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Tourism: Visitor study gauges spending, with caveats

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Every dollar spent on an e-mail marketing campaign last year brought in $26 in vacation spending by visitors to Georgetown County, based on a study prepared for the Tourism Management Commission by researchers at Texas A&M University.

About 20 percent of the people who received travel information actually came as a result, according to the study. Another 24 percent were planning to come anyway.

It’s the first study of its kind for local tourism marketing, and needs to be used with caution, according to the lead researcher.

The study was part of a $45,000 campaign to generate leads run by the firm eBrains, and was designed to show how many of the people who requested travel information actually visited the area.

The eBrains campaign included 20,000 new leads and monthly e-mails to over 98,000 other e-mail addresses in the tourism commission’s existing database.

The survey was also done by e-mail, and generated 881 responses. That figure, a little bit under eight-tenths of a percent, “is not too far off from what you typically get,” said Jim Petrick, a professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M who conducted the study. “Whatever’s happening with this group of people, you can kind of generalize.”

The smallest number of responses came from the eBrains leads, which led to a margin of error of nearly 11 percent.

The most responses came from people in the existing database. They were also the least likely to say their visit was prompted by the promotional e-mails. But they also spent the most, about $400 per person.

Helen Benso, who chairs the tourism commission, said that’s in line with the fact that many of those who come are repeat visitors.

She said the findings in the study are similar to those of a study done for the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. “That struck me as a positive,” Benso said.

Petrick cautioned that there are problems in all surveys that need to be considered. For one, it is important to know if the group that responded reflects the larger group. To determine that, Petrick said, would require a survey of those who didn’t respond.

Gauging economic impact is also uncertain because people don’t have exact recall, and some may deliberately overestimate or underestimate their spending, he said.

The average visitor said he spent about $300.

The study also asked people to rate their experiences. Overall, satisfaction was 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.

But that number also needs to be put in perspective, Petrick said. And that requires knowing how people rate their experience in other markets, something that isn’t included in this study.

“To make more solid decisions down the road, you’re going to want further surveys,” Petrick said.

Benso agreed that is important, and said it would help if the commission had input in the survey questions.

All the questions referred to “Georgetown County” and many of the 300 or so people who added comments to their surveys specifically referred to the county or the city of Georgetown, Benso noted.

“It just went on and on,” she said. “It really underscored the fact that we needed to have a different brand.”

She believes there would have been more responses if people had been asked about specific destinations within the county. Tourists don’t connect with Georgetown County as a destination, she said.

The commission this month adopted “Hammock Coast” as a brand name.

“If you say, ‘Did you visit the Hammock Coast?’ people aren’t going to understand the question,” Benso said.

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