- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Hotel rooms and house rentals are still available at nearby beaches although the summer season is at its peak. But that’s nothing new for beach officials, who have dealt with last-minute travelers for the past several years as the economy and weather continue to be the top factors driving vacation decisions.

“The travel trend in general has shifted to last minute,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “In the past, people have made advance reservations three to six months [out] because they’ve heard how busy it gets. Now some are waiting until the day of arrival.”

After its busiest July Fourth weekend in 10 years, Ocean City business has dropped slightly and officials are keeping their fingers crossed for the arrival of last-minute travelers.

Ocean City is targeting the undecided with a new radio campaign that began this week urging spur-of-the-moment and midweek travel to the beach town. The ads will run for two weeks in four markets within driving distance including Baltimore and Harrisburg, York and Lancaster, Pa.

“We’re offering great deals to boost tourism,” said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for Ocean City’s Department of Tourism.

On Ocean City’s official Web site, www.ococean.com, beach seekers can find deals including $25 off a three-or-more-night stay at the Princess Royale, a “budget special” at the Francis Scott Key Motel that offers a five-night stay for the price of four nights, and free dinner valued up to $17 for each night’s stay at the Dunes Motel.

Those deals have been hard to come by in the past — especially during the busiest months of the year, Ms. Jones said.

“Businesses are trying to make up for the losses they experienced during the wet, cool weather,” Ms. Abbott said.

Ocean City isn’t the only destination hoping to attract undecided travelers.

Beach towns up and down the coast had to deal with soggy weather at the start of the season. In addition, local travelers are following the national trend and waiting until the last minute before committing to vacation plans. Travelers can find deals across the board this late in the season.

“[Businesses] are trying to get the deals out there to reach the consumer and hopefully persuade them,” said Deborah DeYoung, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The economy — not the war, not SARS, not anything else — is driving people’s decision to travel.”

Ms. De Young also said gasoline prices, despite running about 10 cents higher than last year, are not affecting travel. A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the Washington area was $1.54 yesterday, according to AAA. A year ago, it was $1.42.

Ocean City officials say business began to bounce back during the record-breaking July Fourth weekend with close to 343,000 visitors.

“I think there was pent-up demand for summer weather,” Ms. Abbott said.

Ocean City, which is about a 150-mile drive from Washington, usually logs about 4 million visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Farther down the coast, Virginia Beach’s summer season is shaping up to be a good one, said Nancy Perry, executive director of the Virginia Beach Hotel Motel Association.

The resort city, which logs nearly 1.4 million visitors during the summer, is used to the last-minute travelers, she said. They are coming from driving markets like the Washington area, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“They don’t plan those trips months in advance,” Ms. Perry said.

Despite the full beaches and crowded weekends, Virginia Beach doesn’t expect “as strong a season as last year,” Ms. Perry said. After the September 11 terrorist attacks there was a “drive-market surge.”

Rentals at the beaches in Delaware and Maryland are “coming along on a steady pace,” said Jim Waggoner, vice president and director of resort rentals for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

During the onslaught of rain through June, Long & Foster, which has 1,275 properties on the beaches in Delaware and Maryland, had little business. As soon as the weather cleared, business picked up, Mr. Waggoner said.

“Weather impacts people making reservations,” he said.

Mr. Waggoner says his offices have had last-minute rentals for the past three summers — with some people calling to rent a property the day before they want to start their vacation.

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