John A. Simpson Jr. built his Holiday Inn at Solomons in 1987, when the tiny waterfront town in Calvert County boasted just 700 full-time residents and a less-than-thriving tourism market. The first night the hotel's sparkling glass doors opened to the public, Simpson rented just two rooms.

Nearly 13 years later, the second-generation hotelier from La Plata sat in a hallway of his establishment on Tuesday, discussing the ongoing $2.3 million renovations there, how nearly three-quarters of the facility's 326 rooms are occupied at any time, and his pride in his staff members, several of whom have remained at the hotel since its inception. He was relaxed in a chair next to a window that allowed plenty of the morning sunshine to glint off the little gold pineapple lapel pin that Simpson was awarded the night before, recognizing him as "Maryland's Tourism Professional of the Year."

The honor was the most coveted of several handed out at the 19th Annual Maryland Governor's Tourism Industry Conference, held Sunday through Tuesday at Simpson's Holiday Inn at Solomons. The solid-gold pineapple, an international symbol of hospitality, was an aspiration for many of the 370 registered conference attendees. Simpson is the third Southern Marylander to win the top award in the conference's 19 years.

"It's the big one," he said with a grin. "When they announced it, I was sitting there thinking that one day I'd like to win this award."

The pineapple is the culmination of a decade of Simpson's marketing Southern Maryland as a tourist destination, planning events and promotions, spearheading industry committees and working with lawmakers to help boost travel to the state. Efforts like Simpson's and several others were the topics of workshops that packed the agenda of the three-day conference, titled "Tourism, the Pride of Maryland."

With the glistening Patuxent River as a backdrop, panelists from across the region suggested ways to expand the state's $6.5 billion tourism industry, which provides jobs for about 89,000 residents.

Carmen Nance Sanders, president of the Solomons Business Association and the owner of an art gallery, said this year has been profitable for most segments of the industry--an outcome she attributes to a healthy economy and increased marketing. Southern Maryland counties, according to conference organizer Herman E. Schieke Jr., reaped more than $130 million from tourists last year: $38 million for Calvert, $55 million for Charles and $41 million for St. Mary's.

"People are starting to realize we're just a short getaway from D.C.," Sanders said. Simpson knows the sector he's after--people from the Washington metropolitan area who want a short retreat in an area with good seafood, picturesque views and plenty of water. The only obstacle, conference attendees said, is getting the word out. A new Web site--www.southernmdisfun.com--touts the region as the "best place you've never visited."

"Southern Maryland is coming into its own," Simpson agreed. "There are 8 million people within two hours of here. If I could get them all to visit just once . . ."