MYRTLE BEACH — Vacationers didn’t let the wobbly economy keep them from taking a trip to the Grand Strand this summer, but it sure made them spend less while here.
Visitors clipped coupons, sought deals and checked out more free entertainment during their beach trips this summer as the national economic woes linger. That left restaurants and attractions having to fight harder to lure those customers, and fewer dollars to spread around Grand Strand businesses.
“A lot of people were here, but they were cutting corners,” said Tom Moore, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites on the oceanfront in Myrtle Beach.
They spent even more time on the beach -- that’s free. They made sandwiches and ordered pizza in their hotel rooms instead of going out to a restaurant. Refilled plastic water bottles instead of buying a fresh one. Souvenirs? No Myrtle Beach T-shirt or shot glass. Only memories.
“We’ve been picking up coupon books,” said Kristy Cairns of Buffalo, N.Y., who was checking out Ripley’s Aquarium last week during her first trip to the Grand Strand. “That helps a little bit....With three kids, it gets a little pricey. We look for coupons, look for less expensive things to do.”
But most vacationers probably plopped down more on a place to stay than last summer. The average daily rate was $146.05 this summer, up from $140.52 last summer and $130.59 in 2010, according to Coastal Carolina University’s Center for Resort Tourism.
About the same number of visitors came to the Grand Strand this summer as last year, but fewer than two years ago, according to the center’s statistics. Lodging occupancy from May 27 to Aug. 25 averaged 79.9 percent, in line with the 79.6 percent last summer but down from 82.6 percent in 2010, according to the center.
“Another good summer,” said Taylor Damonte of CCU’s tourism center. “It wasn’t on par with occupancy in 2010 but our prices are quite a bit higher.”
Higher weekend rates helped Court Capri hotel in Myrtle Beach have a good summer, general manager Jason Anderson said. Anderson and Moore also said that marketing of Myrtle Beach helped lure more people to the beach this summer.
“The summer was good, a little better than we expected,” Anderson said.
Though the beach had about as many tourists as last summer, fewer got here by plane. Traffic at Myrtle Beach International Airport, which took a hit with the loss of bankrupt Direct Air in March and the loss of seats on other carriers such as Spirit Airlines, has been off most of the year. The number of incoming passengers was down between 22 percent and 26 percent in May, June and July from the same months last year, according to airport statistics.
Ripley’s Aquarium and Ripley’s attractions along Ocean Boulevard had more visitors and revenue than last summer, thanks in part to the aquarium’s new Dinosaur exhibit and new partnerships with lodging providers, general manager Craig Atkins said.
“People this year were spending more on their hotel, so there was less for [eating out and going to attractions],” he said, adding that many vacationers hit the beach more because it’s free. “The beach this year was a big competitor for all of us.
“The economy is still top of mind and gas prices are still a concern. People were watching their money more closely when they came into town. People are looking for value, looking for bang for their buck.”
A new show that started in June, combined with the introductory new show price, helped Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament lure customers in this summer, but the venue had to compete with free things to do like strolling around Broadway at the Beach, marketing director Jennifer Willard said.
“There were more people window shopping, looking for the free stuff,” she said. “It really seemed like the area was full of people but because of the economy people are holding onto their money and are not spending as graciously as they have been. They are being more selective in how many shows they patronize.”
Erin Dopp of New Jersey stopped by the Grand Strand last week on her way home from a Florida vacation cut short by Hurricane Isaac, grabbing coupons at welcome centers on her way. Dopp, who has four kids ranging in ages from 1 to 10, tries to eat in so the family can go to an attraction -- though they skip the gift shop on the way out.
“You just have to look out for things,” she said. “We brought peanut butter and jelly and made sandwiches on the way. We try to cut back on eating out so we can do the attractions.”
Anderson takes the tick up in rates this summer as a sign that future summers should be even better.
“I’m looking positive about it,” he said. “I think things are starting to get better...Hopefully we’ll get back to ‘really good’ one day.”
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.