By Donald Wittkowski
Thomas Giacinto, vice president of marketing for The Title Company of Jersey, was attired in a dark blue suit, cranberry-colored tie and black dress shoes.
Stacy Demcher, a realtor for Keller Williams Jersey Shore, wore a yellow print dress, black cardigan sweater and five-inch black heels.
They and other nattily dressed business people gathered on the Ocean City beach Friday afternoon, looking as if they were prepared to nail down some multimillion-dollar real estate deal. Giacinto even carried a binder for some seemingly important papers.
Minutes later, on cue from their leader, John Walton, an agent with Keller Williams who was wearing a $1,300 black suit and toting a briefcase, the business people began marching triumphantly down the beach toward the ocean. They didn’t stop until they were wading into the waves, in chest-deep water.
“Every year, I sacrifice a good pair of shoes,” Demcher exclaimed with a laugh, her dress and hair completely soaked.
In most places, they might call this type of behavior insanity. In Ocean City, it’s known as the Business Persons Plunge, a wacky annual celebration that marks the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. Dozens of business people march blithely into the surf to kick off what the city hopes will be a busy summer tourism season.
“It’s a lot of fun. Where else do you get to dress up, walk into the water and get wet?” Giacinto said.
Year after year, the Business Persons Plunge generates tons of free publicity and media coverage for Ocean City – just as Walton intended when he conceived of the event in 2004.
“This is one of the craziest, goofy, zany and most triumphant events that you’ll ever see. We really wanted to come up with something that was different than anything else on the island,” Walton explained.
Joining the business people in the colorful procession was a retinue of costumed characters, including a pirate, a mermaid and Ocean City’s hermit crab mascot, Martin Z. Mollusk. Hundreds of beachgoers looked on in amusement.
The ceremonies didn’t stop there. A host of dignitaries led by Mayor Jay Gillian and members of City Council officially opened the summer season by “unlocking” the beaches with a big, wooden key.
“Have fun. Enjoy Ocean City, and keep coming back,” Gillian said in brief remarks while beckoning the tourists.
Despite the comical atmosphere, there were some serious undertones to the event. The importance of the summer season to a tourist-dependent vacation resort can’t be overstated, business leaders stressed. So far, the early indicators suggest it will be a robust summer, they said.
Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted that beach tag sales are up, hotels and motels are virtually sold out for the holiday weekend and rental properties are stronger than last year.
“If the weather stays favorable, we should have a good summer,” she said. “All indicators are there for a very strong summer.”
Walton also had an enthusiastic outlook for the summer season. He said rental properties are sold out, real estate sales have soared in the past six weeks and occupancy rates in downtown Ocean City are at 95 percent.
“We have continued the boom with our downtown renaissance,” he said.
Friday had all the hallmarks of a busy summer day – a crowded Boardwalk, throngs of beachgoers and precious few open parking spaces throughout town.
Elaine Titus, a tourist from Carneys Point, Salem County, said her day trip to Ocean City on Friday was the first time she had visited the resort in 30 years. Titus and her family had once made Ocean City their favorite summer retreat, but began spending their vacations in Delaware in more recent years.
“I wanted to come back and see what it was like after 30 years,” Titus said. “It is certainly very clean. The fact that the city is so clean is very impressive.”
Titus and her boyfriend, Brian Stockton, were sitting on a Boardwalk bench, enjoying a gelato as an afternoon retreat. Titus was pleasantly surprised that the Boardwalk had been rebuilt. She also discovered Friday that the Route 52 Causeway, the main entrance into town, had been overhauled in 2012 with a whole new roadway and bridges.
Asked if it would be another 30 years before she returned to Ocean City again, Titus smiled and said, reassuringly, “I will be back.”
“When I was a young person, we would come here because it was a family resort. It’s still a good, family resort all these years later.”