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Tourism: Hammock Coast brand wins over critics

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Hammock Coast brand that Georgetown County adopted to market the area to potential visitors hasn’t caught on with locals. But it won a handful of converts this week.

Members of the county Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee criticized the concept and questioned the results of the tourism marketing effort this fall. The committee recommends to County Council how revenue from the state tax on short-term rentals should be allocated.

“Our concern was we saw declines” in the number of referrals coming from the county’s Tourism Management Commission website, committee member Dana Arneman said. “We’re giving you half a million dollars, are we getting a return on our investment?”

And despite the roll out of the Hammock Coast brand in 2009, rental companies continue to market beach vacations to Pawleys Island, even if that vacation is spent at the Litchfield Beaches.

But after hearing from the tourism commission and the county’s new tourism marketing director this week, the tax committee is willing to give the brand some time to develop.

“I haven’t been complimentary of the Hammock Coast,” Henry Jobe, a member of the tax committee, said. “Given enough time” he now believes it will catch on.

As for a return on investment, the tourism commission figures traffic to the website, which links to accommodation providers, is up over last year. A social media campaign started last month has tripled the number of “likes” on the Hammock Coast Facebook page to over 3,300.

And the state reports that accommodations tax collections in June through August were up by 33 percent from the same period in 2011.

Those numbers “are a very pleasant surprise,” said Will Dieter, who chairs the tax committee.

Helen Benso, who chairs the tourism commission, was skeptical of the rise in tax revenue, despite learning that Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort had six buildings closed for repair in 2011 that were open this summer.

The county received an overpayment from the state earlier this year and funds were withheld this fall to balance the books.

The town of Pawleys Island, believes it is as much as $40,000 short on its accommodations tax receipts from the state. Mayor Bill Otis said last week revenue from the local accommodations tax rose faster than the revenue from the state tax in the last quarter.

“We will be having a more intense conversation with the state,” Otis said. “We had the same problem with the state last year.”

“It’s frustrating,” said Georgetown County Council Member Austin Beard, who chairs the council’s tourism subcommittee.

The tourism commission receives the first 30 percent of the county’s revenue from the state accommodations tax for tourism marketing. The commission regularly seeks additional funds through the twice-yearly grant cycles that are reviewed by the advisory committee. The additional grants make up 41 percent of the commission’s $670,000 annual budget.

Even if the errors, which occur regularly, make it hard to use accommodations tax as a short-term measure of tourist activity, County Council regularly gives the tourism commission additional funds. The only time council has varied from the advisory committee’s recommendation in recent years was when it approved more money than the tourism commission requested as a way to boost promotions during the Great Recession.

Advisory committee members said this week they would be willing to adjust the grant cycles to make sure the tourism commission gets the funds when they are needed “to optimize your chances of success,” Jobe said.

Lauren Cobb, who started work in September as the new tourism marketing director, said the next step to improving the effectiveness of the Hammock Coast brand is to get more accommodations providers to include it in their marketing and their offices.

The goal isn’t to replace “Pawleys Island” as a destination. Hammock Coast can function the way Grand Strand does for Myrtle Beach, she said.

“I feel like Hammock Coast is really taking hold,” she said. “It resonates with people out there.”

“Inside the community, it’s not getting traction at all,” said Brian Tucker, president of the Chamber of Commerce, which provides staff support to the commission.

Jobe suggested the commission use billboards to promote the Hammock Coast on roads into the county.

Tucker said support from businesses would be better than a billboard.

Beard said he would like to see permanent signs at the county gateways reading “Welcome to the Hammock Coast.” Whether the signs materialize, the proposal shows how far the brand has come.

Beard said when it was announced, “I wasn’t really knocked out.”

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