Merchants set records as Sailabration boosts city business

Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point ran out of hot dogs, potato salad and macaroni salad and scrambled to replenish all weekend as hordes of hungry Sailabration visitors jammed the popular diner.

Even on Monday, as rain moved in after days of sunshine, the crowds kept coming on the last full day of the Star-Spangled Sailabration, which kicked off the two-year commemoration of the War of 1812.


"It's been the greatest thing to happen in the city as far back as we can remember," said Jimmy Filipidis, whose father owns the restaurant on South Broadway. Filipidis estimated a 25 percent increase in business from the event compared with a normal weekend.

His sentiments echoed those of business owners and managers across the city Monday.


The weeklong event — with 40 visiting tall ships and naval vessels plus air shows by the Navy's Blue Angels and other attractions — drew hundreds of thousands of people to Baltimore's waterfront and gave a boost to shops, restaurants, bars and hotels in areas well beyond downtown and the Inner Harbor.

Business operators and city officials said Sailabration showed the city at its best and appeared to have come off without a hitch.

Allie Wolf, co-owner of the Amaryllis jewelry store in Harbor East, thought she'd seen the biggest Harborplace crowds of her life more than three decades ago, when the twin pavilions opened and her mother opened a store there.

"It was great for Baltimore, and that spills over," Wolf said of Sailabration. "The city looked good, and the weather was beautiful. Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect. People came out who hadn't been downtown, and now they've experienced downtown, so it's great for that."

The size of the crowd was likely in the hundreds of thousands, though city fire officials had not finalized an estimate by Monday and couldn't say whether it hit a million, said Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department.

"It's the busiest tourism weekend we've had, perhaps ever," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city's visitor and convention bureau, since 2007. "It was just a massive showcase weekend for the city. Everywhere you went there were masses of people. It's hard to compare it to anything. …

"I've never seen that many people at the harbor."

About 24,000 people stopped in the city's visitor center at the Inner Harbor between Thursday and Sunday, a record for the center, Noonan said.


Hotels all over the city reported strong business from Thursday to Sunday, with some sold out, he said. Other attractions reporting visitor increases to the bureau included harbor cruises, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and Port Discovery.

The group overseeing the event, the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, expects to have visitation and economic impact estimates by September, said Bill Pencek, its executive director. The commission hired Forward Analytics, a Pittsburgh-based tourism market research firm, to evaluate the Sailabration numbers, he said.

Many merchants on Monday, however, said the event appeared to be one of the biggest, attendance-wise, that they had ever witnessed.

Several businesses said the crowds led to record sales.

"We didn't know what to expect. We had no idea," said George Sakellaris from behind the counter of his Aliceanna Street boutique, Handbags in the City. Many Harbor East hotel guests and plenty of passersby strolled into his shop — so many that business was double that of a typical weekend, he said.

Lunch and dinner business was strong at Kali's Court, a seafood restaurant in Fells Point, and at three casual restaurants — Mezze, Meli and Adela — under the same ownership group, said Eric Losin, a partner in Kali's Court. The restaurants had more walk-in business than usual both Saturday and Sunday and customers waited for tables, he said.


"All four were very strong last week to Sunday," Losin said. "There aren't too many events like this. It's a good way to start the summer."

The scope of the event, with ships docked from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point, lured crowds along the waterfront promenade, spreading the event's impact, Losin said.

Hundreds of visitors came to the city by boat and stayed for much of the week. Dan Naor, owner of Baltimore Marine Centers, which runs five marinas around the Inner Harbor and in Canton, estimated that most of the centers' 1,200 boat slips were occupied. That included 350 transit boat slips that were booked for three-night minimum stays as of two months ago.

Naor estimated that some 10,000 people stayed on boats in his marinas during Sailabration.

"We had a really great weekend from a business point of view," Naor said. Of the permanent boat slip owners, "almost everyone who owned those spaces came and spent the weekend on the boat. It was a very unique event. The combination of the tall ships and the Navy ships with the air show was amazing."

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership, said many of her group's members broke records, including Power Plant businesses such as Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which set a sales record for the chain on Saturday, and Dick's Last Resort, which reported a 129 percent increase compared with the same weekend last year.


The Rusty Scupper's business rose 30 percent over its record high for any week in its history at the harbor, Schwartz said. And, she added, the Oasis lemonade stall in the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace had its best day in 32 years.

"The main attractions were all free," Schwartz said. "The promenade was packed, every bench taken, every restaurant filled, each parking spot occupied. Yet the weekend was incident-free. The level of pride people felt and experienced this weekend is just priceless."

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson contributed to this article.