OCEAN CITY — Events such as the Miss New Jersey Pageant bring both business and excitement to town, filling motel rooms, restaurant seats and Boardwalk stores even though the height of the summer tourist season is still weeks away.
The family-owned Forum Motel has hosted the pageant’s contestants, chaperones, organizers and production crew since 2002, and co-owner Meredith Harvey has come to look forward to the pageant’s return each June.
“It’s a fun week — a lot of happiness,” Harvey said as she sat in the motel’s lobby at Eighth Street and Atlantic Avenue.
The week is also a boon for other Ocean City businesses as it draws not only the contestants, but their families and supporters and a healthy dose of media attention.
“It’s a big boost for us,” said Harvey, whose parents built The Forum in 1963.
While no formal studies have been done on the pageant’s effect, the summer tourist season really gets rolling in late June or early July, Harvey said, so the pageant delivers business on an ordinarily slow week.
The Forum expects to set aside 29 rooms, a full section of the motel, for the pageant, and the rest of the 55-room property will likely house a good share of family and friends of the contestants. The contestants will stay five nights, with pageant organizers staying as long as a week or more.
Tourism is a $5.2 billion industry in Cape May County, and county Tourism Director Diane Wieland said events such as Miss New Jersey are part of the shoulder season, events that draw visitors before summer arrives.
“Their special events, and especially Miss New Jersey, attract visitors and second-homeowners to the town during the shoulder season for overnight and day trips. This event will impact overnight stays as well as retail and restaurants,” Wieland said.
She said that Ocean City has 91 percent visitor return rate with 48 percent coming back for 19-plus years. According to Wieland, events such as Miss New Jersey are a perfect fit with the image of Ocean City, and the pageant brings new visitors each year as the contestants change.
“The publicity and PR generated by the pageant help in the marketing efforts and keep the city in the forefront within that community, since it is the process of the Miss American Pageant finals,” she said.
Harvey and her daughter, motel manager Holly Palermo, welcome the business and excitement that come with Miss New Jersey.
“I’m very proud to have them stay here,” Harvey said.
The motel even makes note of the pageant’s role on its website, reminding visitors that “when Miss New Jersey visits Ocean City, she stays at The Forum!!” The site features a picture of Lindsey Petrosh, Miss New Jersey 2012, who went on to compete at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas.
Aimee Repici, general manager of The Chatterbox restaurant, is also a fan of the pageant, and each year the contestants dine at her restaurant free of charge on the Wednesday of pageant week, hours before the annual Boardwalk parade.
She recently renovated after the Ninth Street restaurant was damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy, and she plans to put up pictures from each pageant in a section of the newly decorated space.
The photos, taken after the Wednesday night dinners, feature all of the contestants outside the landmark restaurant in their colorful matching T-shirts and sashes.
“It’s very important,” she said of Miss New Jersey to the city. “It’s as important as Miss America was to Atlantic City. It puts the eye on us for that week.”
Repici and The Chatterbox also get into the act, making sure the restaurant has a float in the parade. This year the parade theme is “Villains Down the Venue,” with the contestants planning to dress up as everything from the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” to the Big Bad Wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood.”
“It’s good business, and it’s a great cause,” Repici said. “We just always wanted to be involved in it.”
Mary Lou Cake, the pageant’s business administrator, said the city’s shops and restaurants have embraced the young women.
“It’s just a wonderful experience,” she said.
The pageant, in its 80th year, was held in other locations, such as Wildwood and Cherry Hill, before settling for the past 17 years in Ocean City.
“I just know they’re terrific to us. They welcome us,” said Cake, who has been involved with the pageant for about 45 years.
Cake also oversees ticket sales for the three-day pageant. Tickets to the Thursday and Friday preliminaries June 13 and June 14 are $35 each night, while tickets to the finals June 15 cost $50.
This year, Miss America 2013 Mallory Hytes Hagan is scheduled to attend the night of the final competition, marking the return of the Miss America Pageant to Atlantic City this fall.
Harvey said she and many other pageant fans are excited to have the national competition back in the Garden State.
“I think (Miss New Jersey) is going to be even more popular this year because (Miss America) is in Atlantic City,” Harvey said. “It should have never left.”
During the Miss New Jersey Pageant week, which starts with the women arriving June 11, the motel will be full of activity and deliveries, as family and friends leave flowers and other gifts for the contestants, filling the lobby.
They spend most of their days practicing for the preliminaries and finals, following a busy schedule set by pageant co-Executive Director Lou Barthold.
“It’s very hectic right now,” Barthold said. “There’s just a lot of coordinating to do. We have to fit as much in as we can.”
Palermo said she and her mother help where they can as well.
“I had a girl that asked for nail glue because she chipped a nail and I had some,” Palermo recalled with a smile. “I think I saved the day.”
Broadening Cape May County’s shoulder season
Nationally, tourism destinations are finding they can’t survive on seasonal business and must expand or develop secondary lures to bring customers back after the season. According to the Cape May County Tourism Department:
26 percent of Cape May County visitors come for special events. Shoulder-season special events bring back visitors and second-homeowners.
72 percent of county visitors take more than one vacation per year.
79 percent of second-homeowners live within a two-hour drive.
The 23 Miss New Jersey contestants arrive in Ocean City on June 11. The pageant parade follows June 12 on the Boardwalk, and the preliminary competition takes place June 13 and June 14. A new Miss New Jersey will be crowned June 15 at the Music Pier.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian: