How Hilton Head chamber spent $175,000 in public funds for Florence recovery

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information from chamber officials.

While Hurricane Florence largely spared Hilton Head Island, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce spent about $25,000 more in its aftermath to kickstart tourism than it did after Tropical Storm Irma, which left a much wider path of destruction across the island, according to invoices obtained from the Town of Hilton Head Island.

The chamber spent $175,000 of tax dollars in the four months following the September 2018 hurricane, the invoices said. The money came from the town’s disaster planning reserves.

Chamber officials said the money would be used to let potential visitors know that the island was “Back to Business” in the wake of weeks of storm coverage centered on the Carolinas.

The money the chamber received for Florence is more than half the amount requested after Hurricane Matthew — the 2016 storm that left behind an estimated $51.5 million in damage and caused a five-day evacuation of Hilton Head.

The Florence invoices, obtained by The Island Packet through a Freedom of Information request to the town, show that all of the money went to four out-of-state advertising vendors — Google, Meredith Corporation, VERB Interactive and Net Conversion. One vendor is based in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The lead-up to the storm — which included an evacuation order that was later lifted, as well as the changing possibility of Florence hitting the island — damaged the tourism industry, according to chamber officials.

“A hurricane doesn’t have to have a direct impact on the island to have a negative impact on the lifeblood of our economy — tourism,” Ariana Pernice, vice president of the visitor and convention bureau, said in a statement to The Island Packet on Thursday evening. “Visitors begin canceling trips whether or not a hurricane directly hits our area.”

Island businesses experienced a slow week after the evacuation order for Beaufort County was issued and rescinded within 24 hours, confusing staff and potential guests, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet.

“In the last storm and others, millions of dollars in lost revenue negatively impacted our local tourism industry and greatly impacted our workforce with resort closings and canceled bookings,” Pernice said in a statement.

The Florence original recovery plan included funding photography of the island for social media posts; advertising the island on national magazine websites; and optimizing advertising results on search engine sites such as Google from October through December.

While the invoices show no spending on social media influencers or photography as originally planned, they do show national newsletters and Hilton Head-themed spreads that appeared in publications and social media platforms such as Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, Facebook and Pinterest.

How did the chamber spend the money?

The funds were issued on a reimbursement basis — so the chamber spent the approved grant and then submitted reimbursement receipts to the town. Those receipts show:

  • While some vendors give details about spending in the invoices, the largest amount of money from the grant — $69,771.90 — went to VERB Interactive for projects titled “Hurricane Florence Funding - Facebook” , “Hurricane Florence - Pinterest” and online media management.

  • The chamber spent $60,287.98 to purchase keywords on Google including “Florence” , “things to do” , “gator” , “holiday” and “HHI golf.”

Purchasing keywords buys influence on Google, according to Haemoon Oh, the Dean of the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina.

“When people search, it’s very shallow. They really look at the only two to three results ... and never the second page,” Oh told The Island Packet. “What they’re trying to buy is priority when someone types a word ... popping up on the first page.”

  • The chamber spent $35,896.92 on newsletters that partnered with Travel + Leisure and “content targeting travel package(s)“ from the Meredith Corporation, which owns brands such as Travel + Leisure, Coastal Living and PEOPLE Magazine, according to the spending reports.
  • The remaining $9,043.20 was spent on a four-month effort to manage “Google AdWords” through Net Conversion, a digital marketing firm based in Orlando.

The receipts for the expenditures were submitted to the town on Jan. 25, according to a letter written by the chamber’s finance deputy Kelly McAllister to the town A-TAX administrator, Cindaia Ervin.

Where did these funds come from?

The town’s disaster planning reserves include a special pot of money restricted for advertising to help account for losses in tourism after “a near miss of a hurricane” or a “declared disaster.”

The post-disaster advertising funds are raised by local hospitality taxes — a tax that is imposed on all prepared food and beverage — and the local accommodations tax, according to the most recent town budget.

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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.