As I am writing this, our first group of college spring breakers are on the road heading to liven up our beach. No one knows whether the TDC/CVB’s College Spring Break Marketing Plan will end up being a success, a failure, or somewhere in between. Hopefully President Dan Rowe has a plan for calculating a reliable estimate of how many college students visit our destination during the four-week period this year and what the actual economic impact is to Bay County. Lately, I have heard the estimate being mentioned that 250,000 college students came here for Spring Break last year and that we are expecting the same or better this year. However, it is my understanding that the TDC/CVB has no data to actually support this 250,000 figure. I am pleased that the new TDC/CVB board has been very diligent in questioning the attendance and economic impact of other special events; however, I do not believe that they have had the same diligence in questioning College Spring Break. But regardless of how successful the MTV plan ends up being, it is clear that the plan has some major problems.
Last fall, the new TDC/CVB board entered into a contract with MTV at a cost of $200,000. The contract provides that MTV would provide what can be broken down into two services. First, MTV agreed to host a MTV Spring Break Village that will include 8 live concerts, stage activities, contests, and product sampling. MTV is only operating the village for total of 16 days, rather than the entire 4-week college spring break period. In addition, MTV agreed to provide advertising via televised promotional units, coverage on the MTV web site, and banner advertising on various websites owned by MTV’s parent company. The contract does not provide any breakdown of the total cost between these two services that MTV is providing.
It was originally the plan of the TDC/CVB board that they wanted to have as much of the $200,000 paid for via a co-op of college spring break oriented businesses as possible. When considering that the 2007 co-op raised $94,500 and the fact that the spring break oriented business community was so vocal about importance of continuing the government supported marketing plan, I was hopeful that at least 50% of the cost would be raised by the co-op. My prediction ended up being way off. To begin with, the board later voted to spend $150,000 regardless of how much the business community would contribute. The board agreed that any additional co-op funds in excess of $150,000 could be used for additional promotion of College Spring Break 2008. And then the co-op ended up only raising $67,000. This number may end up being even less considering that President Rowe has reported that withdrawal requests have been received from unspecified participants. The only non-accommodation co-op participants for 2008 are Club LaVela, Sharkey’s, and the Panamaniac Discount Card at $5,000 each. While I do not miss the participation of some of PCB’s other spring break oriented bars that promote the free beer and wet t-shirt type of message, I would like to know why there are no restaurants or stores participating in the co-op. Is the college spring break market really that important to the entire tourist community, or are the benefits mainly shared by just a small portion of our tourist-oriented businesses?
According to the TDC/CVB, less that 5,000 of the more than 24,000 available tourist accommodations on the beach even allow college spring break visitors. Of this, the MTV advertising plan is only promoting the 1835 rooms that are participating in the co-op. Although there have been three new properties that didn’t participate in the 2007 co-op, this number is down from 2062 participating rooms due to the departure of both Paradise Found Resort’s (Hilton Inc.) 801 rooms and the Sandpiper Beacon’s 199 rooms. I find these departures surprising since representatives from both properties expressed their concern to the TDC/CVB about the importance of having a governmental college spring break marketing plan. I was also surprised that Regency Towers is not providing any financial support to the co-op considering that one of their representatives was also vocal about the importance of continuing the program. New participants for 2008 are Bikini Beach, Sugar Sands, and Origin at Seahaven. In hindsight, was it prudent for the TDC/CVB to spend limited governmental funds on a marketing plan only designed to direct potential visitors to 1835 of our more than 24,000 rooms? Even worse is the fact that the MTV Spring Break Web Site advertises only one accommodation partner, the Boardwalk Beach Resort. The other co-op accommodation participants are only advertised on the TDC/CVB’s college spring break hub page that is reached by clicking on the TDC/CVB’s logo on the MTV site. The MTV marketing component has clearly ended up providing disproportionate benefits to certain properties inconsistent with the brand marketing the TDC/CVB should be concentrating on.
It is my opinion that there are also serious problems concerning the MTV Spring Break Village. Rather than the board deciding on a neutral site for the village, the contract provided that MTV could choose their own location for the Village that was paid for with governmental funds. MTV ended up reaching an agreement to be located at Boardwalk Beach Resort. The terms of this agreement have not been made public. Although I assume it was unintentional, the TDC/CVB did not include any terms in the contract dealing with the competitive unfairness of being located at a specific hotel. Although Boardwalk Beach Resort has contributed no more to the co-op than the other three primary hotel partners(Chateau, By the Sea Resorts, and the Sharkey’s/Seahaven properties), the Boardwalk Beach Resort has been able to market special benefits to their guests for activities paid for by the TDC/CVB. These special benefits have been advertised to include up front audience tickets for the concerts and exclusive access to the MTV village. As mentioned above, there is also the problem with the Boardwalk Beach Resort being the only accommodation actually listed on the MTV web site. The TDC/CVB missed an opportunity to require a significant additional co-op contribution from the business hosting the MTV Village to offset the competitive advantages received.
Based on comments from TDC/CVB board members, it is unclear whether the TDC/CVB will continue to provide financial support for this market segment next year. At a minimum, the TDC/CVB should treat it as a special event and require the same rigorous procedures and approval process that is now required for any special event requesting our limited governmental funds. President Rowe has suggested that the board consider whether it will provide 2009 funding next month to provide additional planning time for either the TDC/CVB or a private co-op. In the event the TDC/CVB decides to continue funding this event, hopefully they will correct the problems of this year’s program.