Harbor rings up 'enchanted season' Hotels, restaurants, shops reap bonanza from May to October

October 25, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

From sales of $220-a-night hotel waterview suites to $1.50 peach ice cream cones, Baltimore's Inner Harbor experienced a banner warm-weather tourist season -- a May-to-October bonanza when lines formed before popular restaurants and day-trippers bought snow domes and plastic crabs marked "Baltimore" by the hundreds before boarding buses for home.

"I call it 'the enchanted season' -- our best in 16 years. What made it enchanted was the ring of the cash register," said Chris Swift, an owner of two harbor shops, Night Goods in the Gallery and Celebrate Baltimore in Harborplace.

While precise Inner Harbor head counts are not available, city planning officials say about 100,000 people per day flood the area between Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Federal Hill, Baltimore Street and Fells Point on a usual busy summer weekend. But merchants and tourist officials say last summer's numbers were substantially higher.

A more precise barometer of tourist appeal is hotel occupancy rates.

"We had no dip in occupancy. We were virtually 100 percent occupied every [summer] weekend in 1997," said Werner R. Kunz, managing director of the Harbor Court Hotel. "The continuous development along the harbor and the Orioles are what help accomplish this."

People attending a single event, such as the B. B. King Blues Festival, helped boost season totals at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

According to Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore Office of Tourism, the concert pavilion's paid attendance went from in 1996 to 80,412 in 1997, an increase of nearly 20 percent for the musical acts promoted as the First Union Harbor Music Festival.

A highlight of the season was the successful July opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in the Power Plant, which drew additional patronage to what had been a long-closed former streetcar electricity generating station.

As crowded as the harbor was over the summer, those numbers did not translate into success for the Baltimore City Life Museum, which closed in June, and the Columbus Center, whose attendance figures did not meet projections.

On the other hand, managers of tourist-related businesses said a number of factors contributed to their success.

They cited the peppy regional economy. They credited a demand for Orioles tickets as well as the presence of out-of-town fans, especially those wearing Yankees and Mets jerseys. They mentioned the effort by Harborplace's landlord, the Rouse Co., to improve its two pavilions.

The summer's lack of rain and moderate temperatures were followed by a mild fall. National print wire services distributed favorable tourism articles, and the perception of after-dark safety in the area also helped, they said.

"There's a good police presence here, especially at a convention or sports game. It's great to see mature people out strolling around the harbor at 12: 30 in the morning. That sends a good message," said Christopher Philyaw, a manager at Wayne's Barbeque, a 160-seat restaurant in Harborplace.

"The whole harbor was busy. We exceeded all our expectations," said Spero Alex, manager of the Cheesecake Factory, who added that he is looking forward to completion of the Power Plant. "The more there are things to do, the more people come down here."

The Body Shop, which moved to larger quarters within Harborplace last summer, reported brisk sales. "We had the greatest percentage increase in sales of any Body Shop in the country," said manager Robert Simmons. He said good business has continued through the fall and on weekends when the Ravens play at home.

"We even had a number of Miami Dolphins fans here last weekend," Simmons said.

The summer boom was not limited to Inner Harbor businesses.

"There was time when this business slowed down over the summer, but no more. We were booked throughout the summer," said Ken Hadel, manager of the Prime Rib restaurant at Calvert and Chase streets, 10 blocks north of the harbor.

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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