(Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a three-part series on the hotel boom being experienced in the resort area with the spotlight shined on West Ocean City this week. Next week we take a look at what all this new type of economic development means for the region.)
WEST OCEAN CITY – Route 50 was once dubbed the “Backbone of America,” as it starts in Ocean City and stretches across the United States into Sacramento, Calif. It’s also been called the “Loneliest Road in America,” but that distinction, at least here in the coastal region, has becoming almost irrelevant and laughable, as the past decade has seen unparalleled growth in the part of the corridor that runs through West Ocean City.
Perhaps the most noticeable stretch of the current hotel boom is along this very corridor as several older hotels have been leveled, making way for new projects and modern hotels.
People Want More For Less
Paul Abu-Zaid and his family have been in the hotel business in the region since 1970, and since 1978, have owned the parcel in West Ocean City that was the longtime home for the Bedtime Inn and a restaurant space, most recently housed by Plaza Tapatia.
Abu-Zaid and his family are now redeveloping the site and are aiming for a June 2016 opening for a new 78-room prototype hotel called Microtel Inn and Suites.
A Holiday Inn Express & Suites opened nearby this past spring as well.
Abu-Zaid believes the hotel will be much more in-line with what today’s hotel consumer demands.
“It will be the right price point, and offer sleek and modern designs in the lobby, the rooms and the suites,” said Abu-Zaid. “People are demanding more for less money so curb appeal and aesthetics are more important than ever for hotels. A lot of hotels have very similar designs so the first impression is very important.”
The Bedtime Inn design was synonymous with that motor-lodge style that was seemingly everywhere in the 1950’s. Abu-Zaid believes that model is no longer relevant in the ever-changing world of the hotel business.
“The hotel business has become very cut-throat, as the revolution of the Internet changed the business nationwide forever, but we feel that there is a fast growing niche for the boutique hotel market that can offer upscale rooms at affordable prices,” he said.
The Bedtime had been struggling for a number of years, despite the growth in West Ocean City, but while Abu-Zaid says the timing of the redevelopment of the property into the Microtel Inn and Suites is exciting, he notes that this current boom is likely ushering in a bit of a sea change.
“This growth will help bring consistency and recognition to the area for the consumer,” said Abu-Zaid. “This boom will likely weed out properties that aren’t performing, and we’ll see more properties being redeveloped in the next several years.”
No Need To Hit Panic
Button For Independents
The influx of flag, or corporate, hotels into the region has raised some concerns amongst independent or “mom and pop” hoteliers, but according to Annemarie Dickerson, whose family owns the Francis Scott Key Family Resort in West Ocean City, businesses should get their hands off the panic button and look in the mirror.
“We are able to hold our own, and holding our own is fantastic right now, and it’s making us look at what we are offering and constantly asking ourselves how we can serve our customers better,” Dickerson said. “You have to re-invest and be able to look at things for the reality for what they are.”
Dickerson says after her father, Kenny Baker, passed in 2003, she and her husband sat down with a consultant and mapped out a new strategy for the future, one that included a focus on transforming the amenities offered at the hotel and creating a family resort.
“This is not the same hotel as what it was when my dad bought it in 1972,” she said. “We have become really unique and that has helped us stand out and succeed. We rebranded ourselves into this family resort, and honestly, we’ve almost had to put blinders on to what has been happening with the franchise hotels because we aren’t that, and we will never be that.”
Dickerson says she isn’t intimidated by the big name hotels that are coming into the area and sees competition as a good thing, but notes that this hotel boom is most likely the tail-end of the corridor’s explosion in the past decade.
“West Ocean City has become the restaurant hub of the region in the past five years, and with the growth of the [Tanger] Outlets, retail has been greatly improved. I think it’s the natural thing for hotels to follow that trend, but I think the really interesting thing will be watching what happens over the course of the next several winters.”
That notion may be the “rub” in the boom for the flag hotels. In most cases, unless a corporate hotel gets a special exception, it has to stay open year-round, which could do one of two things: spike rates in the summer time to compensate for empty rooms in the winter, which some say could create a rate war, or drive down prices in the winter time, which others predict, could draw visitors to town during the off-season and spike economic growth to the usually somewhat dormant seasonal economy.
“Offseason is tough because there isn’t a lot to do, so even if there are low rates offered at hotels, there is still that challenge of giving people things to do when they are here,” Dickerson said. “Ocean City is a completely different experience in December as it is in July.”
It’s The Right Time
To Build In West OC
Todd Ferrante, owner of Park Place Jewelers, bought the former Sea Isle Motel property in 2013. It had been used as seasonal housing for the Trimper Corporation for years.
Over the past several months, he has torn down the old motor-lodge motel to make way for retail and restaurant space that is eyeing a spring 2017 opening. He saw the need for that type of mixed usage for the property as he looked at the hotel growth all around the corridor.
“It’s a busy part of town that is growing rapidly,” said Ferrante, “and if there are going to be more people, they are going to need things to do.”
While Ferrante is still looking to fill some of the storefronts with tenants, he says the proper combination of businesses (some chains, some independents) will hopefully complement each other and the corridor well.
“Route 50 is immensely commercial and high traffic volume,” he said. “The chains have helped drive traffic to independent stores like mine, but once they come in the door, they realize that we can offer more personalized customer service than some of the chain stores, because we live in the community and have more of a vested interest in it.”
Ferrante points to the Francis Scott Key as an independent hotel that evolved with and reacted to the growth of the region, but admits not all businesses have the amount of land the Dickersons had to redevelop.
Still, Ferrante reluctantly admits West Ocean City may actually enjoy this current boom a bit more than the resort.
“Ocean City struggles for winter business, and I hate to say that, because I have a business in the resort as well, but I do think that West Ocean City could be better primed to capitalize off this hotel boom that we are seeing right now,” he said.
It Was Time To Most West
For many years, the Hooters on 123rd Street in Ocean City was the busiest and most profitable franchise store in the world during the summer months.
One could point to its migration to West Ocean City and the Boardwalk as major example of this boom along the Route 50 corridor.
“We had seen our numbers consistently going down on 123rd,” said Matthew Ortt, director of operations at Hooters, “but since going to West Ocean City, our numbers have risen steadily each and every year, with this past summer, being our best yet.”
But it wasn’t just more customers, it was the combination of locals and tourists that Ortt was most taken by.
“We feel like West Ocean City is becoming the new neighborhood for people, because more people are choosing to live off the island,” said Ortt. “I’m all for the hotel boom in West Ocean City because I think it will help solidify West OC as the central location in our region, and I think that those hotels, since they aren’t oceanfront, will be able to offer cheaper rooms, which will mean folks will have more disposable income to spend at places like ours. I think we are seeing a snowball effect, and we were lucky enough to be here at the beginning of it.”