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Maryland tourist destinations prepare for a boost in business

Visitors trying to shake off a particularly snowy winter and rainy spring could give a boost to Maryland's tourist destinations this summer.

Business owners and tourism officials are seeing signs of a healthy season before the traditional Memorial Day kickoff, thanks to an improving economy, growing consumer confidence and a series of high-profile events in vacation spots such as Ocean City and downtown Baltimore. Advance bookings for hotel rooms appear strong, with some weekends sold out, and restaurants and attractions are adding staff to meet anticipated demand.

"With the cold, bad weather, we all had more bills to pay, but everyone needs a break. Everyone needs a vacation, and that's what summer is all about," said William A. Gibbs, who owns the Breakers Hotel on Ocean City's boardwalk, as well as rental condominiums and four Dough Roller pizza restaurants in the beach town.

"Advance reservations have been very good," ahead of last year's preseason pace, Gibbs said. "I think it will be a little busier this year."

He already has booked his condo rentals for nearly all summer weeks, has few hotel rooms to spare in July, August and much of June, and has sold out for the weekend of Sunfest in September.

For the three-day Memorial Day weekend, some 250,000 people are expected to travel to the state's largest resort town, which gets 8 million visitors a year and 200,000 to 300,000 a week each summer, said Jessica Waters, communications manager for Ocean City.

Hotel room tax collections were up last June, July and August over 2012 levels, and the town is expecting the same or better this summer.

"We are optimistic about our summer," Waters said. "It's been a very cold, rough winter. People will be excited to put away the snow suits and bust out the flip flops and get out to the beach."

Baltimore officials also expect a strong summer, culminating with the largest event in the city's history — the Star-Spangled Spectacular, the 200th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the national anthem — even though this will be the first in three years without the Grand Prix to draw crowds and fill hotels on Labor Day weekend.

"The economy has recovered some. People are traveling more, and we're seeing some rate recovery," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau. "Tickets are up at the visitor center and venues in town."

Visitors, who numbered 23.5 million for all of 2012, will come to town in large numbers this summer as part of big conventions requiring multiple hotels. These events are expected to generate 66,000 attendees by the four largest groups — an Islamic Circle of North America annual convention over the Memorial Day weekend, the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June, the Firehouse Expo in July and the Otakon annual convention in August.

This weekend also brings the NCAA lacrosse championships. And the Orioles' matchups with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox always draw crowds. The Star-Spangled Spectacular is expected to bring at least 1.5 million people to the city over 10 days in September and generate spillover hotel business outside Baltimore, Noonan said.

The opening of the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore near M&T Bank Stadium later this summer also will lead to what Noonan calls a permanent uptick in visitor- and casino-related spending, such as hotel rooms purchased for high rollers.

Business at the Renaissance Harborplace hotel at the Inner Harbor is on pace with last year for Memorial Day weekend, said Richard Seale, director of hotel sales.

"It's still a little early to get a picture for the whole summer, because it's a short-term booking market," Seale said. But "looking ahead, we have an excellent June ahead of us for bookings in the hotel and we have a very good July as well," including a sold-out weekend when the Orioles play the Yankees in July. "We're a little behind in August, but that is farther out."

Business in June looks about 20 percent higher than last June, thanks to large citywide conventions, Seale added. Occupancy rates in the summer typically hover around 90 percent, and many of the guests who come for vacations as opposed to business are repeat visitors, he said.

The optimism comes at a time when the U.S. hotel sector is in its fifth consecutive year of growth as measured by revenue per available room, according to STR. The Tennessee-based travel research firm expects the revenue measure to grow 6 percent this year, up from a 5.4 percent increase in 2013.

In the Baltimore hotel market, revenue per available room has increased during the summer months every year since 2011, except for one dip comparing July 2011 and July 2012, according to the research.

"If you look at the industry in general and how it has started off in 2014, it's a little stronger than people thought it would be for the first four months," said Bobby Bowers, senior vice president of operations for STR. "The economy … is moving in the right direction. It seems like people are getting a little more confident."

In one positive sign in lodging, the mid-priced hotels and budget hotels are starting to join the luxury hotels in recovering from the recession.

"When you see that, it shows that not only those at the upper end with more income and means to travel, not only are they traveling, but those more at the middle to lower end of the economic spectrum that haven't been able to participate, they're beginning to see some light," Bowers said.

Phillips Seafood, which has restaurants at Baltimore's Inner Harbor and in Ocean City, has been gearing up for the summer season by hiring extra staff as well as promoting itself to members of hotel concierge associations and cab drivers through happy hour and lunch events, said Michelle Torres, corporate marketing director.

"We want to be top of mind to those frontline staffs," Torres said.

This year, Phillips has an added challenge of dealing with short supplies of crab. The company has responded by promoting other seafood menu items such as oysters, clams, mussels and shrimp.

"We'll have crabs, but we may not have them every day, all day long," Torres said.

The biggest question mark for both Ocean City and Baltimore could be the weather. Hotels and restaurants that rely on summer tourists are at the mercy of the weather and cancellations that come with rain and storms.

At the Castle in the Sand Hotel in Ocean City, reservations are up a bit over last year, especially in June, said owner Adam L. Showell

"We still have some rooms to sell over Memorial weekend, but we are starting to fill in," he said. A lot of it is dependent on the weather forecast and that's good now, so we're starting to fill in the last 10 to 20 percent of the rooms."

The resort town, like Baltimore, is increasingly relying on big events to draw crowds. Showell said his hotel counts on a major Ravens fan club event each summer, and events such as air shows and a firefighters convention. Over the years, vacationers have planned ahead less and counted on online booking to find a last-minute hotel deal, Showell said.

"The summertime in July and August, there still are plenty of vacancies, but it's on pace with last year, which was a good year for us," with record business in July and August and occupancy at 96 percent and higher, Showell said. "We feel confident it's going to be a good year."

"There is more demand. Travel is up across the nation and around the world, and Ocean City is feeling the benefit of people really wanting to take a vacation after a cold and snowy winter."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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