A So-so Summer

O.C. seeing high and low tides in rentals

Occupancy levels vary at beach's condos, hotels

August 05, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

So far, Ocean City's summer season has earned mixed reviews - with room tax revenue up and some hotels reporting occupancy levels of more than 90 percent, even as vacancy signs dot the strip far more often than usual.

The explanations range from overpricing, to stiff competition from other destinations, to the changing flavor of Ocean City. But most agree that until the past few days, weather at the resort strip could not be faulted this year.

Although Baltimore and Washington saw plenty of rain in July, most of the rain that fell in Ocean City last month came at night and didn't interfere with visitors trying to enjoy the beach.

"There seems to be a lot of disparity between properties," said Michael James, a managing partner at the Carousel Resort Hotel & Condominiums. "I think the consumers are shopping a lot. You'll see a no-vacancy sign and then a hotel two blocks away with a half-empty parking lot."

His operation, with 237 hotel rooms and 190 condos, has been one of the lucky ones.

"We've had a wonderful year, and it looks like it's going to be a wonderful fall," he said.

Occupancy is at more than 95 percent for this month and was in the mid-90s last month, he said. The condos were 99 percent occupied last month.

The freshly renovated Carousel is its own destination, with an indoor skating rink and nightly ice shows, a new outdoor pool, an ice cream shop, deli, pizza shop, game room and a moon bounce inflated each afternoon for children.

While business at the Carousel thrives, the story is very different at the 22-room King Charles Hotel on Baltimore Avenue, between 12th and 13th streets.

"The phones aren't as busy," said Marie-Noelle Sayan, manager of the King Charles. "July, when I should have been making my money, I was way off. It wasn't the weather. It's been gorgeous. And it's not the rates. It's just that there weren't that many people calling, and they weren't walking in."

Although she does not oppose development, Sayan says she worries about the atmosphere of Ocean City changing as old buildings and restaurants are torn down and replaced with condos.

"The blend isn't there," she said. "It's all skewed toward condos. The flavor of Ocean City is changing, and I hope they can recover it."

To try to recoup some of her own lost earnings, Sayan says, she will stay open two weeks longer than usual into October, instead of closing by Oct. 1.

At Phillips Seafood Restaurants' three Ocean City locations, business is equal to or above last year, according to Paul R. Wall, vice president and treasurer.

"I think we're probably the exception," he said. "A lot of people can tell their business is not where it was last year, and last year was not a real good season because of all the rain in the spring. Even with real good weather we still did not have the influx of tourists that we've had in the past. The boardwalk has not been as crowded. The traffic jams have not been as bad."

Still, not many restaurants have complained about their season, said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.

"It's mainly some of the smaller, older hotels and maybe a couple of the larger ones not on the ocean," she said. "It really feels like the traffic is not here like it has been in the past. We're definitely not experiencing the walk-in traffic. That's nonexistent."

The association may help three or four families a day find places to stay, compared with 10 a day last year, Jones said. But a few years back, those numbers were closer to 50 families a day - the decrease is probably a function of Internet usage, she said.

"It's not horrible, it's just flat," she said. "There are more condos rented, which takes away from the hotels."

The town's room tax revenue shows an increase over last year, with $1,761,759 reported for June compared with $1,514,818 for the same period last year, according to Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the town's tourism office.

Food tax also rose this year, bringing in $264,715 in June compared with $262,978 for that month last year. July data were not available.

"I think this has been overall another good summer for Ocean City," said Abbott.

But rainfall in Baltimore and Washington may have cost the resort some walk-in traffic this season, she said.

"For the last-minute travelers looking out their windows and seeing rain, they may assume it's raining everywhere," she said. "That can hurt us."

Despite the upbeat tax numbers, many business operators agree that vacationers are scouring the Internet for deals, booking later, cooking in more often, and, in many cases, taking shorter vacations.

Realtors at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. have seen clear evidence of the demand for shorter vacations in this year's condo rentals.

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