MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS
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For many, Memorial Day weekend is synonymous with burgers, beaches and the first sunburn of the year.
But for those in Beaufort County's hospitality industry, the weekend also marks the start of the summer tourism season.
This year's big weekend is shaping up to be busier than any since the start of the recession, buoyed by plummeting prices at the pump.
"The price of gas has gone down considerably," said Bill Haley, vice president of marketing for Resort Rentals of Hilton Head. "That may not be a deciding factor in bringing people here this weekend, but it certainly doesn't hurt."
About 437,000 South Carolina motorists are expected to hit the road this weekend, a 3-percent increase from last year, according to AAA Carolinas.
The motor club added that South Carolina has the cheapest gas prices in the country. Prices in Beaufort County ranged from $3.43 to $3.63 per gallon earlier this week.
The average price of unleaded gas statewide, at $3.34 per gallon, is down about eight cents from a week ago, 13 cents from a month ago and 28 cents from May 2011.
Prices could drop further, said David Parsons, president and CEO of the Charlotte-based motor club.
"We might see a slight stabilization in gas prices or even a mild increase over the weekend, but prices should continue to drop well into June, unless some unforeseen event occurs," Parsons said.
Haley said his business will increase by about 15 percent this Memorial Day weekend, and he's not the only one benefiting.
Weekend reservations at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa are up 12 percent over 2011, according to Skip James, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.
Memorial Day weekend bookings were essentially unchanged from 2011 at Lady's Island-based Seaside Getaways, said owner Greta Maddox, though she added that business overall was up 6 percent so far this year.
Tom Ridgway, owner of Hilton Head Rentals and Golf, reported a more dramatic spike.
"Our reservations are up 17 percent this weekend over last year's," he said. "That's a 40 percent increase from the preceding weekend."
Ridgway said Memorial Day weekend marks a semi-official kickoff to summer tourism, a season that has changed over the years. The hospitality industry has altered its business model to accommodate new trends in summer travel.
"As recently as 10 years ago, there was one, maybe two, price levels for the time period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Now we have eight different levels for this summer alone."
Ridgway explained that for many, the school year extends later into the summer than in past years, and the season is increasingly curtailed by students' involvement with sports and band practice at the end of summer.
"The definition of summer has changed," he said.
But for now, he's focused on the Memorial Day weekend numbers, the latest indicator of a strong local tourism season.
"This increase is really significant," he said. "I'm expecting longer lines at restaurants, hard-to-find parking spaces and crowded beaches."
Reporter Patrick Donohue contributed to this report.