By DONALD WITTKOWSKI, OCNJDAILY
For his full-time job, John Walton is a real estate broker in Ocean City. But he also has a part-time gig this time of year as the irrepressible hype-master for one of the zaniest traditions in the beach resort’s summer entertainment lineup.
Known as the Business Persons Plunge, the spectacle serves as an unorthodox good luck charm at the start of the Memorial Day weekend to usher in a strong tourism season for the business community.
“Usually, we’re like the barometer for the summer,” Walton said.
Each year, Walton leads a contingent of high-stepping, nattily attired businessmen and women down the beach and straight into the ocean amid the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” played by the Ocean City High School Marching Band.
With his typical, comic flair to promote the plunge, Walton is promising that this year’s version will be nothing less than “a five-ring paparazzi spectacle.”
Rain or shine, hundreds of business people will blithely march into the surf on Friday, May 27, at 11:30 a.m. on the Ninth Street beach next to the Ocean City Music Pier. A large crowd of amused spectators is expected, too.
“It is guaranteed fun – a wacky, fun spectacle,” Walton said in an interview Thursday.
While Walton calls it a “five-ring spectacle,” it might also be characterized as a three-ring circus on the beach. The plungers will get soaked while wearing business suits, skirts, dress shoes and high heels.
“We’re definitely in the hundreds at this point,” Walton said of the number of business people who will participate.
An array of beauty pageant queens, cartoonish mascots from the local business community, and celebrities who will be named later will also be on hand to serve as cheerleaders or take the plunge themselves. Business students from Ocean City High School will also march into the surf.
Walton himself will be dressed in an Italian-brand Trussini business suit that he bought in 1996 for about $1,500.
“It’s a fine, fine suit. For some reason, it really likes the ocean,” Walton joked of the suit, which gets dry-cleaned every year after the plunge to keep it in good shape.
To complement his suit, he will carry the same weather-beaten, leather briefcase that he always has with him for the plunge and has since rusted shut. Unable to get the briefcase reopened, he can only guess that it contains some old real estate documents from years ago.
As part of the plunge, Walton encourages merchants to carry signs, their corporate logos or use props to promote their business. He believes the event generates a huge amount of free publicity for the businesses that are featured during the media’s coverage of the plunge.
“To me, that is worth $100,000 for each person or business,” he said of the merchants who have received social media exposure, front-page newspaper coverage or have been on television or radio interviews.
Walton pointed out that local business owners are enthusiastic about the plunge because they know it is a valuable tool to promote themselves and Ocean City to a wider audience.
The festivities on May 27 will also include Mayor Jay Gillian, members of the City Council, and other dignitaries using a large wooden key to officially “unlock” the beaches and ocean for the all-important summer vacation season.
Walton said the plunge brings together local businesses, the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, civic organizations, charitable groups, the city’s government, elected officials and others in a collaborative effort to promote the town.
“That’s what it’s all about. Come on down and see us and get to know who the businesses are,” he said while inviting the public.
Now in its 19th year, the Business Persons Plunge will feature what Walton calls an “air, land and sea” component to ratchet up the excitement level.
A plane will fly overhead to pull an advertising banner that says, “Business Persons Plunge. Unlock the Ocean.” Cape May Aerial Advertising is donating the plane and banner for free, Walton said.
Walton is also trying to arrange for a drone to fly over to video the plunge.
Meanwhile, surfers, paddleboarders, and people on boogie boards will join the fun in the water.
The land part, of course, will be the frivolity taking place on the beach.
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 late 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, some of it national and international.
To register for the Business Persons Plunge, go online to www.ocnj.us/bizplunge or call (609) 399-6111 for more information.