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Tourism: Cash to fund marketing programs runs low

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County’s tourism marketing effort will run out of money by the end of next month unless it cuts programs.

“Our financial position is good, but we have run into a cash flow problem,” said Helen Benso, who chairs the county’s Tourism Management Commission.

The commission has $187,804 in outstanding expenses, including bills from its advertising agency that date back to April. It can cover those with a recent accommodations tax allocation from Georgetown County, but will be strapped for cash until October, according to a budget estimate.

“We can either delay payment to someone or cancel programs,” said Sally Hogan, tourism coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, which provides staff support for the commission.

The commission estimates it will receive $50,000 in accommodations tax in August. It has applied for a $120,000 grant from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, but Hogan said she doesn’t believe it will be approved because of cuts in state spending.

The next infusion of accommodations tax is due in October. By that time, the commission estimates it will be $115,644 in the red.

The commission has $143,000 worth of marketing planned from July through September, most of it geared toward attracting potential tourists to the commission’s newly-revised website that promotes the county as the Hammock Coast.

“It’s almost like putting the whole thing on hold for four months,” commission member Sassy Henry said. “We’re at this momentum spot.”

The campaign to attract visitors who search the Internet for travel information had one of its best months ever in May. At $11,359 a month, that is the single largest component of the marketing effort.

“That can be adjusted as needed,” said John Kautz, account director for Rawle Murdy Associates, which handles the commission’s account.

The commission is also committed to more than $63,000 in agency fees to Rawle Murdy and administrative fees to the Chamber of Commerce over the next three months.

Benso said the commission needs to focus its efforts on the fall golf market, for which it plans a $1,750 ad in Golf magazine and $10,000 in ads on the PGA tour’s website.

She suggested cutting the $3,125 monthly retainer it pays Rawle Murdy for public relations and renegotiating the $1,500 retainer for co-op advertising.

Kautz said the agency could come up with a revised marketing schedule if the commission sets a cost target. He cautioned that cutting programs could impact co-op ad sales for the fall.

“We can’t sell co-op for something that’s not there,” he said.

Rawle Murdy has sold $14,000 in ads to area tourism businesses, and there is the potential for another $14,750 in sales, Kautz said. The commission has paid the agency $15,000 to handle those sales and has received $6,800.

“We thought we would actually generate funds,” Benso said. “Clearly we have not made money.”

The commission budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is 10 percent lower than the current budget. The commission receives 30 percent of the county’s accommodations tax revenue to use for tourism promotion, and routinely receives additional tax funds that the county allocates through a grant process.

The commission expects its basic funding from accommodations tax to fall 15 percent in the coming year. It will offset that by seeking $100,000 more in grant funds.

The commission delayed a final vote on the budget last week until Rawle Murdy can revise the marketing plan.

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