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The Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau is the fastest-growing destination marketing organization in New Jersey, promoting the Jersey Shore region as a destination for individuals and families, businesses and organizations, and meeting and travel planners for both domestic and international markets.
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the organization launched the Open for Business campaign. The goal is to promote Jersey Shore businesses and share the real story about the state of the local business community and the region’s popular tourist attractions.
Bob Hilton, Executive Director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, has spearheaded this initiative. Here’s how he’s getting the word out about this grass roots organization on a small budget but with a lot of community and determination.
Interview With Bob Hilton: Grass Roots And Building Community
Question: After Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey officials met with representatives from New Orleans. What did you take away from that meeting?
We met at the Meadowlands for a Destination Forum and discussed everything from the Super Bowl to Superstorm Sandy. One of the things we took away was the need for a better understanding of the lifecycle of a storm and the recovery, and the importance of trying to get the correct message out.
What generally happens in the event of a storm is that the media will show the absolute worst of the worst, which isn’t necessarily what people would see if they came down after the storm. Indeed, we weren’t prepared for that.
Ideally, the media would try to report the good and the bad – what the reality is. Although we weren’t prepared for the kind of reporting that happened as events transpired across the state, we were much more prepared than we would have been if we were blindsided by the storm.
Question: What is the biggest misconception about the state of the Jersey Shore after the storm?
I think the video and the pictures that were taken of the storm have been used against us. For example, in a recent report, pictures of the barrier islands were being represented as Monmouth County. Monmouth County is just north of Ocean County where the barrier islands really are. Most Monmouth County beaches are actually in the full swing of the recovery.
In places like Asbury Park, the buildings that are physically on the boardwalk are opening back up. Most of the small towns are open with a few exceptions.
There are parts of the shore, especially on the barrier islands, that are in rough shape right now, but a lot of businesses are opening up now as opposed to the summer, which is a really good thing.
I think the perception in general is that New Jersey is shaken and we were hit a lot harder than we actually were. I think the picture of the roller coaster in the water in Seaside Heights is the biggest example of that.
In reality, a small portion of the boardwalk fell into the water. In Atlantic City, right after the storm, the media portrayed the city as being devastated. The reality is that the part of the boardwalk that was destroyed had been condemned, was not structurally sound, and probably hadn’t had a person walking on it in a few years. To this day, businesses in Atlantic City are still getting calls from people asking if they’re open for business.
That’s the most tragic part of this. Some of the people who could really make a difference chose to portray the situation inaccurately, and it will take us a little while to get people out of that mindset.
Question: How did the “Open for Business” initiative originate, and what’s the goal of the campaign?
The Open for Business campaign is an initiative that I started along with the Board of Directors of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau and a little marketing committee.
Immediately after the storm, restaurants from Keyport, Highlands, Asbury Park, Ocean Grove and other towns opened their doors, bought generators, and gave food that would have spoiled to people who were displaced. Hundreds of volunteers came in to help out throughout the storm.
After the initial shock wore off, many of these restaurants and other businesses were empty. Employees and customers were displaced, and events that normally would have happened during the holidays didn’t. We decided we needed to create some kind of forum to let people know what is open and what isn’t. That’s how the Open for Business campaign came about.
Question: With a largely grass-roots effort, how are you getting the word out that the Jersey Shore is open for business?
We partnered with a local advertising agency to create a logo, a series of videos, and collateral to give to businesses. We’ve been trying to tell the true story of the storm and how things really are.
An executive at the Two River Theatre Company recorded public service announcements for free and I’ve been trying to get public service announcements on the radio. The Star Ledger, Asbury Park Press and Tri-City News ran ads for free. We’ve held several press conferences at the Javits Center in New York to let people know we’re open for business, focusing on two of the areas that were hit hardest – Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
We’re relying on social media because we have no budget whatsoever at this point. As we move forward into the spring and summer, we’ll hold a video contest to create the best 60-second commercial showing the Jersey Shore as it is now and that we’re open for business.
People recognize that the Jersey Shore probably won’t look the same as it did before, but that doesn’t mean it will be worse.
We have videos on YouTube, and we’re sharing photos and updates on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. We’re working hard to engage the public and get people to help us spread the word that the Jersey Shore is open for business. I think that’s really where things take off – when the public is engaged to help us tell the story.
Question: How has the local music scene impacted Jersey Shore businesses and tourism?
There’s a lot of talent in this area, and we’re looking for alternative ways to rebuild the economy. One of the strengths of the Jersey Shore has always been the local music scene. Everybody knows the big names, like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, but there are so many emerging local bands that pour their heart and soul into what they do. We’re constantly trying to reinvent what people come to see at the Jersey Shore.
There’s so much more than the beach, and the music scene is one of the biggest assets we have.
Asbury Park took the initiative last year with the Smithsonian Institute Exhibit on musical history, and they formed the Asbury Park Musical Heritage Foundation. Since the storm, they’ve been on a mission to tell the story of the Jersey Shore. Red Bank has picked up on this, sharing their experiences with the Count Basie Theatre and its rich musical heritage.
The goal is to make the Jersey Shore more of a year-round destination, and the local music scene – alternative, blues, classic rock, dance – is a big part of that.
To learn more about the Open For Business initiative, visit the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau website or on Facebook.