By Donald Wittkowski
As usual, he will wear his tailor-made black suit, a tie and dress shoes. He will also be carrying his trademark leather briefcase.
Ocean City real estate broker John Walton will look very much the part of a serious businessman who is ready to close a big deal on Friday, May 24.
But don’t expect to see him huddled in his office on that day. Instead, he will be out on the beach. The nattily attired Walton will march straight into the ocean during a wacky local tradition known as the Business Persons Plunge.
Each year, Walton leads the high-stepping, well-dressed masses from the local business community into the surf amid the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” played by the Ocean City High School Marching Band.
Now in its 16th year, the Business Persons Plunge is a widely anticipated spectacle that serves to officially “open” the ocean during Memorial Day weekend for the summer tourism season.
“There is beautiful city support for this event,” Walton said.
The festivities will also include Mayor Jay Gillian, members of City Council and other dignitaries using a large wooden key to “unlock” the beaches for the all-important vacation season.
The May 24 plunge is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. on the beach next to the Ocean City Music Pier at Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk. It will be held rain or shine.
The Business Persons Plunge serves as an unorthodox good luck charm to usher in a strong tourism season for the business community. By Memorial Day, the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce is usually able to predict whether the summer season will be robust based on early beach tag sales as well as bookings for hotels, motels and rental properties.
As is his custom, Walton appears before City Council to tease the event with a salesman-like flair, promising that “thousands and thousands” of spectators and “dozens of paparazzi” will be on hand to witness the zany celebration.
“Help us unlock the ocean for the summer and don’t miss out on the fun,” he told the Council members at their May 9 meeting.
Walton toted a weather-beaten black briefcase into the Council Chambers. It is the same briefcase that he carries with him into the ocean, year after year, for the plunge. He noted that it still has beach sand on it from last year.
“It’s rusted shut. I can’t open it. I don’t even know what’s in it,” Walton said of the old briefcase in an interview.
The briefcase complements the same black suit Walton wears each year to march blithely into the ocean. The Italian-brand Trussini suit cost about $1,500 when Walton bought in 1996 at the upscale Boyd’s clothing shop in Philadelphia.
Walton once wore other suits for the plunge, but they didn’t survive the soaking in the ocean. The Trussini, however, has held up remarkably well in the past eight years.
“At the end of the event, I rinse it down and then hang it out on the clothes line. Then I take it to the drycleaners,” Walton explained of the suit’s post-plunge care.
The 62-year-old Walton won’t be the only plunger dressed in business attire. Some of them will be business students from Ocean City High School. Walton estimates that more than 200 business owners or their representatives will join him this year, a significant increase over the usual crowd of about 125 to 150.
Walton believes that local business owners are even more enthusiastic about the plunge this year because they understand they can use the event to promote themselves to a wider audience.
“It’s part of the pitch to get them to participate,” he said. “I’ve had a few merchants who have received front-page print coverage, television interviews, social media exposure and have been on the radio.”
He said some businesses have experienced a 5 percent to 7 percent increase in sales after being featured in the news media’s coverage of the plunge.
Walton encourages merchants to carry signs, their corporate logos or use props to promote their business. A retinue of beauty pageant queens and colorful, cartoonish mascots from the local business community will be on hand to serve as cheerleaders.
When the Business Persons Plunge was first conceived, it was one of the events in 2004 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Ocean City’s founding. Walton recalled the very first plunge attracted a mere 12 participants and about 20 spectators.
However, Walton and Mark Soifer, the city’s former public relations director, realized the potential of the event and stuck with it. Over the years, it has dramatically grown in stature and popularity – pulling in tons of free publicity and media coverage for the city.
This year, Walton hopes to ratchet up the excitement by having a plane fly over the beach, towing an advertising banner publicizing the event. He is still trying to make arrangements for the plane.
“I’m trying to get a banner up there,” he said.
To register for the Business Persons Plunge, go online to www.ocnj.us/bizplunge or call (609) 399-6111 for more information.