Beaufort News

Commercial welcome centers: Valuable addition or cause for concern?

Marcie Bower, right, a marketing representative with Hilton Head Guest Services, consults with Hilton Head Island visitors Libba and Wesley Hammond of Spartanburg at the Hilton Head Island Welcome Center, which was recently opened at exit 8 off Interstate 95 in Hardeeville. The new center is one of several visitors can stop at as they approach Hilton Head on I-95 and U.S. 278.
Marcie Bower, right, a marketing representative with Hilton Head Guest Services, consults with Hilton Head Island visitors Libba and Wesley Hammond of Spartanburg at the Hilton Head Island Welcome Center, which was recently opened at exit 8 off Interstate 95 in Hardeeville. The new center is one of several visitors can stop at as they approach Hilton Head on I-95 and U.S. 278. Jay Karr/ The Island Packet

Almost as soon as drivers pull off Interstate 95 at exit 8, they're greeted by the green sign of the new Hilton Head Island Welcome Center.

In flashing red letters, the center tempts travelers with information about area attractions, tours and discount golf and hotels.

The center, which opened last month, is one of at least eight operating on or around Hilton Head. In addition to offering brochures and advice, at least five of them -- including the new center at exit 8 -- offer tours of Hilton Head timeshare resorts.

The commercial centers concern some nonprofit tourism promoters, who say visitors can leave with a sour taste if they expect to find unbiased information from an "official" welcome center and instead receive a solicitation to tour a timeshare.

"It's not the ideal first impression anyone would want for island vacationers," said Charlie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, which runs a welcome center on Hilton Head.

Chamber staff occasionally speaks with visitors who are "slightly confused" by commercial centers or report they received a sales pitch from a commercial center, Clark said in an email.

Dawn Dawson-House, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, said visitors' experience at commercial centers that sell timeshares will differ from that at a state-run center, such as the one near I-95's exit 5.

"For some of them, I believe (selling timeshares) is their overarching goal," she said. "Our goal is to promote all destinations in the state and encourage people to stay longer, explore and vacation in South Carolina."

She referred further questions to department spokesman Marion Edmonds, who could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Operators of the commercial centers say they gladly and professionally help all visitors -- even those uninterested in or who are unlikely candidates for buying a timeshare. Commercial operators also say they can provide better, more personal service than state- or chamber-run centers.

Ed Evans, who manages the center at exit 8 and another at Fresh Market Shoppes on Hilton Head that offer timeshare tours at Coral Resorts, estimates 60 percent to 75 percent of visitors to those centers would not receive such an offer from his staff. A group of men coming to play golf, for example, would not be considered likely candidates for a timeshare, he said.

Even if a visitor is deemed eligible for a timeshare, Evans said his staff won't pitch a tour in a pushy or aggressive way.

"If they want to do it, great," Evans said. "If they don't, no problem."

Ruth Ann Schaffer, a concierge at the Hilton Head Island Visitors Center near the corner of S.C. 46 and U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton, said commercial operators who sell timeshares have a significant incentive to treat guests well. Even if those guests can't or don't want to tour a timeshare this visit, she said, they might do so on a return trip.

Schaffer, who works at one of three local centers affiliated with Spinnaker Resorts, disputed the notion that visitors could emerge disgruntled if she discusses a timeshare with them. She said she treats all visitors with the same Southern hospitality.

"They won't leave here with a bad taste," she said.

Dave Herndon, a concierge who last week set up shop in a red-trimmed hut he calls the Hilton Head Welcome Center near the fruit stands and gas station just before the bridges to Hilton Head, said he has inside knowledge because he grew up on the island.

He says he doesn't sell timeshares but instead plans to make money by referring travelers to accommodations or services and working as a concierge for groups that pay him a fee to take care of all their trip arrangements.

"I know every corner. I know every marina. I know every person that runs boats," said Herndon, who operates with the slogan "ask a local."

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