Officials Explain Why Sunfest Pushed Back To October

Officials Explain Why Sunfest Pushed Back To October
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — One of the most significant changes from the closed session meetings addressing an unsanctioned motorized event is moving the signature Sunfest event to the first weekend in October this fall.

Following a spirited Mayor and Council meeting after another troublesome unsanctioned motorized special event last September, resort officials promised everything was on the table in terms of possible solutions to the reckless activity and embarked on a series of closed session meetings throughout much of the fall and early winter to explore remedies.

In the months since the unsanctioned H2O International (H2Oi) event wreaked havoc in Ocean City again, law enforcement officials and the Mayor and Council have been working in earnest, albeit behind closed doors, to explore and any all alternatives to curtail some of the behavior associated with the event.

For the record, the official H2Oi event, featuring tricked-out Volkswagens and Audis, for example, has been held for the last few years in Atlantic City. However, in the years since the official event moved from its venue in northern Worcester County to Atlantic City, hundreds of enthusiasts continue to show up in Ocean City during the last weekend in September and the outcome has not changed, but rather has gotten worse.

On Tuesday, resort officials announced the first of likely many attempts to rectify problems associated with the unsanctioned motorized special event. Because of a Leap Year calendar adjustment, and perhaps more importantly because of the understanding many of the unsanctioned motorized event’s participants are planning on coming during Sunfest weekend this year, resort officials announced the annual fall festival will be moved to the first weekend in October. The annual Wine Fest, which has typically conflicted with the H2Oi weekend, will now be held the last weekend of September.

In the aftermath of the pop-up unsanctioned event last September, it became evident through social media many of the unsanctioned motorized special event participants were considering moving their annual pilgrimage to Ocean City to Sunfest weekend in 2020. For 46 years, Sunfest, the annual celebration of live music, arts and crafts, food and drink and everything Ocean City has to offer in the second season has been held on the third weekend in September after Labor Day.

As a result, Sunfest will be moved to the first weekend in October in 2020 with the festival set for Oct. 1-4. Resort officials couched the change in terms of traffic concerns, public safety and event staffing challenges if both events were held on the same weekend.

“Sunfest has been a signature September event for nearly five decades,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Nevertheless, there is still a lot to love about being in Ocean City in October. I think the vendors and guests will be pleasantly surprised by an extension of the season and a fresh new date for one of Ocean City’s largest events.”

Indeed, Sunfest is one of Ocean City’s largest special events with last year’s festival drawing a record number of 317,419 visitors, by far blowing away the record 268,406 that attended Sunfest in 2018. The new 317,000-plus visitors last year topped the previous record by nearly 50,000.

While switching Sunfest to the first weekend of October this year might mean little in terms of the picture-perfect weather often associated with the event, there could be logistical issues to consider. Many of the annual visitors to the festival likely have already planned to come on the traditional late September weekend and some may have already booked accommodations. In addition, many of the vendors who set up shop at Sunfest each year work the special event circuit throughout the region and might find the new dates conflicting with other scheduled events already in the books.

Nonetheless, it’s no secret the annual unsanctioned pop-up motorized event presents challenges for Ocean City, and Meehan acknowledged those issues contributed to the decision to change the Sunfest dates in 2020, although he asserted it was not the sole reason.

“We have a responsibility to preserve our signature event,” he said this week. “However, our biggest responsibility is the safety of our residents and visitors. Based on public safety and staffing needs, we believe this change is beneficial to all residents and visitors of Ocean City.”

Word of the Sunfest date changes for 2020 spread quickly this week, prompting the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) to send out a blast email to members on Wednesday directing them on how best to handle the changes.

“Naturally, we have been receiving oodles of calls concerning moving Sunfest to the first weekend of October,” the email from OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones reads. “Change is never easy, though sometimes it turns out for the best. There are many reasons the Mayor and Council thoughtfully moved the date of the town’s signature event.”

The OCHMRA email blast attempts to assure members city staffers are already working out the logistics of the date changes for Sunfest.

“Rest assured, Special Events Director Frank Miller is communicating with the Sunfest vendors,” the email reads. “While there may be some who cannot participate because of the new date, rest assured that was taken into account when making the decision. There has been a long vendor waiting list, so there will be quality vendors who come on the new dates. Entertainment has not yet been thoroughly booked, so no worries there.”

The OCHMRA email characterizes the date change as a necessary adjustment because of leap year, but also as a proactive move to prevent a potential “collision” with the unsanctioned motorized event.

“2020 is a leap year and as such there are many shifts in the calendar, one of them being the collision of two large events,” the email reads. “Take a minute to think about how your Sunfest guests would react if they came for a peaceful fall weekend at the Inlet and couldn’t even get to the Inlet because of the traffic. Envision Sunfest and Bikefest on the same weekend. Ocean City couldn’t possibly handle the traffic and crowds if they occurred simultaneously. With there being no promoter of the other motor event, which lands at the end of September, the town was proactive in shifting their event.”

Finally, the OCHMRA email coaches members on how best to present the date changes for Sunfest in a light most positive, pointing out Sunfest and unofficial H2Oi event both attract “large crowds” and “ca not co-exist and Leap year allowed the town to proactively shift the calendar.”

The email states, “While you are going to be quite busy making phone calls and shifting reservations, perhaps you could use some thoughts to share with guests. Given the long lead time, with reservation changes it is our hope that you will work with your guests and allow them to move their dates without penalty. How you and your staff handle reservation changes is truly important. Let’s help our guests understand the reasoning behind the shift. Handling situations with positivity always provides a better outcome.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.