High Hopes For Banner Holiday Weekend In OC

OCEAN CITY – Despite concerns about soaring gas prices and a shaky economy, resort business leaders are locked and loaded for what has the potential to be an outstanding Fourth of July weekend.

Optimism abounded this week as the resort prepared for another Fourth of July holiday with many factors aligned for what could be one of the better ones in recent memory. Many long-time residents and business owners prefer a mid-week Fourth of July that often spreads the holiday crowds out over two solid weekends instead of one blockbuster two- or three-day period, but the numbers in recent years bear out a weekend Fourth, particularly a Friday, provides the biggest bang for the buck.

Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones certainly thinks so based on her comments to the resort’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) on Wednesday. Jones said advanced bookings point to what should be a great weekend in Ocean City.

“Looks like we’ll be sold out on the Fourth of July,” she said. “It’s going to start on Thursday and build all weekend. A lot of our visitors are still shopping. They’re looking for the best deals.”

Having the Fourth of July fall on a Friday typically sets the table for a solid three-to-four day weekend and recent history bears that out. The largest crowd in Ocean City on the Fourth of July since 2000 occurred the last time the holiday fell on a Friday, which happened in 2003 when 342,952 people poured into the town, according to the resort’s demoflush records.

Last year, the Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday and the crowds fell to their lowest level in the seven-year period at 300,333. The year before, the Fourth of July fell on a Tuesday and the crowd count came in at 308,158. The second lowest Fourth of July total in the seven-year period came in 2001, which, incidentally was a Wednesday, when 306,715 showed up, according to demoflush estimates.

With the holiday on a Friday and a solid weather forecast throughout the weekend, there is every reason to believe this Fourth of July could be one for the books.

Worcester County Commissioner Louise Gulyas told EDC members on Wednesday she was keeping her fingers crossed for a record weekend and evoked a higher being for the cause.

“I hope the town is so crowded, nobody can sleep,” she said. “God knows we need it.”

Delegate Jim Mathias, who has seen his fair share of Fourth of July celebrations in the resort as the former mayor of Ocean City, praised resort business leaders for their preparation for the holiday weekend and left them with a sports analogy as they geared up for the onslaught.

“You’ve done a fabulous job getting ready and promoting Ocean City,” he said. “Now, it’s like you are in the locker room getting ready to go out on the field for the Super Bowl.”

While the Fourth of July might not prove to be Super Bowl for the summer, it at least appears to be shaping up as a big playoff game. The numbers point to bigger, more consistent weekends in the dog days of late July and August, particularly during the annual White Marlin Open tournament, but this holiday weekend is often relied upon to jumpstart the season.

EDC Chairman Dr. Lenny Berger, owner of the Clarion Resort, said this week the arrival of the Fourth of July does not mean it is too late to continue to plant the seeds for later in the summer.

“I think we need to continue to send the message we’re a half-tank away from Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia,” he said. “If you include New Jersey and New York, we’re close to 35 million people looking for something to do on the Fourth of July weekend.”

While there are millions of potential visitors just half a tank of gas away from Ocean City, steadily rising gas prices, a shaky economy and other factors could have them staying closer to home this weekend. For example, AAA Mid-Atlantic is predicting a nominal decrease in the number of Marylanders traveling this Fourth of July holiday compared to last year. Even still, the agency predicts nearly 762,600 Marylanders will travel 50 miles or more this weekend, which represents a decline of about 1.3 percent from 2007.

“It’s no surprise to see this slight decrease in travel this Fourth of July holiday as Marylanders are contending with higher gas and food prices, higher travel prices, such as increased airfare and car rental rates, as well as general concerns about the economy and less disposable income available due to these rising costs,” said Ragina C. Averella, Manager of Public and Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. 

“However, despite the downward economy and lack of consumer confidence, Marylanders still want to get away from the daily grind, which is evident by the more than half million people expected to travel for the upcoming holiday.”

Averella said gas prices statewide have remained relatively flat this week at an average of $4.04 per gallon, which is about where it was last week. However, the $4.04 state average this week represents a 38-percent increase over this time last year, or about $1.11 more for a gallon of gas.

“It appears that gasoline prices are a significant factor in Marylanders’ travel plans this July 4th holiday especially as this is the first holiday weekend where we are seeing prices over $4 per gallon on average nationwide,” commented Averella.  “As the price of crude oil has been trading around the $140 per barrel mark and with gas prices on the rise again nationally, we may see even fewer Marylanders on the road for the holiday.”