Ocean City's Seacrets Eyes Baltimore, Other Locales For Expansion

Friday, April 22, 2011

The man who brought Jamaica to Ocean City wants to take his Bob Marley party to cities across the western hemisphere, including Baltimore.

Leighton Moore, owner and CEO of vacation-entertainment complex Seacrets, plans to franchise his island-themed bar and restaurant concept and open 37 new locations within the next five years.

One of those spots could be along the Inner Harbor, but Moore is still looking for a location and franchise operator. He already has interest from entrepreneurs in vacation hot spots like the Bahamas, Florida, California and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"My whole idea was to bring Jamaica to the United States," said Moore, who founded Seacrets in 1988 and began thinking about franchising nine years later. "I think I succeeded in doing that, so I"d like to see the idea and the food go other places." Ranked among the top nightclubs in the U.S., Seacrets began as just a bar and restaurant, holding less than 200 people. Today, the club is one of the regular spots for vacationers "" many of them from Greater Baltimore "" who travel to Ocean City each year. It's a palm-tree-laden, sandy tourist magnet that can accommodate up to 4,600 people at a time.

Within Seacrets" Ocean City property is a hotel, 18 bars, multiple dining sections, a 7,000-square-foot nightclub, bayside views and plenty of water.

In a destination city that draws about 8 million visitors a year, Seacrets nabs anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million customers annually. It also employs more than 500 during peak vacation season.

"I think [Seacrets] is a destination in and of itself," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau and Department of Tourism.

Seacrets has applied to the Securities Division of Maryland's Office of the Attorney General for the legal right to franchise the concept "" a formality that could be granted within a few weeks. In anticipation of that approval, Seacrets already has launched a website "" www.seacretsfranchising.com Gary Figgs, Seacrets" vice president and chief financial officer, said the company already has fielded inquiries about opening franchises in the Hamptons in New York, Myrtle Beach, Chincoteague Island in Virginia, and parts of Florida. "They"re basically coming in [from] all over the country," Figgs said.

Interest has also been heard from prospective franchisees in Chicago, California, the Bahamas and Baltimore, where Moore said a site at the Inner Harbor, Fells Point or another downtown spot isn"t out of the question.

"I"d like to have open area, and one of the easiest ways is on the water," Moore said. "If it was around the Inner Harbor, as long as it's on the water that"d be my preference." The closest Baltimore's Inner Harbor comes to offering something like Seacrets is Bay Cafe in Canton and the Tiki Barge at the Inner Harbor. Bay Cafe has the sand. Tiki Barge has a pool and palm trees. But neither is as big and comprehensive as Seacrets, which rakes in $25 million to $35 million in revenue annually, according to Chicago restaurant consulting firm Technomic.

"Themed restaurants and themed resorts are very popular," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. "It creates an escape and the more stressed people become "" that's going to drive people to this type of venue to try to relax and escape." Rene Daniel, principal at Timonium-based commercial real estate firm Trout Daniel and Associates, said Harbor East, Inner Harbor or Westport could work for a Seacrets, but licensing is the real issue.

"The question is where would that right place of real estate be," Daniel said. "Westport is wide open." Westport is the 42-acre waterfront mixed-use project in South Baltimore being developed by Baltimore's Turner Development Group. Patrick Turner, head of Turner Development, could not be reached for comment.

Moore said franchisees aren"t expected to open a hotel, restaurant, bars and a club all at the same time. Most franchisees will probably start by opening a bar and restaurant, but Moore said he hopes franchisees eventually add the other components. Not all franchise locations will employ 500, either. But the smallest of them could still employ 25 to 40, Figgs said.

Seacrets could begin reviewing potential locations soon. Prospective franchisees must have: Initial investment of $1.6 million to $3.1 million; A franchise fee of $45,000, with the company taking 6 percent in royalties from restaurant/bars and 10 percent from complexes with hotel operations; Significant food service and/or hospitality experience.

Franchisees are expected to spend 1 percent of gross revenue on advertising.

Seacrets also expects franchise partners to take an active role in daily operations, and training will be provided.

"We"re going to have to find the right locations and the right people," Moore said. "This whole idea of Seacrets is to keep on going for generations."

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