Beaufort News

Hilton Head Hospitality Association disbands after more than 25 years of service

The Hilton Head Hospitality Association, a membership organization that has supported the island's largest industry for more than 25 years, is disbanding.

Two other organizations, however, might spring up in its place.

The association, established in 1985, has members in the food and beverage and accommodations industries and related businesses. It offers networking opportunities and scholarships, provides training for hospitality workers and produces two annual events -- the Wine & Food Festival and the Seafood, Jazz & Brew Festival.

With the association's demise, volunteers plan to form a new nonprofit group to produce the two festivals, which raise money for scholarships. Separately, the S.C. Hospitality Association could form a local chapter to provide networking, training and legislative advocacy.

The change is necessary because the local association had lost money for several years and was in debt as of late last year, said association president Sean Barth, an assistant professor of hospitality management at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

The organization had been run by volunteers since it laid off executive director Ann-Marie Adams in October to cut costs. It is no longer in debt but can't continue operating at its previous level without staff, Barth said.

"The structure just wasn't right," he said. "The structure needed to be upgraded for 2011."

Membership has been declining, sponsorship has become harder to find and it would have been difficult to retain members without an executive director, he said.

If the state association forms a local chapter, Barth said, it could provide the local hospitality industry with "a voice that had been lacking."

If the state association's members are interested in a local chapter, the association will hold an exploratory meeting and seek a local board, president Tom Sponseller said.

The state association's dues would be slightly more expensive on average than the local association's, but members would get more in return, he said.

Benefits include simultaneous membership in local, state and national trade organizations and access to all the resources of those groups, such as networking meetings, educational programs and alerts about new legislation affecting members' businesses, he said.

The local association's members expressed mixed opinions about the changes.

Wayne Johnson, a senior partner at World Design Marketing, said he was disappointed to learn of the demise of the local association, which he said helped his agency by introducing it to potential clients and giving it an audience with politicians from the local to federal level.

"We were very happy with our membership," Johnson said. "We got a lot of benefits from participating."

Hilton Head Realtor Andy Twisdale, a longtime member and past president of the local hospitality association, said he thinks the changes are "very positive."

The local association "has never had a big enough voice," he said. "I think the state (association) can do that."

Bonnie Lowrey, a member of the state association and former board member of the local association, said it makes sense to have separate groups focus on each of the local association's primary responsibilities: Organizing events and boosting the industry.

Lowrey, a Hilton Head caterer and restaurateur, couldn't think of anything the local association provided that wouldn't be covered by one of the new groups.

"If anything, we will be providing a whole lot more services and opportunities," she said.