Violence in Myrtle Beach puts business community on edge


Recent shootings may not lead to an immediate dip in business for tourism-dependent Myrtle Beach, but hoteliers and others say four shooting incidents over the weekend are still bad news for the industry.

“It’s too early to say what the full impact on the summer tourism season will be, but we know it’s problematic,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

After a spate of shootings in April, Myrtle Beach saw relatively low-crime weekends during Memorial Day weekend and the Carolina Country Music Festival, two events when the city’s daytime populations swell significantly and local law enforcement routinely rely on the help of outside agencies to monitor the crowds.

But on the very next weekend after the hectic late May to early June stretch, three shootings were initially confirmed by police and a fourth one is under investigation. One on Ocean Boulevard in the early hours of Sunday sent six people to the hospital. It was livestreamed on Facebook to millions of viewers, and has since been re-reported by multiple national news outlets.

Dean said that the chamber has been “deluged with calls and inquiries on social media” Monday from people wondering if Myrtle Beach is a safe place to vacation, and he’s also heard from concerned businesses. He’s heard of a few cases of people canceling trips, though it’s not common, Dean said.

The Chamber’s strategy for promoting the area also has been complicated. (The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber receives millions in local tax dollars each year to advertise the destination out in outside markets). Dean said messaging is different than after an event like a hurricane, when the Chamber works to assure potential tourists the area is open after danger has passed.

“We need a plan that ensures visitors are safe, and we will eagerly tout that to anyone who will listen,” Dean said. “This isn’t simply a matter of running advertisements telling people to ignore the media and assume they’ll be safe. There has to be substance behind that campaign.”

Myrtle Beach did institute an over $1 million policing plan after the April shootings.

It’s difficult to draw a direct line from high-profile violence to business performance, however.

Taylor Damonte of Coastal Carolina University’s Brittain Center for Resort Tourism takes a weekly survey of occupancy at hotels, condo-hotels and campgrounds along the Grand Strand. He used the 2014 Memorial Day weekend shootings as an example of high-profile crime — eight people were injured during three shootings that weekend, leading then-Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the end of a biker rally held during the holiday weekend.

Damonte said that in that case, occupancy fell from an average 74 percent in June 2013 to 71 percent in June 2014, the month immediately after those shootings.

Because of school schedules and other factors, Damonte said, it’s hard to draw a direct line to the 2014 shootings for the dip that month, but, “it has had some impact.”

“Demand … is a function of lots of different things,” Damonte said. “It’s a function of what’s going on in our competitor markets, that is, how relatively safe families feel going to Orlando or Virginia Beach, or any of the other vacation destinations we compete with, compared to how safe they feel in Myrtle Beach.”

And for the whole summer after the 2014 shootings, roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, occupancy fell a more modest amount — 0.8 points from the year prior.

The number may seem small, Damonte said, but it can amount to a lot of lost revenue across the wider hospitality industry, especially because the summer is a peak season for room prices. Rates average about three times as high as a slower month, like January.

If the industry saw a 0.8 point occupancy decrease in a single month, Damonte said, that is associated with a loss of 280 jobs across the entire economy, including professional and unskilled jobs.

Tom Moore, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites Oceanfront at 1801 S. Ocean Blvd., said he’s not expecting occupancy at the 227-room hotel to fall after the shootings. It was 96.5 percent over the weekend, and all the suites are full for the rest of this week.

But, he said, the shootings over the weekend show that violence can happen anywhere — and that’s bad for the tourism industry.

“I saw the headlines in the paper today, and wow, that’s not a good headline for Myrtle Beach,” Moore said. “But you know what? It’s the truth. We hate to see that.”

“We don’t want to see a shooting anywhere. When it’s on Ocean Boulevard, it’s scary,” he added.

Moore said he appreciated local police and the work they’ve done to respond to the shootings. But he said there need to be more patrols along the boulevard.

“We just need to [do] whatever it takes, if it takes raising taxes, or whatever,” Moore said. “We’ve got to get more police presence.”

City council did approve a budget this month that allows for the hire of five new police officers and moves other officers out of desk jobs and onto the street. The move was in response to the shootings in April of this year — some were also on Ocean Boulevard, in a central tourism district, and business owners up and down the strip universally called for more police presence. It also called a special meeting for Tuesday, when officials are expected to discuss public safety on the boulevard.

The city put funding behind the new police positions, but filling law enforcement openings in South Carolina can be a lengthy process. All new hires are trained through a single law enforcement academy, which can back up for months.

Moore said his resort does not have private security. His employees work to patrol the parking lot and watch several security cameras.

But after this weekend, Moore said he was at a loss for what’s needed to stem the broader violence.

“It’s more guns in people’s hands and people are just not — they’re more brave than they ever were,” Moore said. “It’s a whole different world today.”

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ