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Tourism: Winter ad campaign aims at summer visitors

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

With a redesign of Georgetown County’s tourism website complete, the Tourism Management Commission has approved a $282,000 marketing plan to attract potential vacationers to the site over the next six months. It’s the first plan developed by the county’s new tourism marketing director.

“Basically, this plan is for us to increase our web traffic,” said Meredith Hart, who was hired in December to direct an in-house marketing effort.

The 3-year-old tourism commission gets staff support from the Chamber of Commerce, and Hart was hired by the chamber with county tourism revenue. But she will answer to the commission, which hopes to save money on fees and commissions paid to ad agencies for past marketing efforts.

The commission has a contract with Rawle Murdy Associates of Charleston for a portion of its marketing. Along with the plan created by Hart, the commission has two proposals from Rawle Murdy for the spring: a $24,500 plan for online ads and a $30,400 e-mail campaign that would reach 1.2 million people.

And the commission has also approved $35,400 to be matched equally by the Waccamaw Golf Trail consortium to promote golf vacations over the next three months. The golf campaign was put together by the Brandon Agency of Myrtle Beach, which handles the golf trail’s marketing.

“I didn’t want to duplicate what they were doing or what Rawle Murdy was doing,” Hart said. But she added, “the more presence you have, the better.”

The Hammock Coast brand, adopted by the commission in 2010 based on work by Rawle Murdy, isn’t well established, Hart told the commission. She wants to improve its recognition along with getting traffic to the website, where vacationers can connect to accommodations providers.

Hart also wants to increase public relations.

The early marketing push in 2012 wouldn’t have been possible a year ago because the commission didn’t have the money, said Helen Benso, who chairs the commission.

After the launch of the Hammock Coast brand the commission discovered it had overspent its budget and cancelled most of its marketing efforts for the fall of 2010. Although the commission received additional accommodations tax revenue from Georgetown County, its efforts still lagged in early 2011, Benso said.

The commission had about $200,000 in hand at the end of 2011 and will apply to the county this month for a $250,000 accommodations tax grant.

“We made a conscious decision to have the money at the first of the year because so many people are planning their vacations,” Benso said. “If we are out there on the internet and these various sites, we have a much better chance of being in consideration.”

Traffic to the county’s tourism website in the first quarter of 2011 was less than half what it was in the same quarter of 2010. Traffic didn’t rebound until June.

Under Hart’s plan, the commission will spend about $34,000 a month in January and February for online marketing. That will rise by $10,000 from March to May.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to keep it consistent,” Benso said. “There’s always somebody planning and booking.”

Hart’s goal is to increase the number of visits to the website by 146,000 over the next six months. That’s 10,000 more than the site received in all of 2011.

While her plan targets affluent families, couples and golfers, the Rawle Murdy campaign, which will be up for a vote by the commission in February, targets women. “Women heavily influence or outright make those vacation decisions,” said John Kautz, director of brand leadership for the agency.

The Waccamaw Golf Trail campaign is aimed at men, said John Rusher of Brandon Advertising, director of the golf trail. Many are already familiar with the 12 courses that make up the trail. “That’s your lifetime, value customer,” Rusher said.

The partnership encourages golfers to stay in the area, and there’s a benefit to accommodations providers when they do. “They like their own room so you get more lodging revenue,” Rusher said.

Hart said her plan will chart a course between the demographics of the other two campaigns by keeping track of the traffic to the county’s tourism website. “We can change it by week or by month,” or daily in the case of Facebook ads, she said.

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