John Siciliano has worked inside both the old Wildwoods Convention Center, a worn and dated facility built in 1971, and inside the new Wildwoods Convention Center, which opened its doors in 2002.
The facilities speak to the past and the future of the island’s tourism-based economy and Siciliano knows them both well.
As a child, he vacationed on the island every summer, and now he spends his days promoting Five Mile Beach to others. He has worked for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority for almost 16 years, starting as the authority’s chief financial officer and later, in 1997, taking on the role of executive director.
Sitting on the back porch of the oceanfront convention center, with the Atlantic Ocean and amusement piers in the distance, Siciliano discussed the Wildwoods and the importance of tourism to the resort.
Q: Each season business owners measure their success anecdotally by judging whether they think this year was worse or better than the last. How do you truly measure how successful the Wildwoods are each summer?
A: You know that is the question that we struggle with every single year. (Taxes) measure how many people stayed in hotels and it measures the food and beverage aspect. It does not measure how many people visited our Boardwalk that may not be overnight visitors to the Wildwoods, which I believe is a big piece of the Wildwood tourism. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that we have neighboring communities — Cape May, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Sea Isle — where I know we have people that come to our island, maybe come down and see our Friday night fireworks or go on our Boardwalk because it is the Boardwalk that it is and it is worth being here and visiting ... so that piece is missed. We can look at ... parking lots that we operate that are public parking lots when they are not being used for an event in the facility and we can measure how many tickets that were given this year versus the last year or the year before or how much revenue was brought in. And also our tourism tax is really the guide that we use to measure whether we are up or down. And I’ll tell you one of the things that’s really important over the last three years anyway: I don’t believe that we have seen a major increase in hotel rates over the last couple years and that’s really economy driven. And because of that in the past you had to look at, “OK, did the tax go up all right? Did it go up incrementally because people raised their rates? Or was it just additional visitors?” So believe me, it’s something that I wish I had a great formula for, but unfortunately we go by what we think are the trends.
Q: Your last marketing campaign focused on the free offerings found in the Wildwoods such as the beach and events. Did that approach draw more visitors to the island in these difficult economic times?
A: Well, you know what, the whole reason we sort of jumped onboard with that was because of the value the Wildwoods wanted to show. That we are a value. And I think in Cape May County we are the only free beaches. So yes, we rode the wave, “Are you free this summer? The Wildwoods are.” Do I believe that it brought people here? I absolutely believe that. You know not everybody can go away and stay three or four nights. We are a great destination not only for overnight stays, but we are a great destination to have people come spend a day on our beaches, come off the beach go on our Boardwalk, have fun with the kids, and if they take the ride home then they take the ride home. Our campaign was designed around the fact that you may save as a family $60 to $80 by not having to buy beach tags to come to the Wildwoods.
Q: Wildwood has a large beach that measures 1,600 feet from the Boardwalk to the water’s edge. Is the size of the beach a help or a hindrance?
A: The size of the beach allows us to do some things that no other community can do. We have a soccer tournament in June that brings 990 soccer teams to play on this beach. Monster truck shows, motorcross races, kite festivals. Does it place a burden somewhat heavier on municipalities to keep that vast beach clean and safe? Yes, but it gives us the ability to do something that no other town can do and that far outweighs the cost of cleaning it.
Q: Wildwood officials were looking at beach fees as a possible source of revenue to help the town’s struggling financial position. What impact do you believe such fees would have on the island and its tourism-based economy?
A: Well, as a tourism authority, I will tell you that it is no secret that we would want to keep things status quo. We would love to see these beaches stay free. You know I can’t fault any city official for looking at anything that they can as far a revenue streams. It is what they have to do. Their responsibilities are to the taxpayers and I get it.
We have made it known ... that we would work with municipalities in any way that we can to assist them in ways of raising revenues that are not necessarily “beach fees.” We’re not there yet. The city is doing what they said they were doing. They are doing a study and we just put ourselves out there to evaluate that study because you know I am not sure that I know exactly what the impact would be. I don’t. We are just in a position that we think it is a benefit to the Wildwoods to be able to continue that free beach, free events, free entertainment on the Boardwalk. There is free entertainment here five nights a week. So it’s more than just free beaches. A lot of free things that we offer and we would just like to continue to keep that in people’s minds.
Q: The new convention center opened its doors in 2002. Was the investment worth it and who is your target customer and are they coming to the Wildwoods?
A: Well, first and foremost, yes, it was definitely worth it. I think when all of the due diligence was being done back in ’97 and ’98 by the state of New Jersey ... and the decision was made to build this facility, I think everybody knew at that point in time that it was the right thing to do. The Wildwoods had business that came here on an annual basis: the state firemen, the Elks, V.F.W., American Legion, for example, and the building that they were in was no longer capable of keeping up with the technology, the changes that were (needed).
So, one, we needed a facility that could keep up with their current needs and, two, to make the community and Cape May County a little bit more year-round, we needed a facility that could help us in that. There’s no doubt in my mind also that the Wildwoods is a SMERF community — social, military, educational, religious and fraternal. I believe that is our niche and that is what we go after.
Since we’ve opened, we’ve really developed a lot of our youth activities. We do four cheerleading competitions a year. I think we do three wrestling tournaments a year. We actually have four or five dance competitions — all youth-related — and we are still in the process of developing the infrastructure that we need to build properties. When October and November hit, we all know that the Wildwood Boardwalk closes. It’s not beach weather. That’s what we are all about. We are all about the Boardwalk. We are all about the beach. So, we still need to develop some infrastructure to have us a viable option for people to come when it is fall, early spring and winter.
Q: What is the tourism authority’s mission?
A: In the early 1990s the Wildwoods needed to rethink what it is that they were doing as far as advertising and promoting the Wildwoods. At that time, there were three cities — Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest — who each had an independent approach to marketing the Wildwoods. So the business community and our state legislators and our local political fathers got together and created an umbrella organization, which they named the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority. To one, become the umbrella organization to advertise and promote the Wildwoods as a vacation destination, and also it gave them a revenue stream to have that promotion and advertising budget. But also the development and improvement was that we also have the ability, if necessary, to do some infrastructure improvements if we deem it to be a need from the standpoints of Boardwalk improvements or we did the great Wildwood sign on Rio Grande Avenue, which we felt is such an icon now for our island. So things like that we have the purview to do.
Q: How closely does the tourism authority work with other tourism groups on the island, such as the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce or the hotel motel association, and how important is cooperation between the groups?
A: Well, you know what, it is very important we work very closely not only with the Wildwood Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Wildwood Hotel Motel. W also work closely with the BID, which is the Business Improvement District on Pacific Avenue and the Boardwalk (Special Improvement District) because all of these organizations are made up of business-community members. We all have one mission, even though we may have different goals and objectives within that mission. Our complete mission here is to drive as many visitors as we can to the Wildwoods and make that visit the best it can be.
Q.: We spoke about Pacific Avenue earlier. It was once a vibrant center of town, and today there are many storefronts that are boarded up. Is there hope for reviving it?
A: I hope so, I really do hope so. Pacific Avenue was just an awesome street, and it wasn’t just bars. There were stores. There were businesses that thrived on there for years. There was this major change that we talked about in the late 1970s. Based on those changes, decisions were made. One of them was to close it off to traffic and make it a walking mall. I think it was during that period of time that a lot of, most of the stores that were there closed up and went away.
The Business Improvement District formed and I think they are doing some very nice things to try to bring businesses, entice businesses, to come back down to Pacific Avenue. And you saw some restaurants develop there. So I’m hoping. It is a heck of a hard time to compete with the main street we really have, which is our Boardwalk. But I do hope we as GWTIDA do whatever we can to assist in helping them.
For years, there has been talk about a corridor, a connector, that takes Boardwalk and connects via Cedar Avenue to Pacific Avenue, and I really do believe in my heart that that will be very helpful in bringing people who are walking to just kind of make that walk now and follow a Boardwalk theme right down to the center of town. Hopefully, that is something we can see in the near future.
Q. The Wildwoods have made a name for themselves as a doo-wop tourist attraction thanks to the many motels that remain from the 1950s and 1960s. What role will doo-wop play in the tourism future?
A: I, for one, think that it is so cool to see the doo-wop design. I think a couple of years ago when Harley-Davidson built their building and TD Bank built their building and Wawa came in. I think the signage is awesome. I think the design with the neon is awesome. You see it on our convention center. We have things here that were part of our arts package which were neon because the Boardwalk is all neon. So that part of it I really, really embrace.
And what I would love to see and what I hope will happen is that as business investors come to town and invest in new properties, full-service hotels maybe or just new business properties, that they keep the flavor and keep Wildwood what it is. We used to be ... the baby Las Vegas because of all the neon that we had. Now, Las Vegas got away from that and they don't even really have much of a strip anymore with all that neon. So, collectively we may have the biggest collection in the United States of neon, and I would hate to see that go away. But I would love to see a modern version of it take over.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian: