Visitor Statistics Show Late October Sunfest A Success

Visitor Statistics Show Late October Sunfest A Success
Attendees are pictured at this year's Sunfest. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – While most agree moving a modified Sunfest to late October this year was a critical success for a variety of reasons, statistics presented last week appear to bear it out.

The Ocean City Tourism Commission last week got a look at some of the visitation and visitor spending statistics from Sunfest, which was moved to the end of October earlier this year, and the numbers appear positive. Sunfest, created 47 years ago as a means to extend the summer season, has traditionally been held on the third weekend in September, providing a crescendo of sorts for the summer season.

Earlier this year, however, town officials approved moving Sunfest back to October 20-23 for a variety of reasons, including an already-heavy lineup of special events in September including the new three-day Oceans Calling music festival set for the traditional Sunfest weekend.

Moving Sunfest back to late October was met with some consternation from traditionalists, but the date change, at least for this year, proved prophetic. Oceans Calling, a three-day music festival featuring a strong lineup of national acts, was ultimately washed out by the remnants of a hurricane combined with a traditional nor’easter on the same weekend the town would have traditionally hosted Sunfest.

Instead, Sunfest was held in late October and opened amid crystal clear skies and warm temperatures for the most part. Sunday of Sunfest weekend was canceled because of the threat of heavy rain and high winds, but for the first three days at least, the event drew near-record crowds and was well-received by residents and visitors alike.

Heretofore, the success of the later Sunfest was largely anecdotal, but last week, the tourism commission got a look at some metrics that confirmed the date change was well-received. Last year, the town contracted with a private destination data collection software company, Zartico, to track visitation for various special events and throughout the year including where visitors are traveling from and what their spending habits are when they reach the resort. Zartico’s Chief Revenue Officer Dave Bahlman last week presented some of the company’s data collected during what would have been Oceans Calling weekend through other special event weekends in October including the modified Sunfest weekend, and the results were somewhat surprising.

For example, moving Sunfest to the late October dates resulted in a 153% increase in visitor spending for that weekend compared to the same dates last year. There was an overall increase in visitation to the resort of 12%, including a 22% increase in overnight visitation, according to the numbers presented by Bahlman.

“Moving Sunfest into October yielded strong year-over-year results,” he said. “There was a 153% increase in visitor spending compared to the same weekend in the previous year of 2021.”

In addition to the date change, the Sunfest format was modified significantly this year. After the pandemic, the annual event was modified to better spread out visitors and vendors, and the free live music elements were scaled back to an open-air stage featuring largely local and regional performers.

The end result was a three-day festival centered in the Inlet parking lot as always, along with numerous other events on the beach and Boardwalk associated with the annual fall OCtoberfest. Special Events Director Frank Miller said the traditional concept for Sunfest was not drastically changed this year, but simply moved later in the calendar in a modified format and the proof was in the pudding.

“Sunfest has been, and continues to be, an anchor event to our summer season,” he said. “Its history is routed in the opportunity to extend the season in Ocean City and this year was no exception. What we saw from talking to patrons, vendors and through our research is that holding the event in October presented a weekend of visitation that was not likely considered before.”

Miller said the intent was to retain all of the elements of the traditional Sunfest event that visitors and residents have grown to love over 47 years, while creating new opportunities to enjoy late October in the resort. He said the modified format and date changes were highly successful for the most part, despite losing Sunday to bad weather.

“The new layout, combined with the addition of the OCtoberfest events, Dock Dogs and other added value events made Sunfest feel like a brand-new experience with the same classic charm,” he said. “The new dates and added elements did exactly what we hoped they would do and expanded the Ocean City experience and our shoulder season for residents and visitors alike.”

Based on the anecdotal evidence, and the statistics presented last week to the tourism commission, it appears Sunfest will be coming back on the same late October dates next year. Marketing and Communications Director Jessica Waters confirmed as much following Sunfest weekend in October.

“As always, we anticipate the evaluation of Sunfest and all of our events for future planning,” she said. “However, our plans are to continue with Sunfest on this weekend, October 19-22, 2023. A few tweaks here and there will improve the experience, but overall, patrons had a very positive experience.”

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.