Tourism center could help sharpen competitive edge

Hilton Head Island would make a sound investment in its largest industry by helping to fund a proposed tourism training and development center.

The town would be making good use of money already collected from visitors in paying its estimated $103,000 share of the cost.

The concept is not a new one. After the town adopted its 1 percent local accommodations tax in 1997, it set aside 5 percent of the money from the new tax for worker training and new festival development. That went to the Hilton Head Area Hospitality Association.

In 2003, the group, with help from the University of South Carolina Beaufort, created the "Island Ambassador" training program, a four-session course on area history and facts. The premise: More knowledgeable workers mean better service and more satisfied -- and repeat -- visitors. The program was free to employees of island businesses and trained thousands of employees.

Unfortunately, the Hospitality Association no longer qualifies to receive the bed-tax money, primarily because it laid off its executive director in October.

But town staff approached USCB about providing services, and as described so far, the new program seems to hold more promise than the old one.

It would focus on special events production, volunteerism and training hospitality workers. The special events component would help with establishing new festivals, said Charles Calvert, chairman of USCB's department of hospitality management.

The center also would provide training and internships for students and re-establish a USCB presence on Hilton Head, missing since the university moved its southern Beaufort Countyoperations to its campus near Sun City Hilton Head.

Over the years, some questions have been raised about using bed tax money for worker training. The state Department of Revenue has said that state accommodations tax money can't be used for it. The town has taken the position that it is OK to spend local bed tax money, which has a different set of rules, for training.

Town manager Steve Riley says there are some questions about how the money would be used to promote festivals. What does that constitute and can the local bed tax money be used for it? If the answer is that the local bed tax money is not appropriate, the town probably could redirect money to the center from its general revenue budget and use bed tax money to pay for items that would have been paid for from general operations money.

If done right, the new center should benefit businesses, increase visitation and increase overall tax revenue.

It could help Hilton Head Island develop new markets and a superior work force, giving it a competitive edge over other destination resorts

And isn't that what we've been saying we need?