Tourism officials report mixed results in island's summer season

August 23, 2008 

Local tourism industry officials are reporting mixed results for this year's family vacation season, which is

drawing to a close.

The month of July was strong in terms of the number of visitors spending the night on Hilton Head Island. But some property and hotel managers said it took some pretty heavy discounting to get tourists here.

Ken Nason, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa, said the resort handed out gas gift cards to summer visitors.

The resort also saw a huge increase in visitors buying family fun packages that included perks such as special events and a $100 per day credit for use at the spa or on recreational activities, he said. The packages provided plenty of savings to those who made use of all the options, he said.

The Crowne Plaza Resort also rewarded visitors with gas cards and was one of about 25 island travel destinations offering discount packages, said Joe Kramer, director of sales and marketing for the resort, who added that the summer tourism season has "been a challenge."

According to Smith Travel Research, which collects data on a variety of vacation destinations nationally, the occupancy rate for Hilton Head Island hotels, home rentals and timeshares was down through June, the most recent data available.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's weekly advance reservations survey showed strong business in July and August.

The weekly survey of 10 hotels, home-rental companies and timeshare companies showed occupancy rates up about 5.6 percent in July and August from last year, which was considered a solid year.

"Hilton Head is a strong market to affluent travelers, particularly family travelers in the summer," said Susan Thomas, vice president of the visitor and convention bureau arm of the chamber.

Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals and Golf, said he had mixed success this summer with his rental properties.

Rental homes were popular because the trend of multiple families renting a single home continued to grow. On the other hand, demand for economy-

priced villas was very soft this summer because it seemed some of those customers put vacation plans on hold, Ridgway said.

For the first time, Ridgway had customers cancel reservations -- even giving up deposit money -- because they feared the impending loss of a job or that paying for the vacation would be too expensive.

Ridgway also said discounting was deeper and happened earlier in the rental market this year.

Some prices were slashed as much as 40 percent in June for weeks in July and August.

A mixed bag is the best most vacation destinations could have hoped for this year, said Rich Harrill, director of the International Tourism Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Even in a specific market, certain types of properties would weather the summer better than others. "Hilton Head has a very strong brand," Harrill said. "(The summer's outcome) depends on the market segment. It depends on the resort."

Harrill believes high gas prices kept some people from traveling, but high-end vacationers, such as the ones Hilton Head draws, wouldn't canceled their plans.

"The last thing people want to do is cancel a family vacation," he said.

Hilton Head isn't the only place to see discounting and package deals increase this year.

Hotels and resorts in Myrtle Beach broke out strategies and offers normally reserved for slower seasons, according to Pauline Levesque, chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.

The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

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