Recently, Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett wrote a guest column addressing items related to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. We welcome the opportunity to provide an explanation of the investment of accommodations tax and the performance of the chamber in that process.
The accommodations tax is imposed by the state of South Carolina, and state laws and rules govern its distribution. The town holds the funds on behalf of the state and has a role in the distribution of these funds.
Accommodations taxes are paid by overnight visitors. State law requires that 30 percent of this 2 percent tax be directed to a nonprofit corporation for the sole purpose of tourism promotion. State law requires that 5 percent is retained by the town for its general fund, and the remaining 65 percent is distributed to nonprofits such as arts and cultural organizations that satisfy the state's expenditure criteria as applied by the town's Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee and approved by Town Council.
Each year the town is required by state law to submit an annual report to a state board called the Tourism Expenditure Review Board. This state board decides whether all the expenditures conform to state law. Since the inception of the accommodations tax more than 30 years ago, this state board has always approved the chamber's expenditures of accommodations taxes.
The annual process starts with the chamber's professional staff drafting a marketing plan and outlining a budget in tandem with the chamber's marketing council. The marketing council has 13 members who work in the private sector in a business directly affected by tourism. After several meetings, the marketing plan and budget are finalized and submitted to the chamber's board of directors for approval.
Once the marketing plan and budget are approved by the chamber's internal processes, the town's Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee will hold public meetings to review and recommend the marketing plan and budget to Town Council. These meetings are open to the public, and the documents are public for any resident to review. The Town Council holds a public meeting where it's approved. With a minimum of three annual public meetings that include presentation of the marketing plan and a budget, the chamber demonstrates its commitment to transparency. Residents can find all of this information from the past five years at thinkhiltonheadisland.org.
The chamber's board is composed of 24 individuals who are CEOs, general managers, directors of marketing and small-business owners of some of the most recognized businesses on Hilton Head and in Bluffton. The board adheres to all requirements of the state's nonprofit act and to industry best practices for corporate governance.
The board, which is the governing body under state law, has a standing finance committee that reviews financial statements and tax returns and meets with the external auditor and reviews and approves the annual audit. The board follows a written conflicts-of-interest policy that is stricter than the one set forth in the state's nonprofit act. All of the board's programs and procedures are reviewed by two nationally recognized industry bodies.
It is also important to note that your friends and neighbors in private businesses invest more than $3.4 million in the chamber each year. This is perhaps the most informative fact, indicating that private businesses believe the programs operated by the chamber are worthy of their invested capital.
The chamber has demonstrated long-term success by its commitment to proper corporate governance, research-based marketing programs, nationally recognized public relations efforts and the generation of private investment that is 124 percent greater than the accommodations taxes it receives from the town as its Designated Marketing Organization.
Because of this long-term commitment to transparency and corporate governance, the chamber has been accredited by Destination Marketing Association International, the industry's standard bearer. Only 7 percent of chambers and visitors bureaus receive this designation. DMAI has also determined that the chamber spends 47 percent less on personnel costs and expends 46 percent more on marketing programs than its peer group.
The chamber is also accredited at the four-star level by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its programs, governance and efficiency. Only 1 percent of chambers in the United States obtain this designation.
Economists and tourism researchers from Clemson University and the University of South Carolina Beaufort have determined that every accommodations tax dollar the town invests with the chamber resulted in a $49.37 return on tax investment.
On behalf of the chamber's 23 other board members and the more than 100 board members who have previously served, we thank the chamber's volunteers and staff for their commitment to excellence.
We welcome a town contract that requires best practices and requires that we continue to satisfy industry standards. We hope it is completed soon so 100 percent of our focus can remain on our mission. Once this process is completed, we will encourage the town of Bluffton and Beaufort County to consider similar arrangements.
Jay Wiendl of Hilton Head Island is board chairman of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and general manager of the Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island.