I recently returned from my annual pilgrimage to Ocean City with sand in my shoes and some thoughts for a gubernatorial task force looking to improve stagnant tourism at the state's most popular resort.
The thoughts are offered from the perspective of someone who first visited Ocean City 30 years ago as a teen-ager; worked there as a college student and continue to visit as an adult father of two. In other words, a perspective of age as well as affection.
* Make a concerted effort to increase African-American visitors.
It is striking -- almost jarring -- to see how few blacks there are at the beach, especially given its proximity to large black populations in the Baltimore and Washington areas. If blacks make up 1 percent of the visitors to Ocean City at any given time, that would be a lot. It's a situation that I have seen change scarcely, if at all, in at least three decades. It's also a situation whose reasons are deeply rooted in history and culture.
Historically, the Eastern Shore was the among the state's most conservative and, yes, racist areas. It's little wonder that in years past blacks, in choosing a vacation destination, would be reluctant to seek out an area with such a deep-seated history of inhospitality. It's also folly to assume that vestiges of those racist attitudes no longer exist among at least some of those who work at, visit or own businesses at the beach.
Culturally, perceptions of what the beach is about have been shaped for a couple of generations now by such popular white-oriented visual and aural images as the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon movie "Beach Blanket Bingo" and the Beach Boys' ode to blond hair and suntans, "California Girls."
That's admittedly a lot of baggage to overcome, but it's no reason not to try. Increasing the number of blacks in ads; targeting advertising to the black community and stepping up efforts to increase state and regional black conventions could be some places to start. At the very least, Ocean City should devote the same time and resources to promoting itself to the black community in the future as it has to promoting itself as a year-round resort in the past.
* Encourage businesses to hold the line on prices -- or roll them back.
Besides the ocean, Ocean City used to have two main things going for it, especially for Marylanders: it was nearby and it wasn't expensive.
The resort hasn't gotten any further away; in fact, with the state's "Reach the Beach" program it might actually be easier to get to than it was a decade ago. But prices have gone through the roof. Dinner for four at the landmark Phillips Restaurant can run $75 to $80; you can stay at upscale resorts like Hilton Head for not much more than the cost of an oceanfront room in Ocean City. Indeed, Ocean City has long been known as one of those places that can separate people from their money as quickly as possible. The problem is, it used to be a joke; now it's too close to reality.
It's impossible to know how many potential visitors, daunted by high prices, shun the resort entirely or shorten their stay. It's also impossible to know how many take advantage of low air fares to go somewhere else, figuring that once they get where they're going the cost on the ground is going to be about the same. The fact is, Ocean City is no longer the inexpensive, in-state vacation it once was. It should at least begin to return to that.
Similarly, the better hotels should abandon their insistence on three-night minimum stays; it feeds a perception of a rip-off. Let those who want to stay two nights do so and they may come back for three or more next time; make them stay for three and they may not come at all -- or bother to return.
* Appreciate Ocean City for what it is.
All beach resorts are not created equal. Most of my yuppie friends and colleagues who vacation at the beach seem to prefer the serenity of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Ocean City's never going to lure the visitor whose idea of a beach vacation is a secluded stretch of sand, a weathered beach house by the water -- and nothing to do after the sun goes down but watch the stars. Ocean City's decision not to be that was made decades ago. There's no going back.
What Ocean City does offer is more on the order of a seaside honky-tonk heaven, where you can walk the beach at dawn in relative solitude but also have your choice of a good Szechuan dinner or strawberry crepes after finishing up a round of miniature golf, a T-shirt shopping spree on the boardwalk or dancing at a packed rock club at midnight. Yet Ocean City seldom emphasizes its bustling aspects; to the contrary, it sometimes seems embarrassed by them. How about an ad campaign suggesting that even if you don't go near the water, you can still have a helluva time?
* Recognize that times have changed.
In an era of increased concern about cholesterol levels and skin cancer, two of the beach's principal attractions seem curiously out of touch: fried foods and frying bodies. Ocean City needs to make more of an effort to demonstrate that fitness and a beach vacation are not incompatible. One suggestion: sponsor regular weekend competitive and family 5-K runs weekend mornings on the beach.
In the best traditions of Ocean City, you could even offer specially designed T-shirts to the winners.