Next year will mark the 350th anniversary of William Hilton’s landing on what became known as Hilton Head Island. Following the event in 1663, the British sea captain claimed the land for his country.
Hilton would no doubt be impressed at attempts to maintain a pristine Lowcountry coast over the centuries. The first major resort, the 5,000-acre Sea Pines, was developed in the 1950s and set standards for high-end resort development that preserved the environment and natural beauty.
“We were green before green was cool. It is in our DNA,” says Jack Reed, director of sales at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Visitor and Convention Bureau. We don’t have streetlights, neon or strip malls. Development is controlled and set back from the road. It is all very tranquil.”
Reed says major renovations are taking shape, augmenting the destination’s selling points.
“Meetings resorts are getting a capital infusion. It’s an exciting time,” he says. “We have great golf courses, 250 restaurants, 300 tennis courts and seven marinas. Kayaking is huge, [standup] paddle boarding has started to take off and a new activity, Zipline Hilton Head [opening April 9], will give us a new dimension.”
A 42-square-mile barrier island located between Charleston and Savannah, Hilton Head is bounded by the Intracoastal Waterway on one side and the Atlantic Coast, lined with a 12-mile-long beach and resorts, on the other.
Reed points out that Hilton Head doesn’t have a convention center.
“Meetings are housed at individual resorts,” he says. “A convention of 2,000 people—and a couple of state conventions are that size—is considered island-wide. Meetings groups of 50 to 250 rooms are the island’s bread and butter.”
Most of the major meeting facilities are at master-planned residential and resort communities, which have a range of villas and rental home accommodations in addition to hotel rooms.
At the beach’s north end, the 412-room Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa delivers more than 30,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 13,200-square-foot ballroom. It is located within Port Royal Plantation, a gated residential community, and guests have access to the community’s three championship golf courses and tennis.
In January, the Westin won court approval for a bankruptcy reorganization plan. Southwest Value Partners, the new owners, began a $30 million improvement program slated for completion by year’s end that will include enhancements to all guest rooms, meeting space and public areas.
In the mid-beach area, Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort is home to two major meetings hotels: a Marriott and an Omni. With 45,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 18,000-square-foot ballroom, the 513-room Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa is the island’s largest hotel.
Omni Hotels & Resorts rebranded the 323-room Hilton Oceanfront Resort Feb. 1 as the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort. Managed by an Omni sister company since 2003, and with more than 20,000 square feet of event space, it will launch an $18 million renovation this year that will continue into 2013.
The 2,000-acre Palmetto Dunes has three miles of beach, an 11-mile lagoon system for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, plus bike trails, 25 tennis courts, 54 holes of championship golf, the Mediterranean-style Shelter Cove Harbour marina with shopping and dining, and 1,250 rental homes and villas.
At the beach’s southern end, the 5,000-acre Sea Pines Resort has more than five miles of beach; three championship golf courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links, home to the PGA Tour’s Heritage tournament; two marinas; more than 500 suites, villas and beach homes; more than 17,000 square feet of indoor meeting space; two conference centers; and a 605-acre forest preserve.
It is also home to the 60-room Inn at Harbour Town, a boutique hotel that recently completed a renovation that included guest room improvements, a revitalized lobby and an upgraded fitness center. It is located next to the 10,000-square-foot Harbour Town Conference Center.
North of Sea Pines is the 202-room Holiday Inn Hilton Head-Oceanfront, which was rebranded in February. With more than 4,600 square feet of meeting space, it is now The Beach House, a Holiday Inn Resort. Next to the Coligny Beach area, featuring more than 60 restaurants and stores, it was about to officially join the Holiday Inn Resort portfolio following a $5 million renovation at press time.
Two miles farther north is the 340-room Crowne Plaza Hilton Head Island Beach Resort, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space. It is part of Shipyard Plantation, a residential community with 27 holes of golf.
The Westin, Marriott, Omni, Inn at Harbour Town and Crowne Plaza each have AAA Four Diamond ratings.
The gateway before crossing over into Hilton Head is the historic town of Bluffton, situated on bluffs overlooking the May River. Here, the Inn at Palmetto Bluff is in its first year with a AAA Five Diamond rating. With 50 guest cottages and meeting space that includes a ballroom accommodating 200, it is part of the Palmetto Bluff residential community, which has a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.
Two airports serve the Hilton Head area.
According to Reed, about 85 percent of total visitors drive—both Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, for example, are four hours away—and 15 percent arrive by air.
“Many don’t realize that we have great air service,” he says. “Half of the passengers arriving at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, the closest major airport, are coming to Hilton Head.”
Located 45 miles south of the island, Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is served by five carriers offering nearly 40 daily nonstop flights to 11 cities. On the island, US Airways Express operates at the Hilton Head Island Airport with eight daily roundtrip flights from Charlotte, N.C.
According to Larry Walker, general manager at Meeting Dynamics, a Hilton Head-based destination management company, there are numerous off-sesssion diversions available to groups.
“Hilton Head has lots of choices for activities and venues for groups, especially for those of up to 150 people,” he says. “We have an overwhelming number of country clubs. Dinner cruises are popular. There is lots of kayaking, dolphin watches and marsh tours.”
Dinner cruises are also available on vessels such as the 74-passenger Spirit of Harbour Town yacht and the 49-passenger Pau Hana catamaran.
Walker also says Savannah provides a popular half-day tour from Hilton Head. Groups can have lunch be at Paula Deen’s The Lady & Sons restaurant or Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, named after her brother, followed by a tour of Savannah, returning to the island before dinner.
Meanwhile, Outside Hilton Head, an outdoor outfitter that began as a windsurfing school in 1979, offers event planning and group activities ranging from cookouts, scavenger hunts and team building to kayaking, boating and fishing.
Other options include the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn Plantation, with event venues that include a 4,000-square-foot covered pavilion; and the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, a performing and visual arts complex with group spaces such as 175- and 348-seat theaters.
According to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber, in 2011 “a continued strengthening of our tourism-based economy showed positive gains in the combined hotel and home and villa segment.” Average occupancy showed a 1 percent gain, ADR was up 7.2 percent, and revenue per available room (RevPAR) was up 9 percent.
“From the corporate side, the AIG debate has softened but it is still a little bit of an issue,” Reed says.
Group sales are now 8 percent ahead of where we were a year ago, according to Michael Royer, group sales manager at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.
“We’ve seen a slow but steady improvement in group business since the devastating years of 2008 and 2009,” he says.
Last year, the chamber and visitor and convention bureau launched a new website at www.thinkhiltonheadisland.org, providing tourism and other statistics on the destination.
Tony Bartlett has been writing about the travel trade industry for more than 25 years.