Bureau, merchant defend Bluffton marketing strategy

Mary O'Neil says there is only one explanation for Bluffton officials and downtown merchants who question whether the town's designated marketing organization is working hard for them.

The critics aren't paying attention, according to the owner of the old-town shop the Complete Home.

"If people don't see that we suddenly have tons of people coming to Bluffton, they're blind," O'Neil said.

O'Neil has worked with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Visitor & Convention Bureau to establish a Bluffton brand for several years, and she said the bureau's strategy is working.

Nonetheless, she said she hears criticism that the bureau promotes Hilton Head to Bluffton's exclusion "all the time." That criticism was repeated before and during a meeting Tuesday of the town's accommodations-tax advisory panel, which recommended the Town Council give the visitor's bureau $45,000. That's the estimated amount owed to it by law as Bluffton's designated marketing organization, according to town finance director Shirley Freeman.

The bed-tax grant -- part of the bureau's $315,000 annual budget for marketing Bluffton and southern Beaufort County -- will be up for review at the Town Council meeting Tuesday. Bluffton is projected to collect 10 percent more bed-tax money this year than last, according to Freeman.

Approval of the final piece of the bureau's budget will allow it to implement a marketing plan that includes full-page ads in publications targeting cultural and heritage travelers, banners on websites such as Gozaic.com, and an old-town Bluffton mobile app, said bureau vice president Susan Thomas.

Thomas, who presented next year's marketing plan to the Old Town Merchants Society on Wednesday, said the bureau promotes Bluffton as a destination independent from Hilton Head, for which it also is a designated marketing organization.

Nonetheless, marketing for Bluffton often is linked with Hilton Head's because visitors don't always notice territorial boundaries when they travel to the region and because the goal for Bluffton is to get travelers to the area in the first place, Thomas said."The lack of understanding of our focus comes into play by some folks who maybe haven't looked as closely at what we're doing because we're not advertising here locally," Thomas said.