Chamber closes Hilton Head Island welcome center

tbarton@islandpacket.comOctober 6, 2012 

The sign announcing the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to passing motorists on William Hilton Parkway is gone from in front of the center on Thursday. The chamber has had plans by the to close the center on the island and replace it with a new one. Rumors are circulating that the welcome center has already closed, staff laid off and plans for a new center scrapped or shelved.

JAY KARR, STAFF PHOTO

The Hilton Head Island welcome center has closed, and the chamber of commerce has abandoned plans for a new one.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce closed the welcome center this week after a survey found that more travelers are looking for vacation information online.

The chamber presented plans last year to the town, which owns the building and property, for a new center that would cost $2.5 million to $3 million.

Chamber officials said then the new center would be a modern, tech-savvy complex that would draw more traffic and enhance tourists' visits. The recent survey of more than 6,000 island visitors changed their minds.

"Technology is the new normal for travel," chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said. "Travelers in our survey said they want the information accessible at their fingertips where they're at, whether that be hotel lobbies or the airport or wherever."

Instead, the chamber now intends to set up iPad kiosks around the island at high-traffic areas, such as the airport, hotels, resorts and chamber offices, where visitors can access information previously available at the welcome center.

Traffic on the chamber's website has increased steadily in recent years, much of it driven by smartphone and tablet use, Clark said.

"We had 1.2 million hits to our site by the end of August, which totals all of our traffic from last year," she said. "We saw these changes happen at an incredible, rapid pace ... and said, 'Wait a minute. Let's look at the most efficient way to do this that meets the needs of the traveler.' "

A recent national survey found that more than half the visitors queried used their smartphones to search for nearby restaurants or shops and used their phone's GPS to find those establishments.

"It just wasn't efficient to operate a welcome center anymore," chamber president and CEO Bill Miles said. "That's not what the visitor wants anymore."

One full-time employee and one part-time employee at the center were laid off. Another full-time employee and part-time employee who worked at the welcome center retired.

The chamber's decision to abandon a new center also came as it was coming under scrutiny for its expenses -- including employee salaries -- and the effectiveness of its marketing.

Town officials say they probably will demolish the moldy welcome-center building and ask Town Council what to do with the site.

Mayor Drew Laughlin said a new welcome center made sense five years ago, but no longer. He likes the chamber's new plan of iPad kiosks.

"It makes sense to me," Laughlin said. "It's a more efficient way of disseminating information than building a $3 million center that fewer and fewer people would use.

Related content

  1. Chamber welcome center scaled back, delayed: Sept. 25, 2011
  2. Hilton Head Chamber plans new $3 million welcome center: Jan. 27,2011

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