Labor Day weekend should provide a strong close to a summer tourism season that has been one of the busiest in recent years in Beaufort County, hospitality-industry officials said Tuesday.
Hotels and vacation-rental agencies in the county expect bookings to rise this weekend compared to last year, as a projected 445,200 South Carolinians hit the road for the holiday, a 5 percent increase from last year, according to AAA Carolinas.
"Labor Day is the icing on the high-season cake," said Gail Wargo, director of sales and marketing at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa.
Wargo said The Westin's 416 rooms are nearly all booked for the weekend, and room occupancy for the year has increased nearly 10 percent compared with 2011. The hotel was under renovation during 2012.
In northern Beaufort County, summer proved fruitful after a sluggish spring, said Rob Wells, tourism division executive of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Occupancy rates this summer jumped more than 10 percent from last year, he said. Fripp and Harbor islands had occupancy rates above 80 percent, also higher than in previous years.
"As those islands go, our summer leisure travel goes," Wells said.
Wells said the Rhett House Inn, a bed and breakfast in Beaufort, is already booked for Labor Day weekend. So is Beaufort's City Loft Hotel, according to general manager Stephanie Fairbanks.
With an increase in vacationer demand, Wells said, Beaufort's tourism industry benefited from not having to offer discounts to fill rooms -- a strategy that has limited revenue in recent years.
"The past couple of years, hotels felt like they had to slash rates tremendously," Wells said. "Not this year, and it's helped across the board."
In southern Beaufort County, the Westin and other hotels have charged more per room this summer. Average daily rates, a key metric for hotel revenue, were up 4.8 percent in July compared to the same month in 2012 for hotels and condos, said Charlie Clark, vice president of communication for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
Jay Wiendl, general manager of Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island, said room rates are 20 percent higher than Labor Day weekend last year.
"We'll be sold out, undoubtedly," Wiendl said. "It's the last big family weekend of the year."
Pent-up demand among vacationers, many of whom have not traveled as much since the economic downturn, contributed to this summer's increase, said Bill Haley, vice president of marketing for Resort Rentals of Hilton Head Island.
Haley's company owns 230 rental homes and condos on the island, primarily in Sea Pines, Forest Beach and Palmetto Dunes. He said occupancy rates are up at least 14 percent from this time last year, and 75 percent of his company's properties are booked for Labor Day -- a number he said could rise if the weather is pleasant.
"For this holiday in particular, people wait to see what the forecast is," he said.
The National Weather Service predicts mostly sunny skies through the holiday weekend, with high temperatures in the upper 80s and a slight chance of rain.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.