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Marketing plan keeps its focus on funding and visitors

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Bracing for a cut in accommodation tax revenue, the group that markets Georgetown County to tourists wants to make sure the funds it gets are used to reach new visitors.

The Tourism Management Commission has asked for $150,000 in accommodations tax to supplement its budget. But the county only has $175,000 on hand. And it has requests that total $648,734.

The commission is due to approve a $662,792 marketing plan for the 2010 fiscal year next week. A week later, the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee will make a recommendation to County Council on the current round of requests.

“We’re not going to get that $150,000,” Annette Fisher told the commission this week. She is president of the Chamber of Commerce, which provides staff support to the commission.

The commission receives 30 percent of the county’s accommodations tax revenue for marketing, a share required by state law. The commission included an additional $300,000 in accommodations tax in its budget this year, a budget approved by County Council.

“Our funds aren’t guaranteed,” said Helen Benso, who chairs the commission.

That’s a message commission members want to make clear to its ad agency, Rawle Murdy. They say they don’t want a repeat of this year’s January surprise, when they found out a $90,000 Internet marketing project developed by its former agency was supposed to be paid for in advance.

“It primarily happens with the interactive” media, Fisher said.

The commission tried to renegotiate a search-engine marketing program for late summer that was done through Google, but was told “there is no renegotiation,” she said.

With 88 percent of the proposed marketing plan devoted to online ventures, Benso said it’s critical to know when payment is expected.

“They may need the money and we don’t have the money,” she said. “We need to know before January.”

The marketing campaign, which the commission is set to approve, is due to start in January with ads in Golf magazine and on the PGA Web site to attract golfers. That leads into print and online ads the next month and throughout the spring that promote beach vacations.

The 2010 marketing campaign is supposed to launch a new brand identity for the county, something Rawle Murdy has already begun to develop.

“Rebranding is going to be tough,” commission member David McMillan said. “Not everyone is going to like it.”

But commission members agree that Georgetown County doesn’t resonate among potential visitors, and many people confuse it with the affluent neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

“I know there’s going to be some hemming and hawing,” commission member Matt Giltmier said.

Benso said she expects Rawle Murdy will have the branding ready in time for the January campaign, although she acknowledged it can be a difficult process.

Commission member David Teems said that’s his expectation too, but added that the campaign has to start on time regardless of the branding.

Rawle Murdy has budgeted $21,250 to develop the brand. Another $50,000 is included in the budget for the county’s tourism Web site. Part of that is for changes that will be made after the commission agrees to a new brand image.

But commission members said they don’t believe the site needs $50,000 worth of work. “Considering what we just spent, it’s an awful lot,” McMillan said.

The commission budgeted $90,000 last year to redesign the Web site.

“There was a concern that people don’t stay on our Web site very long,” Benso said. But she believes that’s because it is a “portal” to get users to accommodation providers and attractions.

The site has already been refined to capture more information for viewers, Teems said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

“That should not be a terrifically expensive change,” Benso said.

Rather than put money into Web site renovations, the commission needs to spend money to bring in visitors, she said.

Commission member Jennifer Averette asked whether the marketing campaign should include more print advertising.

“I felt like that, too,” Benso said. But she realized that it was a factor of the commission’s budget. “I would love to have more money,” she said.

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