Travel

Almost 18 million visitors makes for great summer in Myrtle Beach

jlee@thesunnews

The summer of 2016 toppled a record-breaking 2015, with increases in occupancy, arrivals at the airport, higher attendance at the summer’s biggest concert and visitors to the Grand Strand reaching an all-time high of 17.95 million.

The summer got off to a slower start as visitorsdelayed their vacations due to school years ending later than usual, said Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The summer of 2016 started soft but ended strong, with most revenue indicators showing favorable results overall for the three summer months,” Dean said, adding many businesses believe the persistent rumors about the ocean’s water quality negatively impacted their bottom line. The chamber led a campaign earlier this summer to assure visitors that the water was safe to swim in.

As for the Myrtle Beach International Airport, which saw a 6 percent growth in July compared to last year, Dean said the efforts to grow air service and penetrate new markets is working.

“This is all due to increased capacity, which demonstrates growing interest in the Myrtle Beach area as a national travel destination,” Dean said.

79.5 percent of the lodging properties in the Brittain Center’s voluntary sample of 9,331 nightly-rented hotel, condo-hotel, and campsite units located along the Grand Strand were occupied between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which was up 0.9 percent compared with the equivalent weeks of 2015

Kirk Lovell, assistant director of airports, said passenger trends are strong at MYR.

“Year-to-date July 2016 [had] more than 590,000 passengers [arrive] in the airport, about 6 percent more than the same period last year and 32 percent more than 2012,” Lovell said. “Year-to-date, the airport has welcomed more people to Myrtle Beach than ever before. Based on current passenger trends, Myrtle Beach should conclude 2016 above last year’s record.”

The airport attributes the growth to airlines introducing new nonstop service into the market and increasing seat capacity in existing markets. This summer, Allegiant, United, Delta, American and Elite all added or introduced more capacity at the airport.

In late 2012, the Horry County Department of Airports implemented an air service development strategy to attract new visitors to the Grand Strand from strategic origination points outside the normal drive market.

“To implement the strategy we analyzed the industry and marketplace, then developed tactics that would assist us in achieving our objectives,” Lovell said.

Tactics include identifying market opportunities with air carriers and identifying what pushes travel. With that information, the airport began developing unique business cases and marketing to airlines.

The airport worked with Allegiant to add service to Akron/Canton; Cincinnati; Clarksburg; Columbus, Ohio; Harrisburg; Indianapolis; Lexington; Ky.; Newburg-Stewart; Pittsburgh; Syracuse; and Toledo while significantly extending service offering into the shoulder seasons. Then American Airlines added service to LaGuardia.

At Spirit, the airport’s largest carrier, it added service to Baltimore/Washington; Cleveland; and Philadelphia.

“We love Myrtle Beach,” said Paul Berry, spokesman for Spirit Airlines. Berry said Spirit does not get into too much detail on its success in a market “for competitive reasons,” but added, “We’re pleased with how Myrtle Beach is performing, including this summer.”

Spirit shows no signs of slowing down, either, as it announced that in March of next year it will begin seasonal service between Myrtle Beach and Newark. Then in April, it will begin seasonal service between Myrtle Beach and Akron/Canton, Ohio.

In all, as of July 2016, the Myrtle Beach airport has nonstop service from 35 markets, which is more than any other airport in South Carolina.

During the same period in 2016, 83.5 percent of the weekly-rented vacation rental property bedrooms in the Center’s weekly random sample of 217 vacation rental properties in Horry County were reserved or blocked from nightly rentals, up 2.7 percent compared with the equivalent weeks last year

One of the big draws of the summer has become the Carolina Country Music Festival. Bob Durkin, president of festival organizer Full House Productions, said fans enjoyed 2015 so much that there were more people reaching out to his company for 2016. That, coupled with cooler night weather and a working relationship with the city and law enforcement, created a positive event.

“The lineup went up, and having Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line was really amazing,” Durkin said. “And then a lot of activities and fun things that we created on our property ... created a lot more excitement of the many more activities that were planned.”

FarmBorough in New York, Delaware Junction, Big Barrel and Shaky Boots country music fests were all canceled this year, which may have played a role in 5,000 more fans finding the Myrtle Beach event.

“You don’t want to see anybody do bad, but ... with less options, l think you’re going to be seeing more people look our way,” Durkin said.

Durkin said the plan to grow next year’s crowd is already in motion as his group’s radio marketing plan reaches Washington, New York, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

“Having people come from 48 states was pretty wild this year,” Durkin said.

Having people come from 48 states was pretty wild this year.

Bob Durkin of CCMF

Although most visitors to the area drive to Myrtle Beach, airport figures play a significant role in occupancy and hospitality fees, which are collected through lodging, restaurants and some entertainment, said Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.

“June was flat and July was up, combining for a 2 percent overall increase,” Damonte said of hospitality fees. “We anticipate August to be up 3 to 4 percent.”

Occupancy for June was 78.8 percent of capacity, which was down 1.2 from last year, and July was 89.3, which was up .3 from last year, according to figures compiled by the center. August was 77.4 percent, which is up 5.2 percent from last year.

“Overall, occupancy is up for the summer,” Damonte said.

Mark Lazarus, managing owner of Wild Water N Wheels, said although occupancy was up, weather can still play a role in results for local businesses. Attendance was down at the Surfside Beach water park in June and July, Lazarus said, adding that a late ending to the school year along with rainy weather affected his business early in the summer.

“We had a lot of afternoon rain in July, which really affected our afternoon specials,” Lazarus said. “But in August, we were up. We had a really good August. We had less rain this year in August ... All in all, Wild, Water was about flat from the prior year, and rain was the contributing factor for us.”

Lazarus also is the managing owner of Broadway Grand Prix, and said the race track had an “exceptional” spring. He said despite the rainy weather, the track finished between 5 percent and 8 percent above last year.

Lazarus said the rain nowadays plays more of a factor in the overall economy than just impacting outdoor businesses like his.

“Myrtle Beach, as a whole — with the way people book today and when you watch these weather reports — we’re relegated to the weather,” Lazarus said. “As long as the weather forecast is good and all that, Myrtle Beach is strong.

“All in all, it looks like the beaches had a good summer.”

Dean echoed the changing trend of how people book vacations.

We have never seen so many consumers making their vacations plans so close to their travel dates, which complicates the business model for many local businesses. In some weeks, as much as 25 percent of the visitor base made their reservations less than 2 weeks out, which creates an unprecedented level of uncertainty for planning and staffing.

Brad Dean, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce president

“We have never seen so many consumers making their vacations plans so close to their travel dates, which complicates the business model for many local businesses,” Dean said. “In some weeks, as much as 25 percent of the visitor base made their reservations less than two weeks out, which creates an unprecedented level of uncertainty for planning and staffing.”

Dean said comparing 2016 to 2015 — an all-time record year for tourism — shows that about 750,000 more tourists found the Grand Strand this year, according to estimates provided by D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a tourism and travel research company.

“We intend to continue developing new markets and remain confident we will see continued growth in new air service, with 2017 possibly being the year when we hit the 1,000,000 enplanement milestone at the airport,” Dean said.

Lovell said Allegiant is starting its flights in February instead of its usual start time for service in late spring, which means growth in 2017 is looking good.

“Of course, none of the achievements would have been accomplished if the aviation industry was not healthy and we did not have the popularity of Myrtle Beach,” Lovell said. “So, as a result of a strategic plan, a healthy airline industry and one of the top destinations in the United States ... passenger traffic at Myrtle Beach International Airport is strong.”

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