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Tourism: New agency will start spending in July

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

There will be no honeymoon for the agency that takes over Georgetown County’s tourism marketing account on July 1.

The county Tourism Management Commission wants Rawle Murdy Associates to have a plan for spending $85,000 ready by July 9. And the commission itself will have to hustle if it wants to get an additional share of county accommodations tax funds. The deadline for applications is July 17.

The commission picked Rawle Murdy of Charleston to replace the Virginia-based firm that handled the account last year, and it doesn’t want any gaps in its marketing efforts.

“We need a mini plan that would start in July so we don’t lose that momentum,” said Helen Benso, who chairs the commission.

Rawle Murdy presented the commission with a transition schedule last week that called for a marketing plan to be presented in August and start in October.

County Council last month approved an $815,000 marketing budget for the commission that includes $300,000 in accommodations tax grants in addition to the share of the tax that state law requires be used for tourism marketing. That is a $100,000 increase over last year, which the commission decided it needed to offset the slump in the national economy.

Commission members agreed to put $85,000 of their budget toward online advertising next month as a way to boost vacation rentals this summer. “I hate to throw you this curve,” Benso said. “I know it’s a surprise.”

John Kautz, the account director for Rawle Murdy, pointed out that the commission already has some e-mail promotions scheduled for July that they can build on.

He told the commission that the trend toward last-minute bookings means the annual plan needs to be flexible.

“The plan will be nimble enough to change messages pretty quickly,” Kautz said.

Mark Updegrove, director of new business at Rawle Murdy, said he sensed the commission wants to move more of its advertising from print to the Internet. “That will allow more flexibility,” he said.

The annual plan that Rawle Murdy creates will run from October through December 2010, although the agency is on a year-to-year contract. That overlap will prevent a similar scramble next year.

David Teems said he and other commission members were frustrated by the former agency’s delays in implementing last year’s marketing schedule. Once it finally began, there was a spike in visits to the county’s tourism Web site and a corresponding jump in requests for brochures.

Benso said the commission doesn’t want to see those figures lag during the peak season.

She also told Rawle Murdy staff she would like to see more effort in public relations. That’s budgeted for $20,000 to cover two seasonal efforts.

“We really need to leverage PR contacts as much as we can,” Benso said.

Kautz said the agency has the contacts if the commission can supply the content.

“This budget’s not carved in stone,” Benso said. “We could shift some more money into public relations.”

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