Summer tourism season in Myrtle Beach area expected to be repeat of last year

dbryant@thesunnews.comJune 1, 2013 

— You can almost hear the excitement in hotel general manager Tom Moore’s voice when he checks the latest reservations log for June and sees no available rooms for some nights and only 30 left for others.

For a hotel that has more than 200 rooms, it’s a solid sign that summer is shaping up nicely, promising a rebound from a bad weather spring that battered Grand Strand businesses’ bottom lines.

“It’s better than having to worry about it like we did in the spring,” Moore, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites Myrtle Beach Oceanfront Resort, said after looking at the latest numbers. “It’s going to make up for the spring. It’s going to be a fantastic summer. We are really looking good.”

With the first of the summer tourists rolling in, experts predict the Grand Strand’s do-or-die season will be a repeat of last summer: Lodging occupancy will stay about even with summer 2012, but visitors will pay more for a place to stay with rates expected to tick up between 2 percent and 3 percent, according to Coastal Carolina University’s Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.

“Really just continuing the trend we’ve seen for the summer season for the past few years,” CCU research economist Rob Salvino said. “What happened in the spring doesn’t seem to be related to the economy. It was purely weather.”

The cool, rainy spring kept vacationers away during the past couple of months, turning an expected slight increase in lodging occupancy for the spring into a significant decline.

Some business owners predict that the bad weather that hurt the spring and bothered other parts of the U.S. might help jumpstart the summer, with folks ready to flock to warm beach destinations.

“I’m hoping for a big outbreak of cabin fever around the country,” said Chris Walker, who owns several businesses along Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach and is president of the Oceanfront Merchants Association. “I think people are kind of cautiously coming out of the winter fog.”

Walker said he has noticed a couple of positive signs for the summer: Business has picked up the last few weeks as the weather has improved with sunny skies and nice temperatures, and the complaints from visitors about the price to park in a couple of lots he runs downtown are down.

“When times are tough every other car complains about paying to park,” he said.

Gas prices also haven’t spiked headed into the summer; in the Myrtle Beach area they are down about 8 cents a gallon compared to this time last year, according to www.fuelgaugereport.com.

“We have a lot of good things in our favor,” Walker said.

But consumers, who pulled way back during the Great Recession, still will be hunting for deals, experts say, especially with the end of a 2 percent payroll tax deduction that kicked in at the start of the year and left every worker taking home less money.

Last summer, some attraction managers said they noticed vacationers trimming their entertainment budgets by hitting fewer attractions during their stay, skipping souvenirs or not eating out as much.

Some attractions will continue to offer deals, while others have tweaked some of their prices aiming to lure that budget-conscious consumer.

Customers at the Pavilion Nostalgia Park at Broadway at the Beach now can buy individual ride tickets or ticket bundles instead of a pricier, unlimited ride wristband, and the rate for groups of 15 people or more have dropped at Myrtle Waves Water Park and NASCAR SpeedPark, said Rebecca Feagin, marketing and events coordinator at PARC Management, which owns the three attractions.

“We just want to make it more convenient for the customer,” she said, adding that online ticket sales also have been strong so far. “We are expecting just as good a year [as last summer] if not better.”

Lodging occupancy from now until July 4 is expected to hit between 75 percent and 77 percent -- in line with the occupancy for that period in 2011 and 2012 -- followed by a pretty much full beach with weekends at 94 percent occupancy and the weekdays about 88 percent occupancy during the three weeks after July Fourth, said Taylor Damonte of CCU’s tourism center.

For some, the summer isn’t complete without a trip to the beach, Walker said. During the tough economy, visitors still came to the beach, but cut costs by not staying as long or eating out less.

“People have to go to the beach...you get that bug sitting in Pennsylvania or Ohio,” Walker said.

While occupancy this summer is expected to be about the same as the past two years, lodging providers are still expected to bring in more revenue because visitors will again pay more for a place to stay, with the average daily rate this summer expected to increase between 2 percent and 3 percent, Damonte said.

Moore of the oceanfront Hampton Inn is ready for another summer like last one, when the hotel was nearly full for the season. Like at other hotels, rates at the Hampton Inn have ticked up this summer, but so far that hasn’t hurt demand, he said, adding that the hotel already has had to turn away some potential customers for some dates because the property is booked.

“And people are still coming,” Moore said, crediting the beach’s increased marketing with luring more visitors. “I feel like everybody in town is going to get their fair share. Come Labor Day, everybody is going to be singing praises because they are going to be up.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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