Jennifer McNutt, left, of H20 Sports, assists Suzy Wasson, of Philadelphia, who was renting a sailboat with her husband, Sam, and their friend Richard Seaquist, of Nantucket, Mass., on Wednesday morning at Harbour Town's charter boat dock.(Photo: Jay Karr, the Island Packet)
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As spring break ushers in this year's tourist season, local hospitality industry leaders are bracing for a busy summer, buoyed by encouraging recently released statistics.
People are not only staying in Hilton Head Island hotels more often, but they're spending more money when they do, according to a report from the Smith Travel Research firm.
The key statistic is the revenue per available room generated by area hotels in the past six months, says Susan Thomas, vice president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Visitor and Convention Bureau.
That figure, which takes into account hotels' occupancy rates and average daily room rates, was up 23.7 percent for the past six months compared to the same period the previous year.
Thomas said she couldn't remember so high a figure since the beginning of the recession, and it bodes well for the coming months.
"It tells us that (hotel) quality is going hand in hand with volume increases," she said. "This is our offseason, but it does show a really positive trend as we kick off our prime season."
And it's not just hotels that are getting more visitors. Reservations at home and villa properties are up 6.2 percent over last year, according to a new, separate study.
Thomas said local managers deserve credit for the spike. "Our operators have been very sensible in their pricing structures," she said.
One rental manager says the island is benefiting from a national trend.
"Americans are looking at travel in a new, positive way," said Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals and Golf. "And so the discounts they're getting now aren't as deep as they've been in years past."
Ridgway said he's only offering 10 percent off regular rates for his rentals this summer, down from as high as 35 percent in 2009.
It's still a far cry from the 2 percent discount he was offering in 2007 -- and that was only for AARP or AAA members -- but he's convinced the tourism market has turned.
Less sure is Don Hansen, general manager of The Beach House, a Holiday Inn Resort on Hilton Head.
"I don't think the economy's recovered yet," he said. "There are a lot of homes still languishing out there."
As to whether the released statistics forecast a strong tourist season:
"God, I hope so," he said with a laugh. "We all hope so."