Getting ready for summer

After struggling through last year's recession, Ocean City has high hopes for this season

May 27, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY — — The morning sun is just beginning to warm the sand along the boardwalk, which, save for a few power-walkers and seniors riding bicycles, is quiet enough to hear the surf and the day's first popcorn starting to jump and crackle at Fisher's.

Near the inlet, a tractor-trailer backs up behind Trimper's amusement park and shirtless young men start tossing out and piling up the giant plush bears and gorillas — prizes for those who can meet a midway challenge. Games manager George Richie, who has worked the boardwalk long enough to know the signs that point to a successful summer, thinks he's going to need more bears.

"We're expecting it to be big," he says of the season, which begins, traditionally at least, with this weekend's Memorial Day holiday. "Last year, everyone was just tight — you'd see a family walking by sharing a bucket of fries and a drink. Now they've got drinks and french fries and cotton candy — they've got it all."

Ocean City is awakening this week, preparing to welcome what the town hopes will be a full-on beach rush. At this time last year, fears about the economy had many people holding tight to their wallets, in no mood for frivolous spending. But this year, bookings are up, crowds have already flooded into town for a few springtime events and Ocean City, which lives or dies during vacation season, is feeling summer's promise with each uptick of the mercury.

"We're all feeling good," says John Gehrig, the tanned president of the town's Chamber of Commerce: "We need this summer season in the worst way."

Unlike those pristine, natural beaches that advertise tranquillity and isolation, unabashedly commercial Ocean City wants shoulder-to-sunburned-shoulder crowds, congested main drags and lines at the all-you-can-eat joints. Those neon vacancy signs? Off, please. The town wants — no, needs — tourists and, more bluntly, tourists who spend money.

While the remote and luxurious destinations suffered in the throes of last year's recession, Ocean City struggled but survived. Its drivable, family-friendly, budget charms fit the bill.

And tourism officials made sure no one forgot them. Even as other vacation spots reined in advertising, Ocean City threw its into overdrive, launching a television and online assault not merely to their typical markets, but to those a bit farther away in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. The ads featured a new character, Rodney the Lifeguard, a hunky fellow in red shorts and a tank top tasked with saving urbanites from daily tedium by whisking them to the beach.

What Rodney actually seemed to save was Ocean City itself.

"We don't have factories churning out widgets here," says Donna Abbott, the town's communications manager. "We have to have people coming to the beach and slathering on sunscreen."

As the ad push continues this year, bookings are up 8 percent over last year and people are choosing to stay slightly longer, too. It's hard to find a hotel or a store or a restaurant not offering a special or a deal or a coupon or a promotion — all that, too, is a purposeful push from the Chamber of Commerce.

Gehrig knows the town must trumpet its assets, and the way he figures, nothing is hitting home more than the message of value.

"We're not crossing our fingers and hoping," he says. "We're offering values and deals. Sometimes you have to fight through the mud."

The weather, of course, counts just as much.

Earlier this week, sunshine had pushed away all but the most picturesque clouds and the forecast danced around the 80-degree mark. By lunchtime, sunbathers had staked out spots on the beach with wildly colored umbrellas and pale girls in bikinis shrieked in the surf.

The buff men and women who will take seats on those lifeguard chairs are running rescue drills, practicing pulling one another from riptides lurking in the still-bracing seawater. A drill sergeant with the Ocean City Beach Patrol blew his whistle and called out to recruits, "We're not going 50 percent — we're going 100 percent!"

Over at Souvenir City, they were somehow finding room in their tightly stuffed shop for even more kitschy knickknacks and doodads — all the mugs, key chains and shot glasses they hope tourists will soon be lining up with at the cash register.

Last year wasn't good for store owners Michelle Prestas and her mother, Peggy Auker — even if folks were coming to the beach, they weren't buying souvenirs. This year, they're hoping to move more merchandise by offering specials — three shot glasses for $10 instead of one for $3.99, or buy a certain amount of stuff and get a free tote.

"Most people lately are very price-conscious," Auker says. "Maybe they aren't buying as much, but they're picking up things here and there, using credit instead of cash."

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