Monday, September 5, 2011

Myrtle Beach Summer Tourism Good, Not Great

Myrtle Beach
The Sun News: As the last summer vacationers visit the Grand Strand this Labor Day weekend, area business owners say they are satisfied with the season, but most aren’t celebrating.

Revenue growth this summer was minimal, many said, held back by the still-lagging economy that prompted visitors to stay fewer days and spend less money while here. But at least revenues didn’t drop, they say.

“We had a good summer, not necessarily a great summer,” said Peter MacIntyre, general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. “Certainly I think that the economy showed in the spending habits of our customers. People were here in town, but they didn’t have as much to spend on the entertainment side and made choices accordingly.”

Several new high-profile attractions – including the SkyWheel and Pirates Voyage theater show – helped lure crowds and generate publicity for Myrtle Beach, but it wasn’t enough for a home-run summer for the destination, officials said.

Sagging consumer confidence and stubbornly high jobless rates continue to weigh on travelers’ psyches – and their pocketbooks. Most area businesses are thankful for the slight gains they managed to pull off this summer. But like so many others, they wonder when the economic mess will be cleaned up.

National reports out Friday hinted that it won’t be soon, though tourism promoters say they are optimistic about extending summer’s subdued success into the fall. “Things could always be better, but all in all, we are doing remarkably well,” said Gary Loftus, an Horry County councilman and director of Coastal Carolina University’s Center for Economic and Community Development.

All the statistics for the summer haven’t yet been tallied – usually there’s a two- to three-month lag in calculating accommodations, admissions and sales taxes, which are key gauges of tourism, an industry that drives the Grand Strand’s economy. The Grand Strand had a couple of things on its side this summer: new attractions – the SkyWheel, Pirates Voyage, a relocated Legends in Concert, WonderWorks – and a reputation as an affordable destination, which appeals to the bevy of budget-conscious and recession-weary vacationers, experts said.

“We’ve enjoyed a solid summer season,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “The summer season started a little slower than some of us hoped, but once the tourists started arriving in late June, the summer appeared to build stronger and stronger week by week.”

Attractions reported good crowds, and traffic at the Myrtle Beach International Airport was up, including a nearly 24 percent jump in the number of incoming passengers in June and a 6 percent increase in July thanks to additional flights and bigger planes that could carry more travelers; August traffic numbers haven’t yet been released.

Broadway at the Beach saw a surge of visitors thanks to new additions such as WonderWorks and Legends, said Patrick Walsh, senior vice president of asset management for Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., which owns Broadway. “This has clearly helped attract more visitors to the complex,” he said. “We have a strong repeat business and have seen a lot of new faces at the complex. This has been a tremendous summer for Broadway at the Beach.”

Overall, lodging properties weren’t as full as they were last year, but vacationers paid more for their rooms than they did a year ago – the first room-rate increases after two summers of declines, experts said.

The Grand Strand’s lodging occupancy for the summer was down 3.8 percent from last summer, falling to 79 percent, according to CCU’s Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism. Room rates were up 6.4 percent from last year, with RevPar – revenue per available room, a key gauge of the industry – ticking up 2.3 percent, according to CCU.

Though the price increases offset the occupancy declines this summer, that’s not a combination that can be sustained in the long run, said Taylor Damonte of the Center for Resort Tourism. “We need to continue to drive volume,” he said. “At some point, those price increases will not be sustainable.”

The 100-room Court Capri in Myrtle Beach wasn’t one of the properties that raised rates, general manager Jason Anderson said. Travelers, who have gotten used to deep discounts since the recession, still were searching for deals, he said, adding that the hotel frequently offered the fourth night free with a paid three-night stay. Still, this summer was better than last summer, Anderson said. “We did have to discount more this summer,” he said. “There are still a lot of people not back to work.”

Unemployment continues to stifle any economic recovery nationally or along the Grand Strand. On Friday, the government released the weakest jobs report since September 2010, reporting that employers stopped adding jobs in August – an unexpected setback – and that the national jobless rate stayed at 9.1 percent. The news sent the stock markets down more than 250 points Friday and increased fears that the United States might slip back into a recession. Along the Grand Strand, jobless rates continue to hang in the double digits, and South Carolina has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

“Once we have jobs, everything is going to start falling back into place,” said Matt Morris, spokesman for Myrtle Beach Mall, where revenue was up slightly this summer. The job uncertainty and lagging economy has kept consumers from spending and Myrtle Beach Mall from reaching the revenues it would like, he said.

“We’ve had solid traffic and our sales reflect that,” Morris said. “Certainly, we’d like it to be stronger. There are still some residuals left over from the economy itself.”

The SkyWheel, a nearly 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel that debuted on the oceanfront in Myrtle Beach in May, had a good summer, but it wasn’t quite as good as officials had hoped, general manager Chris Trout said. “We’re satisfied with the summer. We came real close to our projected number of riders,” he said, declining to give specific numbers. “It was steady from the get-go. It was a good year.”

Business was booming this summer at another somewhat new attraction in Myrtle Beach – the overhauled Dolly Parton theater that switched to Pirates Voyage in June after a 19-year run as Dixie Stampede. Demand was so great, the theater added a fourth show on some days, which it didn’t do last year, and many days, all the shows were sold out, said Larry McCoy, the theater’s sales and marketing director. “We had a lot of new people come to the show for the first time,” he said. “It’s exceeded our greatest expectations.”

Businesses aren’t sure what to expect for the fall season, with many travelers booking their trips just a couple of weeks in advance. Morris is optimistic that spending might pick up, but Friday’s jobs report didn’t signal improvement. Lodging is likely to follow the same pattern it did all summer: occupancy slightly down or even with last year, with room rates higher than last year, Damonte said.

But the beach, like destinations across the country, won’t be back to better times until people are back to work and until those who are still working aren’t trimming their trips out of economic fear, Loftus said.

“That’s what’s out there,” he said. “People say, ‘We’ve got to cut back. Why? Because the economy is bad.’”

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