Tourism Plays Role Even In Cold Times

BERLIN – Despite Worcester County’s reputation as a summer destination, winter in Worcester County still attracts tourists. 

“January is never going to be July in terms of visitors but we can still have some pretty solid weekends with events going on,” said Ocean City Public Relations Director Donna Abbott. 

Events like the Winterfest of Lights in Ocean City and Victorian Christmas in Berlin help attract people to Worcester County over the holiday season, said Worcester County Director of Tourism Lisa Challenger.

“Special events really bring people in,” said Challenger.

The most visible event of the winter, Ocean City’s Winterfest of Lights, is showing above average attendance, Ocean City Parks and Recreation Director Tom Schuster reported this week before final attendance numbers were in.  

While the town does not solicit demographic information from Winterfest ticket buyers, a study done in 2000 showed that many lights-viewers drive in from a 90-mile radius.

“My anecdotal sense of it is that’s still typical,” Schuster said. “We have a terrific amount of repeat business. The lion’s share of that comes from the Delmarva area.”

Based on demoflush numbers, the resort is seeing more overall visitors in December 2008 than in December 2007.

“We’re looking pretty good,” said Abbott. “It looks like we’re running above last year. We’ve had good weather, which helps.”

The third weekend in December has shown the most visitors of the winter so far, with demoflush numbers indicating about 79,000 people in town. The same weekend last year showed about 75,000 visitors.

While Ocean City can see up to 325,000 visitors on a Fourth of July weekend, the highest winter weekend, last year’s New Year’s holiday, came in at 95,000 people. That’s about 30 percent of the summer’s biggest crowd, which is not bad for a beach resort in the winter, Abbott felt.

“New Year’s Eve is usually pretty good for us,” said Abbott. “New Year’s Eve has really caught on with a lot of people.”

The phones in the Ocean City Visitors Center were ringing steadily in advance of the New Year’s holiday this week, she reported, which is especially heartening to tourism staffers this year with the holiday occurring midweek. The resort also does not advertise for New Year’s tourists, unlike in the summer months.

Abbott expects that three-day weekends over the Martin Luther King Day holiday and Presidents’ Day, highlighted by the Seaside Boat Show, will also be good weekends for winter tourism.

“Anytime you have a three-day weekend, you tend to see our numbers rise,” she said.

The Beach Cheer and Dance Championship at the Ocean City Convention Center in late February will also bring a number of visitors to the vicinity, according to Abbott.

“That fills the hotels,” said Abbott.

Ocean City’s sole museum, the Lifesaving Station Museum on the south end of the Boardwalk, which will be closed for renovation until April, is typically open on winter weekends.

“Weather is a key factor this time of year … some days you might see two or three people trickle in,” said assistant curator Sandy Hurley. “It’s hit or miss.”

A recent open house with free admission attracted few visitors to the lifesaving museum on a particularly frigid day, she said.

“A lot more of the locals will come out this time of year,” Hurley said.

“Given everything going on, I think we’ve seen some very good numbers,” Abbott said.

“I think people really like the real difference of the beach in the off season. There’s something that’s really peaceful about the winter ocean,” Challenger said. “It’s a completely different scene. There’s such a serenity about it.”

“Even in the winter it’s a destination. People are still attracted to the ocean and the shore and the amenities,” Schuster said.

Foot traffic in Berlin and Snow Hill seemed up in November and December, Challenger said, perhaps reflecting holiday shopping.

With the holidays over, that will change, with businesses looking ahead to the spring and summer.

Many attractions and shops are closed for the winter, inside the resort and out of it.

“We’ve been getting ready for the spring. Berlin businesses don’t do a lot in the winter,” said Berlin Main Street Coordinator Michael Day.

After Christmas, shops tend to cut hours or close altogether in the small Victorian town, while preparing for the warm weather season.

“It’s quiet in town but things are really moving forward for next season. This season is over,” said Day.