The annual Seaside Boat Show has become the latest major area event to fall victim of COVID-19, as its sponsor, the Ocean City-Berlin Optimist Club, announced Sunday, Nov. 15, that the February event will not be held in 2021.
“The key thing is the safety of our exhibitors, the safety of our visitors and the safety of those who work the show,” Boat Show Co-Chairman Charlie Dorman said.
The show, which has warmed this one weekend in the dead of winter for the past 38 years, routinely draws thousands of boat buyers and boating enthusiasts to the Ocean City Convention Center on 40th Street in Ocean City, Md. Organizers’ estimate of last year’s crowd was about 16,000.
The show is the Optimist Club’s primary fundraiser. All of the proceeds — typically in the tens of thousands of dollars each year — go to Worcester County, Md., youth programs, schools and organizations.
Past beneficiaries include Worcester GOLD, Diakonia and the Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services, to name a few.
Over the last three decades, the club has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to seniors at Stephen Decatur, Snow Hill and Pocomoke high schools.
“All of our funds are oriented to children,” Dorman said. “That’s why we are the ‘Boat Show that Works for Children,’ because nobody at the boat show gets paid — we’re all volunteers.”
While the goal of the show is youth-oriented charity, the event is a big economic driver during the resort’s winter season.
Its 16,000 guests mean thousands of hotel rooms booked, full dining rooms at local restaurants and shopping at local stores.
“What is devastating is that the funds raised from this event are a huge source of scholarships for the local students,” said Susan Jones, Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association executive director. “Historically, this event has always been a welcome addition to the winter doldrums, as it brings thousands of visitors for a weekend at the beach. So, there will be a financial hit to our members as well. That being said, it is understandable that the Optimist Club made the decision they made.”
The Seaside Boat Show joins a long list of Ocean City events sidelined by the virus so far: the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Springfest, Sunfest, OC BikeFest and most recently the Ocean City Christmas Parade.
Although the virus was the primary factor for the show’s cancelation, Dorman said other factors contributed, too.
“The National Marine Manufacturers Association canceled nine big shows,” he said.
That included shows in Miami, Florida, Chicago, Illinois and St. Louis, Mo.
Dorman said he and Co-Chairman Wayne Scott had discussed those NMMA show cancelations.
“We said, ‘These guys are the big guys. I mean, they are the big guns out there, and if they know they’re canceling their shows … what can we do?’” Dorman said.
Additionally, the organizers had to consider Ocean City’s and the Worcester County Health Department’s COVID-19 restrictions, such as capacity limits, and mask, social-distancing and health-screening requirements.
“We can’t monitor keeping people 6 feet apart,” Dorman said. “We’re lucky when the boats are here to keep them 1 foot apart.”
There was also the issue of boat supply.
“The dealers have sold so many boats that they don’t have a stock, because the manufacturers aren’t building them, because they’re shutting down,” Dorman said. “All of these dealers are calling and saying ‘We don’t have the inventory, it’s coming in slow. We hope we’ll have it, but we don’t know.’”
Another, perhaps less important, factor considered had been construction work at the convention center, and how it would affect vendor space and restricted entryways for larger boats.
“Most of the Optimist [Club] members working the boat show are over 70,” Dorman said. “All of those factors combined — we were just like, we can’t take that chance of making our people sick and anybody coming through sick.”
However, while the show won’t take place, Dorman said he and other organizers were devising a raffle to keep the charitable efforts alive.
“What we’re going to do now is that we’ve sent a letter out to the exhibitors and we’re going to do an auction,” he said. “North Bay Marina, as always, stepped up, and they’re going to give us a pontoon boat to raffle off, and Bayside Jet Drive has given us a Wave Runner to auction off.”
North Bay Marina in Fenwick Island has donated boats to the show for more than 30 years.
Dorman said other dealers also have offered to donate items to help the club maintain its charitable efforts.
“They’ve been great to us. The dealers have just been fantastic,” Dorman said.
While the raffle is still being planned, Dorman said tickets would cost $10 each or $25 for three.
The raffle drawing will be done live on television, and Dorman said he hoped to see the event take place before Memorial Day weekend.
“We wanted to have the boat show so bad, because we know it’s like the opening of the season for Ocean City,” Dorman said. “But for the safety of everybody involved, we decided we couldn’t do it.”