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Tourism: Cash flow crisis puts agency's marketing on vacation

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Efforts to bring more visitors to Georgetown County will forgo Facebook and pitches to travel writers as the Tourism Management Commission tries to avoid operating in the red. Instead, it will focus on bringing prospective travelers to the county’s tourism website.

The commission is also reviewing its contracts with the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and its advertising agency.

The commission is funded by revenues from the state’s 2 percent tax on short-term accommodations. State law requires a portion of those funds be used for tourism marketing.

But the commission learned last month that its expenses are running ahead of its quarterly payments from the state, and that it faced a $115,644 deficit by the end of September.

The news came on the heels of the rollout of the commission’s campaign to promote the county under a new brand identity: The Hammock Coast.

The county’s ad agency, Rawle Murdy Associates, recommended $89,000 worth of cuts in online advertising over the next three months. The commission told the agency last week it was also cutting $18,675 in agency retainers for social media and public relations in those months.

“We want to try and keep the advertising part of it going,” said Helen Benso, who chairs the commission.

The money will be used instead to fund pay-per-click ads on websites bought through the Tremor Media network.

John Kautz, account manager for Rawle Murdy, told the commission during a conference call that the public relations campaign has “a lot of things in the pipeline. We might lose out on some opportunities.”

“You’re looking at a maybe with PR versus a definite with Tremor,” Benso said.

The commission will keep an ad scheduled to run in Golf magazine, but cut ads on the PGA Tour website and online ads with the company that publishes Southern Living magazine.

Also cut was $34,000 to improve the county website’s ranking on Internet search engines.

The commission kept funds for e-mail marketing and promotions through Intellistrand, which generates much of the county’s Web traffic through links with sites promoting Myrtle Beach and Charleston.

“Marketing has not come to a halt,” Benso said. “We just had to cut it back some.”

The commission’s $680,000 budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 shows a 15 percent drop in revenue from the statutory share of accommodations tax. To make up the difference, the commission will ask County Council for a third more in discretionary accommodations tax funds.

County Council must also approve the commission’s budget.

Benso said she knows there are other programs the council will continue to fund with accommodations tax grants, such as landscaping on Highway 17 and public safety programs, but she said the additional discretionary funds will help the tourism commission maintain its marketing at close to the current level.

Overall, marketing and advertising are budgeted to drop 10 percent over the next year.

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