Hilton Head chamber asks for $175,000 from town to recover from Florence

Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town on Tuesday, Sept. 18, two days after Tropical Storm Florence missed the area.
Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town on Tuesday, Sept. 18, two days after Tropical Storm Florence missed the area. Mandy Matney, The Island Packet

Before Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina — and completely missed Hilton Head Island — local chamber officials asked the town for $175,000 to help businesses bounce back from the “assumed devastation” from the storm.

The money will fund a post-storm marketing push that the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is calling “Back to Business,” according to a letter written by CEO Bill Miles to Town Manager Steve Riley.

On Friday, Riley approved the release of funds, totaling more than the chamber received after Tropical Storm Irma.

According to chamber officials, the lead up to the storm — which included evacuation orders, then evacuation lifts, and the changing possibility of Florence hitting the island— damaged the tourism industry.

The plan includes funding photography of the island for social media posts, advertising for the island on national magazine websites and optimizing advertising on search engine sites like Google over the next few months.

“Our goal is to allow the positive imagery ... to bring a positive sentiment into the mindset of our travelers or potential travelers,” said vice president of the Visitor Convention Bureau Ariana Pernice.

Riley approved the funds on the condition that the chamber presents all invoices for the money spent on the campaign.

The town’s demand for receipts comes one month after Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett reignited an old fight of challenging the chamber to show the public how it spends its money.

The chamber already receives a large amount of tax money from tourists — more than $2.5 million in 2017 — and recently won a five-year fight in the South Carolina Supreme Court to keep the spending private.

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Why more money after Florence than Irma?

In 2016, the Chamber of Commerce, acting as the town’s Destination Marketing Organization, received $300,000 from the town to recover from Hurricane Matthew, according to deputy director of finance for the town, Steven Markiw. Hurricane Matthew left behind an estimated $51.5 million in damage, and Hilton Head was evacuated for at least five days.

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.

However, Tropical Storm Florence has not caused any structural damage that’s been reported to the town as of Wednesday morning.

Island businesses reported a slow week after the evacuation order for Beaufort County was issued and rescinded within 24 hours, confusing staff and potential guests.

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Pernice said the increased funding for Florence was because the area has seen three named storms in the past three years, which could stick in the minds of potential visitors.

“When you have a crisis situation, as we’ve had for there years in a row … they all in different ways impact the economic drivers of the destination,” Pernice said about visitors associating bad weather with Hilton Head.

The funding is coming from the town’s disaster planning reserves, which includes a special pot of money restricted for advertising that was established in the late 90s to help account for losses in tourism after “a near miss of a hurricane” or a “declared disaster.”

“[The threat of Florence] impacted this destination, it impacted our businesses and that’s exactly what that fund is created for,” Pernice said about the loss in business last week.

The town’s post-disaster advertising funds are comprised from local hospitality tax revenues, which is a tax that is imposed on all prepared food and beverage, and the local accommodations tax, according to the most recent town budget.

Why was it approved before Florence hit?

John Troyer, the town’s director of finance, said that the allocations for marketing after Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma both took place after the storms hit the island. The letter requesting funds for Florence came on Thursday, before the island saw any anticipated effects from the storm.

Troyer and Riley both said this was not unusual, given the popularity of Florence in the national media.

“The national conversation is still about the Carolinas,” Riley said about the storm, which dominated news last week.

Pernice said the chamber also requested funds earlier because the evacuation order announcement came on Monday, four days before the storm was expected to make landfall.

She said the “long lead of anticipation and preparation” and the uncertainty of how the storm would affect the island made marketing planning more difficult.

What are they spending the money on?

Many restaurants and hotels on the island faced both a shortage of available employees and low sales last week, and chamber officials are worried that the misconception of Hurricane Florence damaging Hilton Head will prevent visitors in next few months, Miles wrote in the letter.

But the advertising will not actually include the word “hurricane” or address that Florence spared Hilton Head, according to Pernice.

Instead, the proposed digital ads will include phrases the chamber has used before like “Discover America’s Favorite Island” and “Coastal Charm. Southern Hospitality,” according to the digital marketing plan.

“We no longer want to be tied … to something that has such a negative impact to the entire Southeast region,” Pernice said.

According to the marketing plan, the chamber plans to spend roughly $60,000 on social media and “influencer” visits, another $60,000 on purchasing keywords people use on search engines to push advertising, $35,000 on traditional media marketing like ads in Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler and the remaining $20,000 on real-time photos and videos of the island and also pay for media visits.

While the chamber is trying to distance Hilton Head from the storm, the marketing plan places great importance on getting information to people who were far from the island last week.

“We want to provide accurate information about the Island,” the marketing plan claims. “If they don’t get it from us, they may get it from somewhere else, which may not be as factual ... so that our visitors know Hilton Head Island is open for business.”

However, the chamber’s largest social media account, Visit Hilton Head, also has not updated its nearly 200,000 followers that Florence missed the island. Several people have commented on individual Visit Hilton Head Facebook and Instagram posts asking about the storm, all of which have gone publicly unanswered as of Wednesday afternoon.

Pernice later told the Island Packet that followers who asked about the storm were privately messaged and updated. At the time of publication, Pernice could not provide screenshots of those exchanges to the Island Packet.

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Visit Hilton Head Facebook page

On the chamber’s smaller social media account, the “weather update” repeatedly posted to Facebook last week did not work in the days following the storm. Pernice told the Island Packet the weather information was intentionally taken down after the storm. On Monday, Miles posted a “morning briefing” video to that account to give condolences to those affected by the storm and encourage viewers to post updates about business on the island.

In the video, Miles did not use the word “hurricane.”