When tourists think Hilton Head Island, they envision pristine beaches and picturesque golf courses, but some believe it's time tennis got its due.
"Tennis has always been a poor stepchild to golf," says Jim Stubbs, director of sales and events for Van Der Meer Tennis Academy on Hilton Head.
That might change soon.
A study released Wednesday by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce calls for more marketing to promote tennis as a tourist attraction on the island, which already is the No. 1 destination in the Southeast for 65 percent of players who responded to a chamber survey, results say.
The study identifies cable networks such as ESPN and the Tennis Channel as untapped sources for advertisements and lays out plans to create packages of airfare, lodging and court time to attract tennis vacationers.
It also recommends creating a buzz by luring a major professional event, which the island had not had since the Family Circle Cup moved from Hilton Head to Daniel Island in 2000.
"Tennis is up there now, and it can be a major player with golf," Susan Thomas, chamber vice president, said.
Conducted with the help of Sports Marketing Surveys USA, the study cost $25,000 and was funded as part of a $250,000 accommodations-tax grant awarded by the Town of Hilton Head Island in January. That grant was in addition to the more than $1 million the chamber receives each year as the town's designated marketing arm.
The chamber surveyed more than 2,000 tennis players -- 1,003 players from a national Tennis Industry Association database and 1,105 players registered with the chamber -- to find out what serious tennis players read, watch on TV and prefer to do at tennis destinations. A serious player plays more than once a week, according to the association.
"It tells us things like what kinds of images do we need to feature in our promotions," Thomas said. "It helps the business community as a whole to understand what the consumer is thinking about the destination and their experience here."
The survey pointed out the need to boost tennis marketing online and on TV, Thomas said.
The chamber is in talks with the Tennis Channel in hopes of being featured on the network's "Destination Tennis," chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark said. More than 55 percent of survey responders who have taken a vacation for tennis in the past five years said they watch the show.
"We're finding out right now if it's pay-to-play, or if they are looking for us to cover the production fees, or if they even charge," Clark said when asked how much an appearance on the show costs.
She also said the chamber is beginning to research commercials on ESPN.
In addition, the chamber is reaching out to resorts and airlines to discuss possible package travel deals centered around tennis, Thomas said.
The study indicates 45 percent of serious tennis travelers fly when visiting the island. Savannah-Hilton Head Island Airport's recent addition of JetBlue Airways Corp. flights to and from Boston and New York makes "packaging at an attractive price" a greater possibility, Thomas said.
Stubbs, from Van Der Meer, agrees.
"An aggressive marketing campaign in the Northeast would be ideal for tennis on Hilton Head," he said. "Hop on a plane for a few hours, get out of the cold."
A golf-and-tennis event on the island in February could feature such travel packages.
The first Hilton Head Island Golf and Tennis Festival, set Feb. 27 to March 3 at Sea Pines Resort, will give guests a chance to book a hotel room and a tennis court, event spokeswoman Jan Gourley said.
The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, Port Royal Golf Club and Sea Pines Resort villas are already signed on, she said.
"Lots of people come to the island just to play golf, but maybe we can heighten awareness" of tennis, she said. "We're hoping down the road to create the kind of event Family Circle was."
"It could be in the future," Thomas said of a pro event. "The study definitely starts the dialogue."
Top 5 tennis destinations in the Southeast:
- Hilton Head Island
- Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale-Miami, Fla.
- Fort Myers-Naples, Fla.
- Myrtle Beach
- Sixty-five percent of men would rather take a tennis trip with their wives, while 53 percent of women would rather go with their friends.
- More than 75 percent of responders have played tennis for more than 10 years.
- Average length of stay on Hilton Head Island for tennis vacationer: 5.5 days
- Average trip cost per vacationer: $755
- Likelihood a responder visits Hilton Head Island in next two years: 29 percent
- More than 2,000 people who say they play tennis more than once a week responded to the survey.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.