Hilton Head businessman pursues formation of new tourism bureau

gmartin@islandpacket.comJanuary 27, 2012 

Island businessman Skip Hoagland, mastermind of the newly created Hilton Head Visitor and Convention Bureau, stands by his life-size alligator sculpture outside his Windmill Harbour home on Tuesday.

JAY KARR, THE ISLAND PACKET

  • The Hilton Head Island Bluffton Chamber of Commerce leadership named its 2012 Board of Directors Friday. Tom Upshaw with Palmetto Electric Cooperative has been named the 2012 Chairman of the Board.

    Board members are: Melissa Azallion, Nexsen Pruet; Jean Beck, Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors; Steve Birdwell, the Sea Pines Resort; Cary Corbitt, Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association/the Sea Pines Resort; Kristine Cox, Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa; Grant Cully, Harbour Health Insurance Solutions; Andrew Czarnecki, Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa; Matt Green, Buckwalter Place/Buckwalter Commercial; Scott Jaccard, Colleton River Plantation Club; Bob Krypel, Crowne Plaza Hilton Head Island Beach Resort; Bill Litchfield, Wells Fargo; Janice Malafronte, Companions, Nurses & Nannies; Chris McCorkendale, Hargray; Mark O'Neil, Hilton Head Regional Healthcare; Tom Ridgway, Hilton Head Rentals & Golf; Martin Sauls, Sauls Funeral Home of Bluffton; Helen Simmons, Hilton Oceanfront Resort; Robert Stenhammer, Hilton Head Accommodations; David Tigges, McNair Law Firm; Andy Twisdale, Charter One Realty; Dr. Jane Upshaw, University of South Carolina Beaufort; Ray Warco, Cherry, Bekaert & Holland; Rob Welch, Marriott Vacation Club International and Steve Wilmot, Heritage Classic Foundation.

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He sits beneath a menagerie of stuffed gamefish and near an assortment of Masai tribal spears acquired on safari in Tanzania. His living room, painted in dark red trim and adorned with drawings of soldiers throughout American history, seems a veritable tribute to aggression.

And Skip Hoagland is on the attack.

The longtime Hilton Head Island resident is in what he hopes to be the final stages of a crusade to establish an association promoting tourism to the island -- to be named the Hilton Head Visitor and Convention Bureau -- and he's prepared to see it through no matter what people think of his effort.

"I know I can be abrupt and that I can rub people the wrong way," he says. "A lot of people think I'm self-serving. But this is very important to me."

Business colleagues describe Hoagland as tenacious. "Once he sets his mind on something, he's always very determined," said one. And the taxidermied trophy fish and exotic game throughout his Windmill Harbour home suggest he's dead serious about bagging whatever target he has in his sights.

His current quarry: the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

'MY GIFT TO THE ISLAND'

Hoagland announced his decision to form the visitor bureau in December, but he says he's long resented how the chamber disperses its money.

The chamber doesn't adequately market the island as a tourism destination and competes with its own members for advertising space in marketing materials, he says. He calls its use of taxpayers' money "abusive."

Hoagland insists that after his bureau is organized, he won't be involved in its operations.

"Once things are in place, I'm out," he says. "My plan is to cut (ties) totally, within 30 to 45 days. I don't want people to think of this as Skip's group.

"I want them to think of this as my gift to the island."

What kind of gift would it be?

Hoagland says that in its first year the bureau would be composed of an executive director and a single staffer to recruit new businesses.

He anticipates an initial annual budget of about $180,000. He says he's already spent more than $20,000 -- some on full-page newspaper advertisements -- to promote his cause.

The executive director would receive a performance-based salary of $80,000 to $150,000.

That would be subsidized in part by annual membership dues of about $300, while the rest would be covered by contributions from a yet-to-be-named, 15-member board of directors, he says.

The bureau would apply for more than $100,000 in accommodations tax funding this fall, Hoagland says.

He qualifies each estimate with a disclaimer: "This is just my two cents, now, I won't be in charge." But he is adamant that member businesses would receive more return on their investment than those in the Hilton Head chamber.

TAKING ON THE CHAMBER

The lean structure and minimal overhead Hoagland describes for his visitors bureau would stand in stark contrast to the chamber's organization, he says.

According to chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark, the chamber has 24 full-time employees -- a number she reported had been reduced by about 10 percent in the last four years -- and an operating budget of $5.4 million for the current fiscal year.

Clark also said the chamber has 1,630 members, who pay a minimum of $325 annually. Nonprofit organizations pay $130.

"Our dues might end up being $400, same as what the chamber charges," Hoagland says. "But what we'll tell people is, of your $400, 80 percent of that will go to marketing (the island) to bring more people here for your business, instead of all of it going to pay one salary."

It's a thinly veiled reference to chamber president and CEO Bill Miles, whose $344,251 annual compensation drew many complaints when it was reported in 2010.

Hoagland has sent volleys of criticism from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammunition toward the chamber, fueled by what he says is an overstaffed and overfunded organization with murky financing.

"The main thing that my bureau will have that the chamber doesn't is transparency," he says. "It will be run by a separate board with separate overhead, (so) that one is not feeding the other."

The Greater Hilton Head-Bluffton Visitor and Convention Bureau is an arm of the chamber, receiving 30 percent of the funding the Town of Hilton Head Island reaps from the state's 2 percent accommodations tax.

David Tigges, former chamber board chairman, disputed Hoagland's assertion that an independent tourism bureau would result in lower overhead.

"We're a relatively small destination," Tigges said. "To have one receptionist, one audit ... that streamlines our operation."

Miles declined to be interviewed about the proposed organization, but said in a statement that he was familiar with Hoagland's assertions.

"It's something we've addressed proactively with our members, our board and others," Miles wrote.

"The chamber is proud of its 55-year history of successfully supporting the growth and vitality of the business community, our leadership role in promoting the $1 billion Lowcountry tourism industry, and the chamber's fiscally responsible and ethical conduct. We stand on our public record."

But some in that community are unconvinced.

LOCAL REACTION

Hoagland's vision resonates with chamber member Buddy Konecny, who owns Seashore Vacations Inc.

Konecny said the chamber isn't doing enough to direct potential visitors toward medium-sized resort agencies like his.

"I feel like they pay more attention to big hotels like the Westin, Marriott and Crowne Plaza," he said. "I would hope the home and villa business would receive more attention."

While praising the chamber for its intentions, Konecny said his disenchantment with its operations isn't new.

"I quit going to (visitor bureau) meetings a long time ago because I didn't see it helping us," he said.

He said he'd support a new bureau if it's formed.

"Sure, I'd be willing to try it," he said. "It couldn't hurt."

Konecny's feelings are shared by some others, according to Marc Frey, who's owned a media company on Hilton Head since 1992.

"I don't think Skip is alone at all in how he thinks things need to change," Frey said. "Somebody has to ring the alarm bell, and before Skip did it, no one was doing it."

Frey added that Hoagland's aggressive methods might hinder his cause.

"A lot of people say his points are valid, but I'm not sure taking out full-page ads is the best way to go about it," he said. "Have we exhausted our ability to reform the chamber before taking this on?"

Other local hospitality industry leaders were intrigued by the new bureau's potential impact but reluctant to endorse it yet.

"Having your own (visitor bureau) board of directors would be appealing," said Mike Alsko, general manager of ResortQuest Hilton Head.

"The reach could be greater, because it would be solely focused, governed and advised by people in the tourism industry. What's the harm in trying?"

Alsko expressed reservations about Hoagland's method for creating a new bureau, however.

"Is it the right approach to fragment the business community into two separate factions?" he asked. "Probably not."

'PRACTICAL HURDLES'

Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin has known Hoagland for more than 20 years, and in that time, he has become well-acquainted with the strength of his convictions.

"Skip doesn't believe in anything weakly," he said with a laugh. "He's certainly not a wallflower."

But Laughlin, who supervises a Town Council that reviews annual requests for accommodations tax funding, says it will take more than a forceful personality for the new bureau to get public money.

"We need to see an organization that can have its act together and make a credible pitch," he said. "And the practical hurdles in doing that are not insignificant."

If the bureau's request for town revenues is denied, Hoagland expects its leadership to remain undeterred.

"As long as people feel that we're losing business, I think they'll take up the passion and the crusade that I've started," he says. "I don't think I'm the only Skip Hoagland on this island."

'A BULLDOG'

Hoagland, who's built a business that buys and sells website domain names, is praised by businesses associates as motivated and insightful.

Gary Sibowski, who has worked with Hoagland for more than 25 years, said, "If he has one weakness, it's that he's too honest and open and expects everyone to be the same."

"He's a bulldog and an unconventional thinker," added business partner David Bayer. "He'll pursue something to the end."

Even sitting in his leather recliner, Hoagland exudes aggression and confidence.

Trim and energetic at 64, he's especially animated when talking about his motives for launching the bureau.

"I get upset when I see restaurants and businesses closing here," he says.

"This is something I'm very passionate about, and I'm doing this the best way that I can."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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