Gary Figgs started working at Seacrets in Ocean City as a doorman in 1990 and now serves as the business’ vice president and chief financial officer.
In his 24 seasons at Seacrets, which includes a restaurant, night club and hotel, Figgs has learned that in the shore town’s hospitality- and tourism-driven economy, much depends on the weather, availability of a college-aged workforce and school schedules.
When the weather is nice, Seacrets does about 70 percent of its business — which spikes between Memorial Day and Labor Day — outside.
If it’s a particularly rainy summer season — like Ocean City experienced in 2013 — business will be slower, Figgs said.
“Obviously, we try to take you to Jamaica when you’re here, so unfortunately when it rains, it really messes our day up,” he said.
Overall, Ocean City draws about 8 million visitors annually, with 4.2 million of those staying between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.
The nonprofit trade group launched in 1971 and now has 200 hotels and restaurants as members and 150 allied members.
She said the school calendar presents a challenge for her members because when many colleges resume classes — often before Labor Day — hotels and restaurants lose their employees before the season has ended.
Many employers have come to rely on the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, in which the U.S. State Department grants visas for work- and study-based exchange visitor programs.
Jones said her members use about 4,500 students through the cultural exchange program.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to fill these seasonal positions,” she said.
Figgs said that over the past five years, as colleges have begun their academic years earlier, “what happens to us is that the second to third week of August, we start losing our help.”
Overall, Ocean City businesses are looking to fill about 10,000 positions over the summer, according to Melanie A. Pursel, executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
“Ocean City has become a model for facilitating that program,” she said, in part by establishing a seasonal workforce committee that helps drive the J-1 program.
Greg Remeikis, a partner at Cohn Reznick in Baltimore, where he leads the hospitality practice, is working with the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and said the industry’s major obstacles include the limited window of time — about 12 to 13 weeks — in which the bulk of business is done.
What that comes down to, he said, is actually an eight-to-nine-week window of “true value,” where companies are going to earn their revenue. For example, he said, some families may not hit the beach until July 4. And on the back end, visitors are similarly affected like the workforce.
“The school calendar seems to definitely have been moved up in the last decade or so. More people are leaving earlier than they used to 20 years ago,” Jones said.
Hotels and restaurants, Remeikis said, also are working with a finite number of guests.
“You have to be able to generate more profit from the same number of guests,” Remeikis said. “It comes down to really looking at the ability to increase the average check price.”
For example, he said, restaurant staff can be trained to upsell by adding a glass of wine or an appetizer to a meal.
This can be a challenge as well, he said, since hotels and restaurants in Ocean City could be dealing with a new staff every year due to the turnover in seasonal employees. That turnover is a drain on time and resources for firms.
“One of the things we do as a firm is to specialize in helping people craft their corporate culture — including how to blend that with a solid training program that’s going to allow for them to have servers that are looking out for the organization as a whole and looking to drive revenue,” Remeikis said.
Pursel said there is a lot of turnover, even in management positions.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but I think our businesses are really dynamic and have figured out how to get it to work,” she said.
The chamber also is working to help its members, having recently submitted a grant application with the Maryland Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation for an EARN grant to help the chamber establish a supervisory training program for the hospitality industry. Pursel said the training would be a four-day boot camp of sorts.
“As a seasonal town, there are always going to be challenges, and you have to figure out how to work around them,” Jones said.