- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Area beach officials were bummed with this summer’s disappointing turnout.

Hotel and tourism officials blame different factors for the lackluster season including the weather, the economy and number of destinations competing for the same vacationers.

“It was disappointing,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “It’s not the strongest year we had, but we did OK.”

The season started and ended strong for beach towns such as Ocean City and Virginia Beach.

But July and August — the busiest time of the season — didn’t draw the crowds that officials had desired. Ocean City had about 4 million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day — slightly more than last year.

Vacationers still booked rooms, rented condos and walked the boardwalk, but it wasn’t like the banner years of the past — particularly in the late 1990s. Hotel vacancy signs — a rarity in the middle of summer — could be seen along Ocean City’s Coastal Highway.

Of course, weather — the biggest enemy at a beachfront resort — didn’t help. In addition to rainy days in July and August, the summer never had sweltering heat, which usually draws the masses to the beach.

But officials say competition is definitely heating up and drawing people away from their resorts.

“There are a lot of other options and people are taking advantage,” Ms. Jones said.

Vacationers continue to shop around, searching for the best values and destinations.

Orlando, Fla., home of Disney World, has been riding a wave of increased visitors since last year. The summer was no different, although the official numbers are not in yet.

Domestic and international arrivals are expected to increase 6.7 percent to 48 million visitors this year, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.

This summer, Americans were expected to take 334 million trips more than 50 miles from home — a 3.2 percent increase from last year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Going to the beach was expected to be the second-most popular activity, after visiting friends and family.

“Travel has been up all across the country,” said Sue Akey of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “People are getting out there and that reflects the economy and job security. When you are more confident with your job and income, you tend to travel more.”

AAA members said they were traveling this summer because of the improved economy, airline discounts and increased confidence in security, she added.

“People are gaining trust back in the system,” said Nancy Perry, executive director of the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association. “They aren’t so afraid to fly anymore.”

That, coupled with the airlines’ deep discounts, is bad news for area drive-to destinations. Virginia Beach, about 200 miles from Washington, did not have the turnout hoteliers had forecast.

“It hasn’t been horrible, but it was somewhat disappointing,” Ms. Perry said.

Ms. Jones says Ocean City is also up against destinations with much bigger advertising budgets, which allows them to reach more people and draw more business.

Ocean City’s $1.2 million annual advertising budget — smaller than some of the budgets for the town’s individual businesses — is partly to blame for the season’s turnout.

“Our competitors are outspending us,” Ms. Jones said.

Virginia Beach, for example, has a $6.7 million budget and introduced a new ad campaign this past spring. It’s too early to tell the effect of the campaign, but Internet requests for more information have increased more than 30 percent compared with last year.

Beach officials are optimistic that fall events will bring in more traffic during the cooler months. Ocean City, for example, will host its annual Sunfest Sept. 23-26, which usually attracts about 200,000 people. Last year the annual event was canceled because of Hurricane Isabel.

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