O.C. is driven to be motorist destination

Vacation: Bookings are up as Ocean City aims to tap the public mood for close-to-home getaways.

May 12, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

This summer, Ocean City is banking on vacationers taking closer-to-home trips to reverse last year's dip in visitors.

While vacation spots dependent on the embattled airline industry are vulnerable because of post-Sept. 11 wariness and jitters over the economy, Ocean City - a top driving destination in the mid-Atlantic region - could flourish.

"I think people are going to get in their cars and just go," said Bill Purnell, owner of the Atlantic Hotel on the boardwalk. "I think Ocean City is going to have an excellent summer."

Purnell's hotel bookings are up through the summer and past Labor Day, compared with last season. Other hotels and vacation property firms said that advanced bookings are either keeping pace with last year or are a few percentage points ahead.

"A lot of consumers are concerned about their personal finances right now because of the recession, but they're looking for quick getaways and I think that will contribute to a healthy season for places like Ocean City," said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America.

That would be a welcome upturn for businesses in Ocean City, which saw the number of visitors fall 4 percent last year, to 4.09 million people from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Total visitors last year declined 3 percent to 8.13 million. But town officials are confident that this year will see a rebound.

"We're going to have the best summer ever," said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "Our basic success formula is clean, safe, fun and affordable."

The summer tourist season continues to be Ocean City's bread and butter. But the town is attracting more visitors in the spring and fall, partly because of its thriving convention center business and fast-growing golfing industry. That helps keep restaurants and 35 hotels open year-round.

"They do an excellent job of marketing their destination year-round," said John M. Dixon, assistant professor and chairman of the department of hotel and restaurant management at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore in Princess Anne.

"I expect Ocean City to have a good summer. ... They have a reputation for treating their clients and their customers well, so they have a large repeat [business] factor," Dixon said.

With a population of 7,500 year-round residents, Ocean City swells as the weather warms, with its average weekend population peaking at 300,000 during the summer. Weather is a big factor, bringing in travelers who wake up on a sunny Saturday and head to the beach - or stay home if it's overcast or rainy.

Bookings at many large and small hotels in Ocean City are about the same as last year, or better. And several reported that people are making plans for longer stays, which has a positive ripple effect on businesses such as restaurants and small shops.

John Harrison, a partner in the Harrison Group, which owns 10 hotels, said bookings are up over last year. "It's going to be a very solid summer. ... We're seeing people extend their stays. We're ahead in every month from now to September."

Ed Kennett, managing partner of the Casablanca Oceanside Inn on 24th Street, said his bookings have risen 200 percent at his 57-unit hotel from May to the end of September compared with the year-earlier period.

Vacation home rental firms reported moderate gains in summer bookings over last year at this time, though some firms had expected more.

Rental property bookings for July and August were up 2 percent over last year as of the end of March, but the firm had hoped for a 10 percent increase, said Jim Waggoner, vice president and director of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.'s resort rental division in Delaware and Maryland. The company rents about 575 homes and condos in Ocean City.

O'Conor, Piper and Flynn ERA's rental division is also tracking reservations at about the same pace as last year.

"We haven't seen a big increase over last year, as many people anticipated," said Susan B. Holt, vice president and regional director of rentals for OPF. She pointed to the unemployment rate and people's caution in an uncertain economy. A bright spot, Holt said, is an increase in property rentals in September and October.

New hotels have helped Ocean City's economy - and tax base - expand. While no new major hotels are debuting this summer, some have been renovated and others expanded, pushing Ocean City's total room count to around 10,000.

Room sales in Ocean City totaled $198 million from July 1999 to June 2000, with $6 million collected in room taxes. For the similar period from 2000 to 2001, room sales were $219 million, bringing in $7.3 million for the town, as the room tax rose from 3 percent to 4 percent.

In all, Ocean City's tourism-centered industries pump an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year into the local economy.

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