Summer ran hot and cold

Erratic: Hoteliers and attractions cope with later bookings, spiking gas prices and a cool August.

Tourism In Maryland

September 05, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

At BJ's on the Water in Ocean City, where diners gazing out at the bay can watch the boats and feed the ducks, the summer beach season started off with a bang, and then became somewhat puzzling.

By July, "we'd have a couple of days where we weren't very busy on a weekend night, but then all of a sudden on a weekday, we were swamped," said Michelle "Jersey" Farside, general manager of the bayside restaurant in the Maryland beach resort. "It was definitely strange."

Maryland's 2004 summer tourism season may be remembered mostly for its unpredictability, buffeted by swings in the weather, gas prices and terrorism alerts.

Attractions and destinations from Ocean City to Western Maryland scrambled to adapt to the changes in consumer behavior, market competition and technology that are affecting patterns in travel. Tourists are planning more last-minute and shorter trips. Low-fare offers, the Internet and the high-growth cruise industry are providing more choice and price competition. And a growing confidence among travelers, nearly three years removed from the Sept. 11 attacks, may be hurting some destinations like Baltimore that earlier gained visitors who were avoiding larger, higher-profile cities such as New York and Washington.

On top of that, an atypical Maryland August - cooler and wetter than usual - affected everyone.

"A rainy August helps no one," said Dennis Castleman, the state's assistant secretary for the division of tourism, film and the arts.

But tourist-related businesses had more to contend with than the weather, tourism officials said. In a post-Sept. 11 climate in which destinations have had to offer deals on hotels and airfare to lure back visitors, travelers have gotten used to waiting until the last minute to book trips.

"It used to be you knew by February or March and April where you'd be by the summer," Castleman said. "Now, that's not so. People are literally booking summer vacations a week or two out. It's difficult for hoteliers and attractions to plan with that short booking window."

In Garrett County, where tourists have come summer after summer to boat and fish off the 65-mile shoreline of Deep Creek Lake, Chamber of Commerce officials were alarmed late in the spring to learn that advance June bookings had dropped, compared with June 2003.

"People are going back to the air right now because of discounts, and they've recovered from the shock of 9/11," said Charlie Ross, president and chief executive of the chamber. "They seem to be waiting longer to book ... and booking a bit shorter stays because they're still leery of the economy. People are tending more toward three- and four-day stays."

The chamber sprang into action, launching radio campaigns in Baltimore, Washington, Virginia and Pittsburgh promoting "an escape to mountain Maryland."

Though it was too late for June - gross sales at accommodations, including hotels, motels, inns and rental homes, fell by 17 percent - sales rebounded in July, up 18 percent from July 2003, leaving overall growth for those two months up by 3 percent, Ross said. August figures won't be available until later this week.

"We concluded our radio campaign really did save it," Ross said. "We're pleased we've been able to roll with the market."

Ocean City, which draws about 3.5 million people each summer to its hotels and condos, has had a mixed summer season, said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. Hotel room tax revenues rose by 17 percent in June and 8 percent in July from the previous year.

"The beginning of the summer and spring started out fairly strong, and then it just seemed after July Fourth that it was kind of flat," Jones said. "We didn't see huge numbers. There were people in town, but it didn't seem like the traffic we'd seen in the past."

Because developers have been rushing to put up condominiums in Ocean City's hot real estate market of recent years, "a lot of people who used to stay in hotels are booking condos and family are staying with them," Jones said. Plus, "there are so many deals to the Caribbean and Mexico that are so accessible on the Internet. People are bombarded with deals to come to the Caribbean for five days and they're not thinking there might be a hurricane out there."

Based on the handful of hotel occupancy rates that Jones has collected for the summer, the smaller hotels seemed to be lagging behind more than the larger hotels, which could be attributed to the bigger advertising budgets of larger hotels, Jones said.

"We're ahead of last year," said Carol Dickel, general manager of Castle in the Sand Hotel, one of the big hotels on the beach. The hotel was about 95 percent full in July and August, a slight improvement over the summer of 2003. "It was a good season. It wasn't quite outstanding, but it was an improvement over last year." Even with a lot of rain, "it didn't seem to affect us that much. The kids still went out and swam."

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