey on the fears of vacation-goers scared away by images of crushed rental properties, shredded boardwalks, and roller coasters swept out to sea.

An Ocean City, MD, commercial introduced a lifeguard who promised to “rescue” Jersey Shore regulars and take them to their new vacation destination. A USA Today article published in early August quotes tourism officials in those states claiming that they simply wanted to alert vacationers that their own beaches were not affected by Sandy. The same article cites those officials as seeing a 20 percent increase in the number of information requests coming from New Jersey and New York.

The New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism won’t release its own economic impact tallies until next March, though the treasury department reports that hotel occupancy tax collections actually increased over June, July, and August. However, the state’s southernmost coastal county, Clark said, reported declines in beach tag and parking fees, as well as employment and vacation home purchases.

“I can’t say Stronger than the Storm was specifically helpful to Cape May County,” she said.

She, along with others who represented lesser-hit parts of the state, protested that the campaign focused too narrowly on Ocean and Monmouth counties and didn’t do enough to present other areas as relatively unscathed. Michael Davidson, executive director of the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau added that the Stronger Than the Storm website, which advertises Shore attractions and events instead of steering visitors to the tourism department’s comprehensive site, was “a missed opportunity for the rest of the state.”

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