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Ocean City

Wow! What a Sunfest that turned into

(Sept. 26, 2014) Sunfest brought a crowd of 234,474 through the inlet arch last weekend, slashing attendance records by thousands.

Trolleys make their way under the Sunfest arch during the parade that launched the 40th annual Sunfest at the inlet last Thursday. (Clara Vaughn | Ocean City Today)

More than 300 arts and crafts exhibitors, food vendors and live bands greeted patrons during the four-day kick off to Ocean City’s “second season.” With its highest attendance ever, the festival brought nearly 47,000 more visitors through its inlet arch than it did last year and was well above the five-year average of 175,299 visitors.

“We had outstanding vendors, great entertainment, fabulous weather and the largest attendance in the event’s history,” said Frank Miller, director of Ocean City’s Special Events department. “It was a picture perfect weekend and an outstanding event for the Town of Ocean City.”

The free festival of food, music and shopping kicked off a picturesque early autumn weekend last Thursday with a parade down the Boardwalk, followed by an opening ceremony and ribbon cutting by local officials. For the rest of the weekend, bands rocked the Sunfest stage, food vendors dished out delicacies and exhibitors peddled wares from under giant white tents in the inlet lot.

Headlining act Rick Springfield played to a sold-out crowd of 1,750 in the Comcast Entertainment Pavilion Saturday night. More than 1,500 purchased tickets to see the Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley perform Thursday night and 1,444 paid to see country superstars Parmalee and Eric Paslay play Friday. Ticket sales were roughly comparable to 2013’s headlining act sales.

No one interviewed was sure why the crowds swelled quite so large this year, but all agreed the weather as a factor forcing Sunfest’s success.

“I think the weather definitely helped,” said Susan Jones, executive director for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “It was a fantastic weekend — very strong.”

Of its 108 member hotels’ 9,500 rooms, approximately 60 percent sold out for the weekend, Jones said.

Business “was slightly higher than normal,” said Will Savage, manager of the Majestic Hotel on Seventh Street. The 52-room building on the boards filled its rooms Friday and Saturday and was about half-full Thursday, he said.

“This weekend, we’re typically just filling up on Saturday,” Savage said. “I would say that’s all weather-based.”

The Harrison Group booked more of its 1,455 hotel rooms during Sunfest this year than last, said Marketing and Advertising Director Cheryl Simmons. Friday and Saturday bookings left less than three percent of the hotels’ space available and on Sunday, Harrison’s hotels sold 166 more rooms than in 2013.

“It was good weather, it was the end of the summer — a lot of people got out,” Simmons said, adding that the group bumped up its marketing slightly through social media, including Facebook posts and a blog article, and on its own website.

Demoflush numbers, which use wastewater usage to estimate the city’s population, showed a similar increase in town over 2013. Friday’s population was up 5 percent while Saturday and Sunday showed an increase of 2 percent over 2013.

One area that wasn’t up was bus ridership. With most of the inlet lot occupied by the festival takeover, parking is limited at Sunfest and the town encourages attendees to take one of several low-cost shuttles.

Visitors took about 1,000 fewer rides this Sunfest Thursday through Sunday compared to those days last year, although about 2,000 more took the shuttle on Saturday, according to Ocean City Public Works Transportation Department numbers.

Sunfest has earned a number of accolades over the years, including the top spot in Sunshine Artist magazine’s annual 200 best shows list for 2014.

At least one vendor decided to try Sunfest for the first time this year based on those ratings.

“It is rated in all our trade magazines as the No. 1 show,” said Elaine Bond, who brought Not Sisters Two’s one-of-a-kind leather and fabric handbags to the show for the first time this year.

“We had an outstanding Sunfest, celebrating the 40th anniversary with record-breaking crowds,” said Jessica Waters, communications manager for the Town of Ocean City. “Our special events staff wanted to make the 40th anniversary a memorable one and thanks to a great weekend from Mother Nature and the hard work of our staff, that is exactly what they have done.”

The 41st annual Sunfest is slated for Sept. 24-27, 2015.  For more information or to sign up to receive email updates from the Town of Ocean City’s Special Events department, visit www.oceancitymd.gov/Recreation_and_Parks/specialevents.html.

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