Story By Sarah Shew Wilson | Photography By Suzy King
When the temperatures heat up in Brunswick County, it’s commonplace to see families from around the corner and across the country basking in the sun, splashing in the waves, eating at local seafood restaurants and spending in the shops.
Tourism has been Brunswick County’s number one industry for decades, but it has only been since 1998 that the county has been actively promoting itself as a tourism destination.
Since 1998 Brunswick County has collected occupancy tax from tourist accommodations and used the money to fund the promotion efforts of the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority (TDA). The TDA oversees strategic advertising, marketing and public relations efforts to target potential visitors and ensure that Brunswick County’s tourism economy remains strong.
For years the TDA contracted with the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce for administrative work, but in 2007 the authority hired former chamber president Mitzi York as its full-time executive director.
“When it comes to things like public relations and social media, we need people,” York says. “It’s helped our public relations. And we’re able to be more active on the statewide level. We have a pretty lean staff compared to other organizations. We try to befocused on advertising.”
Most of the TDA’s $1 million annual budget goes to placing ads in magazines like AAA Go, Coastal Living, People, Southern Living and O, The Oprah Magazine as well as online marketing on sites like southernhospitality.com, for printing and fulfillment, and to Smith Advertising to implement the TDA’s advertising strategy.
The key, says York, is targeted advertising and promoting to key markets.
“We advertise ourselves as a family-friendly destination — a place to reconnect with family and friends. It’s an old-fashioned beach vacation,” York says.
For the longest time it seemed the summer tourist season took care of itself. All rental agents, restaurateurs and resort managers had to do was wait for the school year to end and watch the money roll in. But local tourism industry professionals say that has changed. With the downturn in the economy, the increase in vacation choices and the ever-changing habits of a new generation of vacationers, the tourist season can not be taken for granted.
“When the economy slowed down, the tourism market was hit just like everybody else,” says Debbie Sloane Smith, co-owner of Coldwell Banker Sloane Realty on Ocean Isle Beach and vice chair of the TDA, noting 2008 and 2009 were particularly slow for the beach communities. “People were asking for discounts and getting them because there was a lot of availability.”
While 2011 hasn’t been quite so discount-heavy, the Internet has changed people’s booking habits, most likely for good.
Although use of the Internet to book vacations means people are never going to book as early as they did 10 years ago, they are booking earlier. The biggest thing is they’re not negotiating, as they had in previous years, which was a lot of extra work for rental agents and less money for homeowners.
“Now, they’re booking the dates they prefer rather than holding off and trying to negotiate deals at the last minute,” Smith says. “But whether you’re a hotel owner or an agency that rents private everything we know on the Internet. It’s all out there so people know when there’s availability.”
York says she is optimistic about the 2011 season.
“Things are rebounding,” York says. “It’s going to take time to get us to where we were, but there’s less pressure to discount. People are booking earlier.”
The economy hasn’t been the only factor affecting the local tourism market.
“Years ago there was not a lot of competition in the marketplace,” York explains. “Today, people have a lot of choices.”
One thing that hasn’t changed in Brunswick County is this: If the tourism industry doesn’t have a profitable June, July and August, it doesn’t have a profitable year.
That’s why, in addition to print and online advertising, York and the TDA partners put together e-mail promotions targeting specific weekends, holidays and events. And they put a lot of effort into the TDA website, ncbrunswickislands.com, where visitors will find pages on weddings, restaurants, the towns and beaches as well as a list of possible day trips.
Brunswick County TDA Chairman Kemp Causey notes that reaching potential customers via e-mail promotions, websites and social media is also successful.
TDA members and others involved in the tourist trade believe that the Brunswick Islands’ reputation as a place for families to relax, reunite and enjoy a quiet vacation is their greatest strength.
Last year, Bonnie Cox, rental manager of Brunswickland Realty and a member of the TDA, asked a renter if she had visited Holden Beach before. She learned that the woman had vacationed there 20 years earlier as a teenager and wanted her family to have that same experience she had as a child.
“I get that all the time,” Cox says. “Life has changed and pointed in different directions, but they try to come together, if not every year, then every other year.”
Smith hears similar stories.
“A lot of families have built memories over the years,” Smith says. “Even though they may not come every year, they come regularly. They say we’ve got the best beaches on the East Coast. They tell us how clean the beaches are; I hear that a lot.”
Tourism industry professionals say the TDA’s marketing efforts have made it easier to get that message across to would-be vacationers throughout North Carolina and the surrounding states.
“We were focused on the Southeast,” says Cox. “We still are, but we’re also really focusing on a 200 to 300 mile radius. The bulk of our leads come from North Carolina.”
At a recent TDA meeting, however, representatives from the authority’s advertising agency noted the “conversion rate,” the percentage of people who actually visit after inquiring about the Brunswick Islands, is much lower in some Southeastern states like Georgia and Florida.
So, when school is out for summer and generations of families are camped out on the beach, cash registers are ringing at every mom-and-pop store and locals and visitors are standing in line together to get into their favorite restaurants, remember the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority and the behind-the•scenes work that goes into keeping it this way.