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Tourism: Funds for marketing come with criticism

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

After turning over the lion’s share of available funds to county tourism marketers last week, the Georgetown County Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee expressed reservations about re-branding Pawleys Island and Litchfield Beach as the Hammock Coast.

“I’m not seeing the whole benefit of that change,” said Dana Arneman, a member of the committee and general manager of Dunes Realty. Will Dieter, chairman of the committee and a real estate agent at the Dieter Co., agreed. “Our own web referrals are down,” he said. “I question the results. Where’s the accountability?”

It’s in the works, says Lauren Cobb, new tourism marketing director.

Cobb, who started work Monday, said she understands the importance of making everything completely transparent. “Of course,” she said, “that’s what we want it to be — and completely accurate.”

Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee members planted the seeds of doubt about the county’s marketing efforts last month after hearing requests for $568,000 in projects with only $171,000 to award. Quarterly accommodations tax collections were disappointing after a banner season because the county had to repay $65,000 it had been awarded in error.

Eventually, the committee approved $111,500 — 65 percent of the total funds — to the county Tourism Management Commission’s marketing campaign.

Committee members agreed that they need to know more about the county’s marketing efforts. Henry Jobe, a retired vice president of marketing for International Paper, said he has doubts but wants to see the details before expressing an opinion.

“I could never have sold a plan like this with as little information as we were given,” he said. “This board needs to sit down with our tourism marketing people and have a discussion of what they do and how they do it. I personally have too many questions about it. As we give away the citizens’ money, going forward, we need a better understanding of how that money is spent and how effective it is.”

Dieter said the county’s former marketing group had open meetings to give feedback.

Sally Hogan, tourism coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, told committee members that meetings are held on a regular basis.

“This group needs to be involved,” Jobe said. “We’re the ones who need to be convinced. I want detail about how it works, how decisions are made and where we are going.”

Both the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee and local Realtors and innkeepers want to see more click throughs, web visitors who go to the Hammock Coast home page and then go to “places to stay” for vacation rentals.

Georgetown County’s tourism site had 36,770 visitors from January through August, according to statistics provided the Georgetown County Tourism Management Commission last week. Just 228 of those visitors clicked through to “places to stay” with 53 of those clicking through to “places to stay-vacation rentals” and 17 to “places to stay-inns.”

Those are not the only efforts to contact potential visitors. There are e-mail contacts and printed brochures that go out to lure visitors, but people who make their living off those visitors say the statistics are worrisome. Results, Dieter said, are all that count, and “heads in beds” is the only stat that makes the vacation business hum.

Cobb says she needs to “drill down” into the numbers for a few weeks before she can interpret what they mean and analyze the county’s return on investment.

Meanwhile, she and Hogan are working on a comprehensive presentation for the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee. It should be ready in a few weeks. “They’ve asked to see how the money is spent,” Cobb said. “We are using a lot of spreadsheets, trying to pull them all together to make sure everything balances. Give me a couple of weeks, and I will have it all pulled together.”

Georgetown County tourism presents its own set of challenges, she says. It’s an older demographic, still relying on print media, like Southern Living. Most of the Waccamaw Golf Trail advertising was placed in magazines.

“Some people like to have a piece of paper in their hand,” she said. “There’s still value in print. The trick will be in knowing when to pull back. That’s one of the things that’s fun about it. I love puzzles. I love figuring things out. Let’s figure the best way to get the people we want. That’s what excites me, makes me want to get up in the morning.”

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