It’s long been a tradition for attorneys, law students, partners and others in Maryland’s legal profession to head to the beach each summer for seminars, socializing and sun.
But the Maryland Bar Association’s annual convention in Ocean City became yet another facet of life interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The convention returned in-person last year, but below pre-COVID numbers.
This year, with growing attendance, the event appears back on track.
“This event had been such a tradition that folks just planned on it every year,” said Anna S. Sholl, the bar association’s executive director.
She expects it to take a couple of years to fully recover, but “already in Year Two we’re seeing stronger registration than in Year One coming back. I think that will continue to grow,” she said. “People have grown more comfortable with being able to be out and in larger crowds.”
In Maryland’s largest resort town, the summer convention business is rebounding, with attendance expected to outpace last summer’s for many groups.
Convention goers are flocking to Ocean City at a time when its convention center is poised for a major renovation, several large hotels are upgrading or changing hands, and the town has rolled out a new branding campaign along with new festivals and events.
“We are definitely seeing an upswing with inquiries,” said Kim Mueller, director of sales for Ocean City, including business at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. “People are ready to get back to face-to-face meetings. Attendance is growing.”
The convention center’s summer lineup, starting June 7, includes groups such as the bar association, the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, the Maryland Municipal League, the American Legion Department of Maryland, a Greek festival by St. George Greek Orthodox Church, and the Maryland Association of Counties, among others. Besides meetings, the convention center will host performances in its performing arts center, including the musical “Rock of Ages,” a tribute to 1980s glam metal bands, for two nights in June. The three-day Ocean’s Calling music festival will close out the summer season.
Though the “shoulder” spring and fall months represent high convention season, Ocean City’s hotels and restaurants depend on summer conventions to complement the vacationers who fill the resort town during June, July and August.
Conventions going forward likely will include COVID-related adaptations, such as use of mobile apps instead of paper for registration, schedules and other conference materials, as well as more reliance on outdoors space for receptions and happy hour gatherings.
Mueller said final convention attendance numbers are not in yet, but she estimates figures will be close to or only slightly behind the strong numbers of summer 2019.
Since then, changes have been underway in the beach town, with investments in hotels and restaurants that officials expect will contribute to boosting the convention business.
The former Ocean City Fontainebleau Resort reopened earlier this month under new ownership as the 250-room Ashore Resort & Beach Club, with new restaurants, a 3,000-square foot deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, 14 meeting rooms with indoor and outdoor space, and a ballroom for up to 1,000 people.
The former Dunes Manor Hotel has been renovated and is reopening as a Hilton Garden Inn. The Fenwick Inn on Coastal Highway underwent a major renovation. The Embers Restaurant, a re-imagining of the original Embers buffet, had a grand opening May 12 as part of a multistory dining complex on Philadelphia Avenue.
The convention center has expanded, opening 30,000 square feet of additional exhibit space and a 15,000-square-foot bay front gallery in January 2022. A full interior renovation, the first in more than 25 years, will begin in June, and is slated for completion by the end of next year.
And this year the town has rebranded itself as “Somewhere to Smile About,” a campaign unveiled earlier this month to draw everyone from “hard-working families to urban professionals” who want to get away from the stresses of life by visiting beaches, amusement parks and golf courses.
The Maryland Bar Association has held a summer convention in Ocean City for more than two decades, either at a large hotel such as the Clarion or at the convention center. The group returned in person last summer for the first time since 2020, moving to the convention center after outgrowing its space at the former Clarion.
Things were starting to get back to normal at the 2022 event, but some speakers and instructors had to cancel due to coronavirus exposures and quarantine requirements. Some attorneys who’d planned to come had to back out because of schedules overloaded with cases from the previous years’ court cancellations. The event’s attendance was down about 25% last year from pre-pandemic.
This year, the group already has exceeded last year’s registration with a few weeks left to go, Sholl said.
About 1,000 participants and exhibitors are expected for the June event. It will feature about 70 educational sessions in a range of practice areas, exhibitors and social events at places such as 45th Street Taphouse Bar & Grille and Dry Dock 28. The group has arranged for blocks of rooms at the Hilton Ocean City Oceanfront Suites, DoubleTree by Hilton and Aloft Ocean City, with options at about a dozen other hotels.
“Ocean City offers a lot of opportunities for our members that might like to make this a family getaway, as well,” Sholl said. “We’ve held this event in Ocean City for so long we have not really contemplated other places. … We like to keep the event within Maryland and there’s only so many locations that can really offer the amount of space that we need.”
The Ashore, where renovations are wrapping up and all facilities should be open by early summer, hopes to attract groups by marketing the property as a “resort experience,” said Katie Cosgrove, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
“We’re allowing all these groups to stay on site for everything they need during their time in Ocean City,” Cosgrove said. “Our calendar for the month of June is extremely busy with conferences and conventions.”
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Besides hosting its own events, the hotel participates in “citywide” conventions that book the convention center by offering room blocks and overflow space for meetings.
This summer, the Ashore will benefit from resort-wide events such as the Ocean City Air Show, to take place June 10-11, and is planning a special meet-and-greet for its guests with air show pilots.
“Everyone is getting back to meeting in person, doing these conventions and corporate retreats for their employees,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve seen a lot of new business start to send in proposals for the next ‘24, ‘25 and ‘26. … It’s definitely something that will continue to grow.”
Theresa Kuhns, CEO of the Maryland Municipal League, which represents government officials and workers in 157 cities and towns and two special taxing districts, has seen that renewed interest in her organization’s convention registration numbers.
Already registration for this year’s event, to be held June 23-28, has outpaced last year’s numbers, which set a record with more than 1,500 people, Kuhns said. The group’s reserved room blocks have sold out at about half of the 15 hotels.
The conference centers around education and training, and has been held in Ocean City since 1971, though it was virtual in 2020 and 2021.
“We’re ready to get back in person, engaging with one another, connecting and learning again,” Kuhns said. “it’s time to get back on track.”