Ocean City Tourism 365 Days In A Season

Changes in vacation habits and other factors have helped Maryland's ocean resort evolve into a year-round destination

May 09, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

It used to be that the fortunes of businesses in Ocean City depended on the weather and the whims of tourists visiting during the 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the bookend holidays of summer.

But no more.

The Maryland shore is evolving into an all-season escape -- where stressed-out residents of Baltimore, Washington and, increasingly, places beyond can retreat from their cares, even in the dead of winter.

Restaurants and other businesses are extending their seasons to accommodate these off-season getaways.

"Any weekend now, even in February, if the weather is not absolutely raining, there are a lot of people on the boardwalk," said Granville D. Trimper, president and chief executive of Trimper Rides and Amusements. "We keep our arcade, Marty's Playland, open year-round. A few years ago, that would have been unheard of."

The growing number of condominium owners making off-season pilgrimages, combined with a burgeoning golf industry, the success of the town's convention center and the resort's creation of a string of off-season special events, all help draw people to the beach 12 months a year.

The changes at the Maryland shore reflect a larger national trend as more families trade in long summer holidays for three- or four-day getaways any time of year.

"The standard unit as measured by the vacation industry is a long weekend now -- it's not a week," said Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live: The Guide to Getting A Life, who has studied vacations for more than 10 years and has seen drastic changes in that time.

Corporate downsizing has placed more work responsibilities on the typical employee and made it harder to get away from jobs for long periods, he said. Job insecurity makes Americans reluctant to take the time they are owed, and the problem is further complicated for dual-career couples who must juggle schedules to find a chunk of time for an extended vacation.

"The tourism industry is really trapped by the limits on American vacation time," said Robinson, who notes that European and other countries continue to offer multiple weeks of paid vacation and place a high value on taking long vacations. "The absence of any real vacation season anymore may be forcing the hospitality industry to get creative with marketing to get people to come in on weekends throughout the year."

The transformation of Ocean City to a year-round destination has been a calculated process over the course of about 30 years.

For instance, when John Fager first decided to open a restaurant and bar on the bay in Ocean City in June 1975 and keep it open year-round, people told him he was crazy.

He would need to put it on the ocean side or at least on the highway, people said -- and even then, most doubted that a year-round venture would work in the resort town.

But Fager was undeterred.

"In the off-season, you couldn't even get a hot dog after 9 o'clock at night," Fager said. "When I opened this, I made a commitment to be open every day year-round. I thought it was time to get with the program. I thought it was time for Ocean City to grow up. It was popular right away, and we stayed busy enough to stay open."

A taste of Key West

In those days, bars typically were dark, dungeon-like places, but Fager built his with plenty of glass and live plants, bringing a taste of California and Key West to the resort.

The business grossed $225,000 in 1975. Today it brings in annual revenue of between $8 million and $8.5 million.

Fager's Island, invisible from the highway, with no sign to announce it, is a short drive down 60th Street to the water. There has never been a sign on the highway. People had to know about it to find it. Someone had to have told them about it -- perhaps adding to the allure.

The view opens wide as the visitor reaches a place where the sky meets the bay, beyond a sprawling restaurant of open decks, palm tree gardens and a pier that leads to a gazebo. Inside, the dance floor features snow and fog machines and devices that shoot confetti and streamers at dancers. Known for the trademark playing of The 1812 Overture as the sun sinks below the horizon, Fager's Island can seat hundreds in a combination of indoor and outdoor dining.

Fager's 2-acre kingdom of three small islands also includes two small, upscale hotels that stay sold-out Fridays and Saturdays, with a waiting list nearly all year. One hotel has 23 suites; the other, 12 suites.

"I'd had a house on the bay," Fager said. "I knew how beautiful the bay was and the romance of the sunsets."

When Fager dreamed up his idea for the restaurant and bar, Ocean City essentially ended at 16th Street instead of spilling out miles farther on the road to Delaware.

"They thought nobody would ever find us out here," he said.

Fager thought he could see into the future.

"You could see it coming, but the density and intensity of what's here is a bit shocking," he said. "In the '60s, by Labor Day at 5 p.m. the town was empty, and it stayed empty until the next Memorial Day.

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