Seacrets

Dancers enjoy the music this summer at Seacrets, a popular Ocean City night club. Seacrets is considering another location in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / August 12, 2011)

On a Friday night this summer, Seacrets was teeming with people dancing and drinking on its patios and dance floors and at its 18 bars.

By now the 22-year-old venue has eluded easy definition. With a sprawling fiefdom that includes a radio station, several restaurants, a hotel, five stages for live music, a swim-up bar and even Seacrets-branded water bottles, it's more of a theme park, a playground where Maryland and the region vacations every year.

"I've been coming here for years because everybody else is here. A lot of times you can't even move inside," said Ned Raffett, a 26-year-old who was leaving just before midnight.

After years of trademarking the Seacrets name and plotting a franchise, chief executive Leighton Moore filed paperwork this year to franchise the brand nationally. And Baltimore could be one of the first locations. Two major Baltimore developers — Patrick Turner and C. William Struever — have met with him to discuss location.

"Right now, I feel, is the right time to move," Moore said. "The economy is down, therefore construction costs will be lower than at probably any other time. Hopefully, [the economy] will come around, and people will enjoy less of a monetary squeeze and will still be able to come to us."

Moore wants the first location by the 2012 tourist season, but the Caribbean-themed venue faces some steep obstacles before that happens. The brand name has not been tested outside Maryland, replicating a club known for its location will be difficult outside resort towns, and in Baltimore, especially, appropriate real estate is limited.

Analysts also say that while the economy may be helpful in opening new locations, consumer spending is down and the service industry in general has stagnated.

"We've become more bearish on the bar segment," said David Henkes, vice president of food service consultant Technomic. "There's the old adage that people drink when times are good and when times are bad, but they certainly don't drink as much when times are bad, or at least they don't as much away from home."

Moore opened Seacrets in 1988 on a small strip of land on Coastal Highway, far from the boardwalk. It consisted of a tiki bar, a regular bar and a seating area — all roofless — to serve about 100 people, said Gary Figgs, Seacrets' vice president and chief financial officer.

The next year, he added a restaurant, and the year after an indoor bar, and then another, so that now Seacrets covers six acres.

"We built from the success we had," Moore said. "In order to gamble the way I did, most investors would have wanted to take the money out. I put all the money back in."

In Technomic's 2010 list of the top 100 bars in the country, Seacrets came in at 11th, the only nightlife spot outside Las Vegas that high on the list. Annual revenue is estimated to be between $25 million and $35 million, according to Technomic. Moore said it's around $20 million.

During the day, the crowds are evenly mixed at Seacrets. The venue is so broad, parents and their children can pack one of the restaurants while throngs of young people sunbathe and drink on scores of inflatable multicolored doughnuts on the water.

"It's amazing what they've done with all the landscaping," said Lauren Bathgate, a 23-year-old Dundalk resident who visits the club annually with her husband and family. At night, it becomes an over-21 nightclub. "It's a party," said Joseph Bathgate, Lauren's husband. "We've been carried out at least once."

On any given weekend night, the whole spread can accommodate as many as 4,700 people, Moore said.

Ocean City police treat the area like the boardwalk or Jolly Roger Amusement Park. "There's almost nothing to compare it to in Ocean City or Delmarva," said Mike Levy, a police spokesman. Crowds have caused some problems — last year there were two instances of disorderly conduct and minors with fake IDs, Levy said — but "comparatively, we have no more issues with them than we have with any other establishment in town." In May, a woman sued the club for negligence after being raped in 2008 at a nearby parking lot. Moore maintains the incident happened outside the club's property.

Moore started seriously considering adding franchises in the mid-1990s, when the club was already a major tourist spot. By 2001, he'd trademarked the name Seacrets in places where he wanted to open locations, like Jamaica and Mexico, he said.

A man of five-year plans, he sees expansion as the next logical step for an already lucrative business. Seacrets would collect 6 percent of gross sales of all franchisees, according to the company's franchising application with the Maryland attorney general's securities division.

Moore's ambitions are wide-ranging. In the Maryland application, Moore said Seacrets intends to apply for the same license in as many as 16 states, including California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, South and North Dakota, Wisconsin, New York and eight other states. So far, Seacrets franchises can be sold in Pennsylvania and New York. The Maryland license was approved June 21.