Chamber to study tennis, tourism on Hilton Head

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMay 6, 2013 

Scenic golf links and pristine beaches are dominant attractions for Hilton Head Island tourists, but the island and its 300-plus tennis courts also have drawn many visitors.

Two island tennis resorts -- Hilton Head Beach and Tennis Resort and Palmetto Dunes -- were on Tennis Magazine's recent list of the country's top 50 tennis resorts. The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton also made the list. What's more, two prominent tennis-industry groups are based on Hilton Head, and young prospects flock to island tennis academies from around the world.

But how important is the sport to the island's tourism industry?

It's a question the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce will ask this summer.

The chamber plans to spend $25,000 to research the value of Hilton Head's tennis industry and how it might be better marketed, said chamber vice president Susan Thomas.

"We're putting together the data, so we can make the best choices ... for the good of the whole business community," Thomas said.

The chamber also will use the money to add more tennis content to its website, www.hilton headisland.org.

The Town of Hilton Head Island awarded the chamber money for the study in January as part of a $250,000 accommodations-tax grant -- in addition to what the chamber receives for marketing the island.

Some say the investment has been a long time coming.

"I think they're probably about 10 years overdue," said Jim Stubbs, director of sales and events for Van Der Meer Tennis. He said tennis deserves more marketing attention.

"Hilton Head is well-known in the tennis circle, not just in the United States, but worldwide," Stubbs said.

About half of the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy's students come from overseas, and most of the graduates earn scholarships to play tennis in college, he said. Van Der Meer also provides lessons and weeklong clinics to vacationers.

"Tennis has done a great thing for Hilton Head, and it always takes, obviously, a back seat to golf, but it brings a lot of business to this island," Stubbs said.

In 2009, the chamber commissioned a study on spending by various kinds of tourists. Those who played tennis spent an average of $2,800 per visit. Golfers spent about $3,300 per visit, the study concluded.

The chamber did a golf study in June 2011 and received $150,000 in accommodations-tax funding for marketing golf the following year. The number of rounds played on island courses increased in 2012, the first rise since 2006, according to the chamber. The chamber received the same amount to market golf this year.

The chamber's research comes at good time for tennis.

The U.S. tennis economy -- a $5.57 billion industry -- grew 3 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, according to a recent report by the Tennis Industry Association, a national research group located on Hilton Head.

Participation in the sport increased by 4 percent overall, up to 28 million players, and by more than 10 percent among those who play more than 20 times per year, according to the study.

One of the largest areas of growth was in the youth market. Participation among 6 to 11-year-olds increased by 13 percent, and youth equipment sales also rose, including a 38 percent rise in sales of youth tennis balls.

Youth tennis has received a big push lately by the industry, said Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the Tennis Industry Association. For example, the game is made easier -- and more enjoyable -- for players 10 and under, by using balls with less bounce, smaller courts and lower nets.

"True growth will come from the younger ones who are developing in the sport and staying in it for a lifetime, hopefully," said John Kerr, director of tennis at Palmetto Dunes.

The Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center, which experienced 3 percent revenue growth from 2011 to 2012, has added four youth-sized courts and teaches youth lessons on them, said Kerr, adding that the U.S. Tennis Association covered the costs to repaint the lines.

"To me, the important part of this initiative is that it helps the kids have more success sooner," Kerr said.

Focusing on how to teach the game to younger players is one of several topics being discussed at an international tennis instructor conference held on Hilton Head over the weekend by the Professional Tennis Registry, an international organization based on the island.

More than 500 instructors were expected to attend the annual conference, said to Peggy Edwards, PTR director of communication.

The organization, founded by Dennis Van Der Meer, also hosts the PTR Wheelchair Championships and Special Olympics National Invitational Championships in September, and the Spring Tennis Fest in March for college teams on spring break. The events draw about 3,000 competitors and spectators annually, Edwards said.

Another big draw is the Bullfrog USTA Southern Section Designate, held last week. It is billed as the largest junior tennis tournament on the island, featuring 260 of the top young players from around the South.

Whether it's conferences, clinics or tournaments, Hilton Head's status in the tennis world is important in driving tourists to the island, said Dan Santorum, CEO of PTR.

Some visitors come as competitors and return as tourists, said Tom Jilly, co-owner of the Players World of Sports store, which sells tennis equipment on the island.

A customer walked in the store recently who first came to the island with his college tennis team, he said. Now, nearly 30 years later, he has returned with his family.

Hilton Head has that effect on people, Jilly said.

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