OCEAN CITY – It’s no secret that special events are often the key to driving the off-season economy here in our region. Yet, the fact is many of the events that drive the economy are vehicle focused, which, of course, require tens of thousands of cars or motorcycles being driven or pulled into town.
These events are often appealing for the local businesses for the crowds they provide and the concurrent dollars those crowds spend, but the events have long been criticized by many locals, who annually complain about noise, traffic, trash and other perceived adverse impacts on the area. In recent years, none of these vehicle-centric special events promoters has heard more of that criticism than Jay Shoup, who is the lone owner, promoter and producer of H20i, the two-day VW/Audi event.
H2Oi celebrates its 18th year this weekend at its headquarters at Ft. Whaley Campground, but it’s been under fire in the court of public opinion in the past few years due to accusations that its attendees have been linked to substantial upticks in Ocean City police calls for service (which have more than doubled since 2010) and from a 2014 viral Internet video that shows an unruly mob of car enthusiasts at the 45th street village cheering on several brawls.
Shoup stresses that the accusations linking the incidents with his event are merely “guilt by association” and says he is committed to restoring the event’s reputation amongst locals and town officials.
We sat down with the self-proclaimed straight-shooting and limelight shy Shoup in his unostentatious Ocean Pines home to talk about the aforementioned criticism, and what he calls the misconceptions about the event he created that’s turned from a hobby into an almost full-time occupation.
Q. How has preparation for H2Oi changed since the event came under fire in recent years?
A. The only thing I did differently this year and two or three years prior is I worked a little bit more close with Ocean City: the council and the police department. I’ve always worked closely with Maryland State Police. They’ve always been my go to, because quite frankly, my show has never been in Ocean City, and we probably never will be. Nothing against Ocean City, because this is my home, but we tried to push out PSA’s [Public Service Announcements] from Ocean City police and the town itself. Like I said, this is my home and I don’t want my son to grow up knowing that an event that his father created turned into something that locals, residents and some of the visitors had an issue with. It is the 18th year, and up until two or three years ago, no one had a problem with it.
Q. I remember the headlines a few years ago when this became an issue. Talk about how you navigated through trying to figure out what was happening and who was causing the problems.
A. It wasn’t an all-of-a-sudden thing. With any event, even family gatherings, you always have a bad apple. There’s always the bad uncle or the drunk uncle, whatever you want to say, it kind of is what it is. I think the thing that I was kind of taken aback by is when Ocean City claimed that they didn’t know about the event.
Well, the event has been in this area for years — the first two were in Connecticut, but it’s been here since and this is the 16th year here — how can they not know about it? I don’t need to promote locally because my clientele have nothing to do with Ocean City. They come from all over the world.
Q. But, of course, they go into Ocean City …
A. Yes, they choose to stay in Ocean City and patronize the establishments there. I’ve brought it up before, and it wasn’t me being rude or cocky or disrespectful to the town, but I said if you don’t want the money, I’ll take it somewhere else, whether it be farther west, or south, like Virginia Beach. I know they would love to have the revenue. With growth comes pain is the only thing I can say, and this event has turned into a hobby of mine that basically turned into a full-time job.
Q. It’s been interesting to watch, and what I find fascinating with you running this event, compared to other promoters, is that you are very forward in your social media feeds and oftentimes very brash in saying, ‘if you are not here to have a good time, basically stay the hell out of town.’ Has that worked, and has that stance been appreciated by the rest of your clientele that are here for the “right reasons?
A. I think so. There have been a lot of people that have been coming to the show for years and years, who bring their families and their friends, who have kind of stepped back to see what is going to happen. They don’t want to deal with the nonsense or the mayhem that happens in Ocean City. I would rather have quality over quantity. I’m not going to get rich off this show, and I certainly don’t make millions, and I’m not going to retire off of this show. I have other ways and means to fund my living and my lifestyle.
I saw the people become a little more withdrawn over the past couple of years and I didn’t like it so I stood up and said ‘if you aren’t here to have a good time and you can’t respect the town and the officials and the authorities than, stay home. We don’t want you.’ I got to a point where I don’t care if someone likes it or doesn’t like it. There is clientele that doesn’t like my approach. Well, if you are offended by that, then chances are you are probably the problem.
Q. Do you think there is a misconception about your event? Who it draws, who it brings in? Because I think many in the court of public opinion believes that this is a bunch of 20-year-old kids who are up to no good that are driving around in souped up VW’s. But you mentioned families and an older demographic too. What’s the biggest misconception to you about this event?
A. Well, the draw very early on was that it was very grassroots. We’ve never had an issue at the event at the campgrounds. It all happens after hours, in town, when alcohol gets involved. I don’t think the officials are necessarily opposed to the event. They want the event, they appreciate the event and what I’ve brought to the table, but we just have to get it under control.
This year, Maryland State Police stepped up and is going to run a full command post in Ocean City. They can’t tell me where or how many, but they said it’s going to be substantial.
Q. Are you confident that this year, all of the negative chatter that has been either attached or pointed at your event will be remedied?
A. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. I think anybody that would think that would be a fool. We have a generation, or generations of children, and I call them children — I’m 45 years old, I’ve been there and done that — I see these kids up and coming and it frightens me to death.
Q. Do you see any difference in your event and any other motor-vehicle event?
A. The only difference I see, quite frankly is the age difference, and with that comes immaturity, unfortunately. I don’t think people realize you can’t point fingers just because someone is driving a VW or an Audi and they do something wrong, they are automatically associated with the H2O event.
Q. So, you feel guilty by association?
A. Yes, I think so, and quite frankly, I’ve accepted the guilt and stepped up and I’ve made it clear that we aren’t going to put up with it.