Hotels Seek Amenities, Value Balance

OCEAN CITY – The old adage about people wanting more bang for their buck seems to be true concerning the current state of the hotel industry.

Annemarie Dickerson of the Francis Scott Key Family Resort in West Ocean City said that more than ever, “customers want more that just a place to sleep, not only in Ocean City, but everywhere.”

Dickerson said six or seven years ago her business changed its overall direction and altered the name on the sign to “family resort” and spent a substantial investment in making the property just that.

“Things have changed dramatically over the past several years, and people expect to have an experience when they stay at your hotel,” said Dickerson. “We made the commitment to have clean and reasonably priced rooms, without top notch amenities like flat screen televisions, and we beefed up the activities that we provided for families to do while they stay here, and that has worked very well for us.”

The Francis Scott Key Family Resort, recently voted as one of the top 10 places for families by Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice, now boasts one of the most extensive lineups of family amenities anywhere in the area including an outdoor and indoor pool, a huge pirate ship, fitness centers, an award-winning restaurant, arcades, activities and free Internet access.

“It’s no secret that the Marlin Moon Grille will be leaving us in October, so we have decided to fill their void with a diner because we saw a need to provide a quality breakfast to our guests,” said Dickerson.

Princess Royale General Manager Jon Tremellen said that the trend in the local hotel industry has been on an incremental decline since 2001, citing the proliferation of condominiums and the emergence of several new players, such as the Hilton Suites.

“The industry reports are warning hotels not to drop their rates too low, as it could really put a pinch on the overall market and would take us years to get back to where we were last year,” said Tremellen. “Some hotels have dropped their rates to what they were charging a few years ago, but others have tried to keep things pretty consistent and get creative with their promotions.”

Michael James, managing partner of the Carousel Resort Hotel and Condominiums, said that his angle is that his guests have the ability to enjoy their entire stay in Ocean City without leaving the property.

“We certainly want people to go out and spend money in town, but if they wanted to, we have always told them that they could conceivably park their car when they arrive, and not have to get back in it until they leave,” said James.

James was one of a group of investors who bought ($7.75 million) and revamped (another $7 million) the Carousel in March of 2000 after the landmark property had dwindled to decrepit status, and since then James has been at the forefront of restoring the property back to prominence.

“The biggest change now is that demand for rooms can’t possibly come any later than what it has been,” said James. “People used to book rooms in January, but now, with people’s credit card limits being lowered due to the economy, they can’t sustain the initial down-payment on the room so far in advance. There are too many other factors involved.”

In addition, literally thousands of condominiums, many of which have actually changed their name to “vacation rentals”, have come to Ocean City, thus making a competitive market, all the more competitive.

“We have 427 units and we are the biggest in Ocean City, but we try to do nightly activities like our movie nights or our ice show, in addition to discounts and promotions that help keep our loyal customers coming back and hopefully drawing in some new ones,” James said.

The Carousel is actually the only oceanfront hotel in the world that boasts an ice rink, and the nightly ice shows have been praised as high quality family fun for many years.

“As good as you think they might be, I would suspect that when you leave, you’ll agree that the show was better than you ever could have expected it to be”, he said.

On the other hand, there are older hotels in Ocean City faced with trying to offer competitive room rates and appeasing customers who want more than just a “bed for their head” without dropping the price too low to survive as a business.

“We can’t be a successful resort if we trade some of our primetime weeks for months in the shoulder seasons,” said James. “We need strong summers to stay afloat here in Ocean City, and even if the shoulder seasons have extended and added a little business on the weekends, the summer has gotten shorter in a sense, and that’s why you are seeing more and more hotels closing down in the off-season.”

As the desire for amenities and value increases, competition between hotels who don’t have as many to offer or continue to charge similar prices to those who boast large lineups of amenities, could play a part in which local hotels thrive and which merely survive.

“July is looking okay right now,” said James. “June being down like it was really caught everyone off guard, but it doesn’t help a resort when it’s 65 degrees and rainy. The bottom line is that you have to improve your property if you want to compete.”