Dutch Birgfeld, a broad-faced volunteer firefighter from Kensington, stationed himself by the auditorium door at the convention hall here one night last week and talked about how busy he had been during the previous three days.
Monday, he had tended bar for two caucus meetings of the Maryland State Firefighters' Association. On Tuesday, he collected tickets at the President's Ball until 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. Hours later, he presided over a mammoth crab feast.
By Wednesday night, Birgfeld, a Pepsi-Cola salesman and 30-year veteran of county volunteer fire departments, was taking tickets at the evening variety show, greeting sunburned conventioneers as they walked in with spouses and baby strollers.
"My family isn't coming down until Thursday because I had to work so hard," said Birgfeld, who can't remember missing a summer convention. "We'll go back Sunday, so that'll give me a whole week down here."
The 3,000 delegates to the firefighters convention here last week joined thousands of other public servants crowding the meeting rooms and boardwalks of this seaside resort. For at least a week, it seemed, government had gone to the beach.
County council meetings had been canceled, court dockets pushed forward or back, and bureaucracies throughout Maryland slowed to a snail's pace. Some officials, such as Prince George's Council member Jo Ann T. Bell, said they got more work accomplished at the convention headquarters in Ocean City than they could have in the office back home.
"You see that hallway?" Bell asked, pointing to an area off the lobby of the Carousel Hotel one afternoon. "I just took a chair and sat there yesterday. I canceled three meetings I'd been trying to set up for weeks because everybody was here."
Ocean City tourism officials say early- to mid-June is the peak time for conventioneering as people stream out of the state's landlocked counties just after schools close and just before the hotel rates shoot up in earnest. At large convention hotels such as the Carousel and the Sheraton-Fontainebleau in the northern part of the city, rates per room can leap $30 to $40 by the third week of June, and large groups qualify for discounted rates.
Marty Batchelor, assistant executive director of the Ocean City Visitors and Convention Bureau, said conventioneers are likely to spend more than normal vacationers, because the meal costs and other expenditures are more likely to be business-related and can be deducted or charged to expense accounts.
Convention bureau statistics show that the average visitor stays in a hotel for just under three days and spends about $100 day on meals and other expenses exclusive of accommodations. Those numbers translate to $677 million in gross receipts from the 8.8 million visitors to the city last year. The number of people in Ocean City doubles between January-March and April-June, from 3 million to 6.2 million, according to the convention bureau.
During days when the sun is high and the rental convertibles gleam along Coastal Highway, conventions double as vacation time for lawyers, real estate agents, elected officials and firefighters who escape to beachside condominiums that are usually at least 1 1/2 hours away from their paper-strewn desks and ringing phones.
Every convention has its workshops and seminars. But the Maryland Hospital Association also schedules tennis court time for members during its convention. And the Maryland State's Attorneys Association holds training sessions in the morning so delegates can have afternoons free for boardwalk frolic.
"We call it a conference, not a convention," said David Hugel, the state's attorneys' coordinator.
" 'Convention' has the connotation of people running around in funny hats," he said.
Maryland Municipal League convention organizers, on the other hand, do not mind passing out a funny hat or two to enhance the gathering's social moments. Wednesday night, the state's local elected officials dressed in straw cowboy hats and bright kerchiefs for a country-western dance that marked the end of their four-day meeting. Socializing, said league executive director Jon Burrell, complements the structured meetings.
"They have found out over the years that they can probably get as much coming here for three days as they can holding their regular council meetings," he said.
Some held their regular council meetings on beachside patios and balconies. And the firefighters caucused at parties in condominiums next door to the convention hall that overlooked a parking lot full of gleaming state-of-the-art emergency rescue vehicles.
Prince George's State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. checked in at his convention hotel wearing shorts, sneakers and sunglasses as he and 200 other prosecutors abandoned their dark suits and ties in a three-day search for the sun.
Kent County state Del. Clayton Mitchell drove in to speak to the hospital association about health care legislation, but while here he visited the firefighters, the Maryland Association of Realtors and the municipal league. "I can hit multiple groups and find out what they're all doing," he said. "They stick on their dungarees and their shorts and everybody can talk to each other in peace."
For a legislator from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the summer conventions also provide a convenient time for casual politicking close to home. "Everybody knows the Eastern Shore is the best part of the state," Mitchell said with a smug smile.