Hilton Head chamber gets $175K to recover from Dorian. How bad was business?

Salaries for ‘key’ employees of Hilton Head Island’s chamber

In 2016, Hilton Head Island - Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's salaries made up nearly 30% of the budget.
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In 2016, Hilton Head Island - Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's salaries made up nearly 30% of the budget.

On the day Hurricane Dorian marched past Beaufort County last week, most businesses on Hilton Head Island were boarded up.

All island hotels closed Monday to heed the governor’s mandatory evacuation order, and most remained closed until Friday. Fewer than a dozen restaurants were open Thursday after Dorian downed trees and wiped out power Wednesday night.

To combat the drop in tourists, the Hilton Head Island -Bluffton Chamber of Commerce immediately requested $175,000 — for the second year in a row — from the Town of Hilton Head Island for a post-hurricane marketing plan, according to a letter the chamber wrote Thursday to the town.

“The assumed devastation to our resort island from the hurricane can be felt throughout Hilton Head Island by our residents and community, resorts, attractions, small businesses and accommodation partners,” chamber president and CEO Bill Miles wrote in requesting the money.

Customers leave the Kroger at Shelter Cove Towne Centre Tuesday morning on Hilton Head Island in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Dorian. While storm shutters make the store look closed, an entrance at the far end allowed customers entry to shop for groceries. Drew Martin

But just how much island businesses felt the storm isn’t clear yet.

The chamber offered no local economic data in its letter and could not provide an estimate for lost revenue when contacted Monday by The Island Packet.

Chamber spokesperson Charlie Clark said it was too early to tell how much the island lost in tourism revenue, and that the chamber is “working with third-party researchers for a full economic impact report.”

The request for money — which is not subject to a public hearing or a vote by Town Council — was approved by Town Manager Steve Riley Sept. 9.

The town’s post-disaster advertising funds come from local hospitality and accommodations taxes which, combined, are a 1% tax imposed on all hotel stays and prepared food and beverage, according to the most recent town budget.

How did businesses fare last week?

The chamber’s request paints a bleak picture of business on the island.

“The effects of Hurricane Dorian on Hilton Head Island’s tourism economy are significant,” Miles wrote in his letter to Riley. “It’s not only about the economic impact before, during and after the storm itself, it is the unknown number of potential visitors that no longer bring Hilton Head Island into their consideration set when it comes to travel.”

Hotels on Hilton Head closed Monday at noon to heed the mandatory evacuation order. Most reopened Thursday and Friday, but faced low occupancy rates.

The Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa, an oceanfront resort with 513 rooms, had just eight bookings when it reopened Thursday.

When the Sonesta Resort reopened on Friday, the occupancy rate was around 20 or 30 percent for the upcoming week, according to Chris Bracken, Sonesta director of sales and marketing.

The Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island inside Shipyard Plantation. Staff photo

Bracken said the effects of Dorian started before the mandatory evacuation.

“It affected us beginning Labor Day weekend because people were reading and hearing about (Hurricane Dorian). Normally we would sell out, but we were around 80 to 85 percent full,” he said.

Although Labor Day weekend and the following week usually mark the last pop of the summer tourism season, most of the island’s restaurants closed early Wednesday and remained closed Thursday.

Java Burrito Co., in the Village at Wexford, was closed for four days, and manager Jim Couture estimated the restaurant lost 80 percent of sales for the week, as well as a few catering events.

Alan Wolf, a managing partner of the 15-restaurant group SERG, said the hurricane “looked a lot like it did last year” at restaurants such as Skull Creek Boathouse, Wise Guys and Poseidon Coastal Cuisine. The group’s restaurants reported being down by half.

“We’ve had one full week disappear every year for three years,” he said of business in September.

How will the chamber spend the money?

Once again, the chamber’s campaign is titled “Back to Business.”

The grant will be divided four ways:

$20,000 for public relations: Distribution of a press release, including post-hurricane images and travel specials, to journalists and influencers.

“The Island is back to business welcoming visitors with fall being a great time to head to the lowcountry to enjoy the Island’s 12 miles of beautiful beaches, 20+ championships golf courses, over 250 restaurants and much more,” the release said.

As it did last year, the public relations plan includes in-person appointments with media companies during the chamber’s trip to New York City. Last year, reimbursement receipts submitted for the Florence grant did not include any receipts from the New York City trip.

$35,000 for traditional media: Ads in Travel + Leisure, TripAdvisor and Condé Nast Traveler targeting people in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Boston, Georgia and Ohio.

$60,000 for advertising on social media: Photography of the island and island businesses posted on social media sites.

During the storm, posts on the chamber’s main Instagram page, @visithiltonhead, featured no photos of the storm or of local businesses being open.

The chamber’s business Instagram page, @hhichamber, posted several photos that included hurricane information but no photos of local businesses. The page featured one post of the Savannah/ Hilton Head International Airport accepting flights.

$60,000 for online banner ads and Google keywords: The chamber will “purchase keywords related to the hurricane” and put marketing materials higher up in Google searches.

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The funding comes from the town’s disaster planning reserves, a pot of money established in the late 1990s for advertising. It is meant to help account for losses in tourism after “a near miss of a hurricane” or a “declared disaster.”

Hurricane Dorian recovery money is granted as a reimbursement — the chamber has until February 2020 to submit receipts for reimbursement for the $175,000 grant, according to a letter from Riley to the chamber.

Requests for hurricane marketing funds in recent years

In 2016, the chamber received $300,000 from the town to recover from Hurricane Matthew, according to Steven Markiw, deputy director of finance.

Hurricane Matthew did an estimated $51.5 million in damage, and Hilton Head was evacuated for at least five days.

65 Hurricane Matthew Monday gallery12.jpg
Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island after Hurricane Matthew struck in October 2016. The Island Packet

After Tropical Storm Irma in 2017, the chamber received $149,839 for post-hurricane advertising, the Island Packet reported.

Irma damaged 203 residential and commercial structures when it hit Hilton Head, and the island was under a mandatory evacuation order for three days.

Although Tropical Storm Florence caused no structural damage, the chamber received an additional $175,000 in 2018.

At the time, chamber officials said the amount was necessary because of the increasing pattern of named storms impacting South Carolina.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.