Spring breakers are among the first swells of a large wave of tourists expected to hit Hilton Head Island this tourist season, according to recent lodging data.
Hotel, home rental and villa occupancy has increased 8.8 percent year-to-date compared to last year, according to data collected at the end of February by the Vacation Travel Research Program, a national travel research firm.
The data, provided by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, also shows rental home and villa reservations for the summer increased by 11 percent compared to the same time last year.
"All the indicators are pointing to a healthy tourism season for Hilton Head Island," said chamber spokeswoman Charlie Clark.
A national economy that continues to recover, a "pent-up demand for travel" and Hilton Head's reputation for being a "high-repeat destination" have all contributed to improving data for the island's accommodations, according to Clark.
Though island residents may see an influx of young visitors during the weeks near Easter Sunday, when many high schools and universities give their students a spring break, Hilton Head doesn't draw as many party-seeking students as other coastal destinations, Clark said.
"Traditionally, our spring break has been more of a family affair. Ours is not a spring break experience that Myrtle Beach or Daytona Beach might get."
A bigger draw for the island in the spring, Clark said, is the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament, which runs April 15-21.
Recent multi-million dollar renovations made to several of the island's major hotels also have attracted fewer college students piled into minivans and more families with teenagers and younger children, said John Schneider, director of sales and marketing at The Beach House, a Holiday Inn Resort.
The Beach House underwent more than $5 million in renovations last year, and more are planned under new owners, the Northview Hotel Group. Other renovated hotels include The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island, Hilton Head Mariott Resort & Spa, and the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort.
The week following Easter is also a busy one for the island's hospitality industry because some visitors like to pair the holiday with a weeklong vacation, Schneider said. He expects the hotel to sell out of rooms multiple nights next week.
Business is even better, he said, when Easter falls in March, as it does this year.
"It leads to an earlier arrival of spring breakers and summer season guests," Schneider said, adding that the hotel has seen increases this year in both occupancy and its average daily room rate.
Many restaurants are also experiencing a bump in business, according to Steven Carb, president of the SERG Restaurant Group, which owns several restaurants and bars on Hilton Head and in Bluffton, including One Hot Mama's American Grille and the Skull Creek Boathouse.
Carb said he has seen spring break crowds, but many aren't here just to party at bars. He's noticed a lot of families with children visiting grandparents who retired here, and returning college students visiting their families.
"We're seeing a lot of new faces, so we know it's an influx of vacationers," he said.
Business isn't as good as it would be during the peak tourist season, which stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but it has been picking up despite what he calls "the coldest season I can remember up until now."
But "cold" and "warm" are all relative terms, according to Clark.
"Right now," she said, "it's warmer on Hilton Head than it is in Canada."
- Sonesta Resort joins renovation sensation on Hilton Head, Sept. 21, 2012
- Strong tourism season coming for Hilton Head, March 29, 2012