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Travelers looking for deals this year

Grand Strand tourism will be down in 2009. How bad it gets, though, is in the hands of marketers and advertisers.

An online survey conducted by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce in January showed that many potential travelers were undecided on where to take their vacation this year, and that affordability and value would factor heavily into their decision.

It's up to Myrtle Beach businesses, then, to convince them that this is the place to be. For Woody Crosby, the president and chief executive of Jordan Properties, which runs two hotels in the area, that means that now is not the time to be cutting advertising dollars, even though money might be scarce in this down economy.

"For the last six months, it's been pretty much doom and gloom," he said, noting his January revenues were down 15 percent compared to the previous year. "I see some good points coming around. I think there's an opportunity for us to capture some others' market share."

The survey, which polled about 800 people online in states neighboring the Carolinas, had some other alarming news for Myrtle Beach. Though the area had high satisfaction ratings, consumers said they were willing to throw any brand loyalty out the window and go wherever they could get the best deal.

That's a message that's not lost on Marc Jordan, the president and CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. His group, which spends about $1.3 million on advertising each fiscal year, is focusing its advertising on the drive market - folks who drive to vacations instead of flying.

Although the Myrtle Beach area has traditionally been strong with those consumers, Jordan noted the study results show it cannot be taken for granted that they will come here this year. Other nearby destinations, he said, are ramping up their drive-market advertising, so his group must do the same.

"Our goal is to not lose any market share, and actually gain some market share," he said.

Overall, more of the respondents viewed the Myrtle Beach area favorably and more were aware of the area's offerings than in a similar study in 2006. The study attributed the difference to increased advertising - though the latter number could fall because of advertising cuts this year.

According to the study, 43 percent of people who recently visited Myrtle Beach and 26 percent of those who had not visited in the last two years viewed the area as desirable.

Still, Don Schunk, a research economist at Coastal Carolina University, said if travelers decrease their spending by 10 percent in 2009, as surveys show they will, that could lead to a loss of $415 million in local business revenue. Another $166 million could be lost because of ripple effects.

The year could be especially tough because for the first time since the 1960s, consumer spending nationwide, which is about $10 trillion a year, is declining slightly due to the recession. But he told a gathering of business and political leaders in February there could still be a silver lining.

"As ugly as all of this is, how do you find the bright spots in this?" he said, standing in front of a graph of consumer spending.

"Well, look at this thing. Consumers are still spending $10 trillion."