Strong start to tourism season expected Memorial Day weekend

dburley@islandpacket.comMay 23, 2014 

In this file photo, Korean War veteran Phil Datz, center, stands in his dress blues on the AMVET float during a Beaufort Memorial Day parade in Beaufort.

STAFF PHOTO

Tourism season has started strong in Beaufort County and will continue to flourish this Memorial Day weekend, hospitality-industrial officials said Friday.

Hotels and vacation-rental agencies say bookings are on the rise this year compared to last, a trend that should continue over the holiday weekend -- about 441,550 South Carolinians are expected hit the road, a 1.8 percent increase from last year, according to AAA Carolinas.

"Those folks from the colder climates who couldn't get away for spring break, they just can't stand it any longer," said Gail Wargo, director of sales and marketing at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. "This weekend starts that climb to the pinnacle of demand: the Fourth of July."

Wargo said the Westin's 416 rooms are nearly all booked for the weekend, and room occupancy for the year has increased more than 10 percent compared to this time in 2013.

Along with more guests, the Westin and other hotels have charged more per room this year. Average daily rates, a key metric for hotel revenue, have jumped 12.2 percent through April compared to the same time in 2013, said John Salazar, professor of hospitality-management at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Revenue per available room, which measures occupancy rates and how much a hotel can charge for those rooms, has increased more than 15 percent on Hilton Head Island, he said, citing Smith Travel Research statistics.

Salazar said this season's hot start should continue this weekend, pointing to lower gas prices as a sign that drivers will travel from nearby cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Charleston.

Gas prices are predicted to hover at $3.46 a gallon, the 14th-lowest in the country, according to AAA Carolinas.

At Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island, spring proved fruitful after a sluggish winter, according to general manager Jay Wiendl.

"March really started moving the needle, and now we're trending for a great year," he said.

This weekend, the hotel's 340 rooms are booked, he said.

In northern Beaufort County, hotels are seeing more patrons who are spending more money, according to statistics provided by Salazar.

Occupancy rates increased 6.5 percent in April compared to last year, he said.

In Beaufort, revenue per available room rose 10 percent in April, according to his statistics.

The Rhett House Inn, a bed and breakfast in Beaufort, is booked for Memorial Day weekend, according to manager Anya Chase.

So is the City Loft Hotel, assistant general manager Randy LaGrone said.

"Sizing us up with last year, I would say we're looking pretty good," LaGrone said.

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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