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Tourism: After final summer push, focus of ads changes with the seasons

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A $36,000 package of online advertising will make a final push to attract visitors to Georgetown County through Labor Day. A $22,000 campaign targeted at fall golf began this week with a tie-in to the PGA Championship in Atlanta. Another effort to attract golfers will start in the fall.

The county Tourism Management Commission that put the brakes on promotion when it found itself running out of money last summer, began the fiscal year that started July 1 with $259,000 in the bank. And it received unofficial word last week that it will receive a $120,000 state matching grant.

The commission has also applied for a $200,000 county accommodations tax grant to fund its marketing efforts.

Suddenly flush with cash, the commission isn’t going on a spree, said Helen Benso, who chairs the group. “We’re going to run out of season pretty soon,” so the commission should continue ads that generate inquiries from visitors, she said. But it also has some long-term needs.

The county’s tourism website, which is the centerpiece of efforts to connect potential visitors with accommodations providers, needs a makeover. It has received mostly cosmetic changes since the commission was formed in 2008 to replace the county’s Visitors Bureau.

“It’s a big-ticket item,” Benso said.

The commission’s ad agency, Rawle Murdy Associates, is conducting an audit of how people use the site. The results will be used to seek bids from firms to create a new site. The commission decided to put the work out for bid to get a wider range of ideas.

County Council has yet to approve the $676,000 budget the commission presented in June. That’s because the county is renegotiating its arrangement with the Chamber of Commerce to provide staff services to the tourism commission, said Council Member Austin Beard, who chairs the council’s tourism committee.

The chamber gets $60,000 a year, which goes to pay its part-time tourism coordinator, Sally Hogan, and other costs. The county also pays $4,800 a year to the chamber’s accountant for bookkeeping and $2,000 for an audit.

“We’re trying to minimize costs,” Beard said. “There are a couple of options out there.”

The tourism commission gets 30 percent of the revenue the county receives from a state tax on short-term accommodations for tourism promotion. It asked for an additional $400,000 last year through grants funded with the balance of the accommodations tax revenue. It got $387,000.

To cut administrative costs, the commission has started placing ads on its own with the money it gets from the accommodations tax grants. Ads bought with the 30 percent funds are placed through Rawle Murdy, which receives a commission and is paid to produce the ads.

The chamber sought more money for its role with the commission, but Beard said that wasn’t an option. The county will continue to work with the nonprofit. “Ultimately, we’ve got the same goal,” he said.

Beard doesn’t expect the tourism budget will change in size, but he believes more money will be available for advertising.

“There are a couple of options out there,” he said, and he hopes an agreement can be worked out in the next week.

How the commission spends ad dollars is also under review.

The commission spent $30,000 on a $60,000 campaign with the Waccamaw Golf Trail this spring. The golf trail asked the commission to take part in a similar program in the fall.

The trail is made up of 13 courses from Murrells Inlet to Georgetown that pool funds for promotion. The spring campaign helped boost golf rounds by 17 percent, according to John Rusher, who manages the trail for Brandon Advertising.

The promotion includes the tourism commission’s Hammock Coast brand and includes information on local accommodations.

The fall promotion, along with what Rawle Murdy has planned, would bring the amount of golf advertising to $110,000. “That’s a considerable amount of money just for golf,” commission member Matt Giltmier said at a commission meeting last week. “I just want to be fair to everybody.”

Commission member David Teems pointed out that most of the fall vacationers are golfers. “There needs to be a different emphasis at different times of the year,” he said.

Teems didn’t vote on the golf trail because he works for Myrtle Beach National, which owns or operates eight of the 13 courses. He said he understood Giltmier’s concern.

Giltmier suggested spending $15,000 on the fall golf trail promotion. Benso agreed, saying she wants to make sure there is enough money for the website upgrades.

“We’re flying without a budget right now,” she said.

Golf is also promoted through the commission’s visitors guide – soon to be available in an electronic form to cut down on printing and mailing costs. “It’s not like golf is being left out,” Giltmier said. “They’re getting a huge amount of money.”

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