Wildlife expo insiders expecting brighter season

CHARLESTON - Welcome, Southeastern Wildlife Exposition visitors, and your $31 million cash infusion to an industry that took a beating last year.

The annual wildlife and art event starts Friday and marks the unofficial early start of spring tourism season. Each year the expo draws about 35,000 people who leave behind tens of millions of dollars in direct spending, a recent College of Charleston Office of Tourism analysis found.

Last year, hospitality workers bemoaned the expo's unfortunate timing as it coincided with Valentine's Day, usually a moneymaker in its own right. That problem repeats itself this year, but insiders - with fingers crossed - predict a brighter season.

That sentiment echoed around the Myrtle Beach Marriott Resort and Spa during the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Travel last week. There, Chad Prosser, director of the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, unveiled South Carolina's new advertising campaign.

"Made for Vacation" seems simple enough, but with less than half the budget the agency boasted two years ago, the department planned some pretty unconventional campaigns. For example, it will turn a glass elevator in the food court at The Fashion Centre in Pentagon City near Washington into a replica of the Harbour Town Lighthouse on Hilton Head Island.

The agency plans to set up a giant parasailer gliding from the ceiling in another mall and interactive touchscreen stations in a host of cities from Atlanta to Philadelphia with trained staffers standing by to answer questions about traveling to South Carolina.

"People still are going to take their vacation time, and they're saying it's even more important in this climate," Prosser said. "They're going to take that vacation and make the most of it, and we think they can do that in South Carolina."

The annual conference attracted 30 percent more industry professionals this year, and Prosser cautiously spoke of better times ahead.

"We don't have a crystal ball, and that's always dangerous," he said. "But we are starting to see some recovery in the numbers. It's difficult to predict because people make their leisure travel decisions at the last minute."

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Helen Hill gave three pieces of evidence for better numbers to come this year: an increase in marketing and convention business, the sector that took the hardest hit in 2009; Web site visits growing 15 percent this year; and hotels reporting earlier reservations, when last year tourists often waited until the week of an event to book a room.

More than a week away from the wildlife expo, the Francis Marion Hotel had only four rooms remaining, according to Tressa Wright, sales and marketing director. Her property will house the Landscapes and Locals exhibit this year and offer a Saturday brunch as part of the festival.

"The pace started picking up three weeks ago, and it's just been steady since then," Wright said. "In the past, even the week of the event, we would pick up 50 rooms. This year it's a lot steadier."

Expo organizers considered scaling back the event this year after spending on artwork fell about 25 percent in 2009. But marketing director Ashley Slane said a few new corporate partners meant a complete lineup and a few additions, including wildlife expert Jack Hanna.

Organizers with the next major event slated for spring, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival in March, report a strong start this year.

"We're selling out events earlier than we ever have before," executive director Angel Postell said. "Some events that typically don't sell out until the festival are selling out now. On Tuesday we had a 17,000-ticket day, and we normally don't have those until a few days before the event."

This year's extra boost might come from contractors coming to the area as Boeing Co. moves forward in building its Dreamliner assembly line in North Charleston. The final week in January showed a 34 percent increase in hotel occupancy downtown, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism analysis.

Head of research and assistant professor Bing Pan attributed the jump to increased business travel - the sector that suffered most in 2009 - and mentioned Boeing by name.