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Hilton Head Island chamber of commerce, local golf clubs seek big push to attract new players

Hilton Head Island's chief marketers and local golf clubs are teeing up a big pitch to attract more players next year.

They will be everywhere golfers are: Online on PGATour.com, in the car on the popular SiriusXM Radio golf talk show "Katrek and Maginnes on Tap," and on TV during The Ryder Cup and 2016 Olympics -- the first summer games to include golf.

But to pull it all off, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association seek $250,000 in support from the town's accommodations tax grants.

"The paradigm has changed; it changed during the recession," said Cary Corbitt, of the course association and vice president of sports and operations at Sea Pines Resort. "We've had to refocus ourselves, and we've really got to maximize allocated dollars ... . But you've got to stay aggressive. If you don't, the competition will pass us by."

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On Thursday, the Corbitt and Ariana Pernice, vice president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Visitor & Convention Bureau, pitched the plan to the town's Accommodations Tax Committee, which issues grants yearly to programs promoting tourism using the taxes collected on overnight lodging.

It's the groups' biggest golf push since the economic downturn took a hefty toll on the golf industry across the country, Corbitt and Pernice said.

Despite the downturn, golf is still perched alongside tennis and culinary appeal as the top three attractions for island visitors, Pernice said.

More than 425,000 rounds of golf were played on Hilton Head's 15.5 courses last year, and 75 percent of those rounds were played by visiting golfers, Corbitt said. Beaufort County collected more than $3 million in admissions taxes at all of the county's courses over the past fiscal year, he added.

Pernice and Corbitt intend to focus their campaign on the affluent golfer with an income of more than $150,000 who travels from the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Canada. Ads online, in targeted email blasts, on the Golf Channel and ESPN, and in the old-school printed mail will all direct golfers to www.hiltonheadgolfisland.com to sign up for certain stay-and-play packages, they said.

If approved, the grants would be split into $200,000 to the chamber and $50,000 to the association for the program.

They are two of a slew of applications the Accommodations Tax Committee is considering this week and next. The committee will make final recommendations to Town Council at its meeting early next month, committee chairman Mike Alsko said.

The $200,000 proposed grant for the chamber is the lion's share of its total $385,000 request, according to its application.

The remainder would go toward a half-dozen smaller programs to attract small professional conferences, build a new community events calendar and market the island's historical and culinary attractions. It also includes $34,500 to promote the expected Ironman 70.3 triathlon event, anticipated to be held on the island in late October 2016.

The request comes as Town Council members work behind closed doors on a possible new contract with the chamber to formalize how it spends about $1.5 million in tax dollars it receives annually as the town's designated marketing organization. The controversial contract is designed to increase "financial transparency and accountability" at the chamber amid a flurry of accusations from one vocal chamber opponent.

In light of that increased focus on transparency, the Accommodations Tax Committee has asked all applicants to provide a tremendous amount of supporting material detailing each group's financial records. Committee members praised the extent of the chamber's application.

"This application has much stronger and much better organized than we've seen in quite a long time," committee members Stewart Brown said. "Particularly your effectiveness measurements were very well summarized. You can see the direct relationship between this is what we thought we were going to spend, this is what we actually spent and this was our result."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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