Thank goodness for the gas cards.
While tighter family budgets have curbed traffic and spending in popular Carolinas vacation spots, some businesses are weathering the downturn through aggressive marketing of discounts, specials and other incentives – including gas cards.
In Brunswick County, N.C. – home of Bald Head Island, Sunset Beach and other beach communities – many hotels and rental companies offered $50 and $100 cards to visitors, said Mitzi York, executive director of the county Tourism Development Authority.
“I just don't remember in previous summers seeing a lot of that,” she said.
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Yet such moves have been a must in regions that depend heavily on money from visitors. While rental homes that take reservations and payments far in advance are more insulated against cancellations, some hotels and restaurants suffered this summer and have been hustling to minimize the hit from cash-strapped travelers.
Such efforts usually start to ebb in August, but discounts are expected to carry into the fall.
In the Asheville area, hotels, restaurants and attractions realized this spring that they had to work together on vacation packages to land business, said Marla Tambellini, marketing director at the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“People are looking for ways to stretch their vacation dollars,” she said.
With the school year yet to begin in many districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, it's too soon to sum up the summer travel season, tourism officials said, especially since Carolinas destinations continue to woo travelers.
Carolyn McCormick, director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said she has worked in tourism for more than 20 years. For the first time, she said, area tourism officials are pursuing summer travelers during the summer months, recognizing that many are holding out for deals before planning trips.
“Typically I never do that,” McCormick said.
Even in regions with steady crowds this summer, changes in visitor behavior meant less money for businesses.
Besides waiting to book hotel rooms, some travelers stayed fewer days. At restaurants, filet mignon and fine wine were out, and burgers and beer were in, as diners favored cheaper menu items – if they ate out at all.
Guests at one Outer Banks inn where rooms rent for $250 a night often eat at one of the two upscale restaurants run by the inn's owner, McCormick said. This year, she said, the innkeeper saw visitors take food to their rooms.
“People are coming in with Pizza Hut and Subway,” she said.
Ellen Frank of Indian Land, S.C., said that when she goes to the coast – her last trip was to Surfside Beach in late July – she often brings groceries and has curbed visits to restaurants.
“You can't control the price of airfare. You can't control the price of gas,” she said. “One thing you can control is the price of food.”
In Horry County, S.C., Coastal Carolina University's Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism tracks occupancy rates in the Myrtle Beach area through a weekly survey. During a six-week period from late June to early August, the latest report shows, hotel, condo and campsite occupancy was down 1.5 percent from a year earlier, while vacation home reservations were down 3.9 percent.
But Gary Loftus, director of Coastal Carolina's Center for Economic and Community Development, said those numbers are not as bad as they look. The number of hotel rooms in the market has grown significantly, he said, jumping from fewer than 73,000 in late 2003 to almost 90,000 now.
In the Outer Banks, bed and breakfasts and time shares saw more guests in June than a year ago, but hotels, cottages and campgrounds saw dips, according to visitors bureau data.
Rental homes, however, remained strong – with 10 percent more guests in June – and total guests in Outer Banks lodging increased more than 7 percent from last June, although that's down from a nearly 21 percent jump from 2006-07.
To be sure, the tourism industry saw this coming. In tough economic times, optional expenses such as travel often are the first to go.
That's why many hotels, attractions and visitors bureaus dangled deals, and why marketing efforts shrank in scope to target area's within a few hours' drive, hoping to capture last-minute discount travelers.
“There was a such an anticipation that people weren't going to come,” said Pauline Levesque, chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association. “The industry joined the panic bandwagon.”
Strategies and offers normally reserved for slower seasons were in full effect this summer, Levesque said, as area tourism officials braced for a double-digit drop in occupancy rates. While some hotels saw a dip, she said, others increased bookings.
Myrtle Beach area restaurants were hit harder, Levesque said, with only 20 percent saying in a July survey that sales were up, while 50 percent said sales were down 5 percent to 20 percent. About 75 percent said customers were choosing cheaper menu items more often than last summer.
Up the coast, Outer Banks restaurant sales are down about 2 percent, said McCormick, who has seen firsthand where visitors are now getting food for their meals.
“The groceries are just packed,” she said.
Another tip for travelers, Frank said, is to avoid buying souvenirs close to the beach.
“You know what?” she said. “Go to Wal-Mart.”
If they sound less sunny than usual, tourism officials are still looking at the bright side such as hotels and attractions that have seen a boost in visitors.
They're also gearing up for the fall, hoping that declining gas prices – down 9 percent in N.C. and 10 percent in S.C. since mid-July – will tempt people to take trips during an otherwise slower season.
McCormick said she already has noticed an uptick in the Outer Banks, while Tambellini said dry conditions should make for more spectacular fall foliage around Asheville.
To that end, tourism groups are maintaining their marketing efforts even as families get ready for the school year. York said she plans to update people in her organization's database this week on the latest deals in Brunswick County.
Although she has “aged a few years this summer,” McCormick said she's buoyed by the consistent crowds in Outer Banks rental homes, and doesn't expect any summer stumbles to carry over to the rest of 2008.
“I don't foresee us having as unfortunate a year as we were feeling early on,” she said.
“Overall, I think we're going to pull it out.”