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Tourists come to Beaufort to enjoy the area's beaches, rivers, architecture, culture, history and outdoor activities. But when they're in their hotel rooms, they want the comforts of home.
Several new hotels, therefore, will offer travelers luxury and service to match Beaufort's vistas and ambiance.
Just west of Ribaut Road on Boundary Street, a 115-room Hilton Garden Inn is expected to open Feb. 20, offering marsh views, meeting space and a host of amenities.
On the other side of Ribaut Road, the Ramada hotel is scheduled for $1 million in renovations to upgrade that facility, though the property might be sold to the University of South Carolina Beaufort instead.
And down the road, a "new generation" 20- to 25-suite Holiday Inn is expected to open in the next few months.
In addition, a Comfort Suites opened on Robert Smalls Parkway in July and the Red Carpet Inn on Carteret Street is being renovated and expanded into City Loft Hotel, a boutique condo-hotel.
"It is my feeling that we are seeing more and more sophisticated tourists that are visiting the city of Beaufort because they have ties to a well-
educated population that has chosen to move here," said developer Matt McAlhaney. "City Loft Hotel was created to meet the demand of that ever-increasing segment of the tourist population. We will provide unparalleled service in a sophisticated yet comfortable atmosphere."
Jack Reynolds, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, said he undertook his current project about two years ago for the same reason.
"At that time, Beaufort didn't have a hotel to offer what the Hilton Garden Inn offered," he said. "We're adding rooms (to the city's market) but also bringing higher, different types of service available to travelers. ... We've had older rooms in Beaufort and this is bringing in the most modern rooms available in the industry."
He said the Hilton's restaurant, lounge and meeting facility also set it apart from other hotels.
Still another "high-end" hotel with 70 to 90 rooms is being planned for Boundary Street on the site of Martini's bar, according to Billy Gavigan, acquisitions representative for Low Country Hospitality Group, which is developing the site. The group also established the Comfort Suites.
There are about 500 rooms in hotels, motels and inns in northern Beaufort County, according to Liz Mitchell, marketing director for the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, and projects in the construction or planning stages are expected to add 200 more.
Gavigan said the Beaufort area is particularly attractive to hotel developers because of its consistently high average occupancy rate.
"We have a strong annual tourism draw to the county, whereas in Myrtle Beach, they have a really strong summer and spring, but you can get an oceanfront room in the winter for $60 whereas in the summer it's $200," he said. "This is one of the strongest hotel markets there (is)."
About 78 percent of hotel rooms in northern Beaufort County are filled on a daily basis, he said, citing data from Smith Travel Research, which provides performance data to the lodging industry. Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island contributes to that high rate, Gavigan added.
About 20,000 Marines graduate on Parris Island each year, and those Marines bring an average of four to five guests to graduation, said Maj. Gabrielle
Chapin, depot spokeswoman.
As a result, people looking for hotel rooms Wednesday through Saturday often have to stay as far away as Bluffton, Gavigan said. Further, with the planned commercial development of the Port of Port Royal and Beaufort's growing national reputation, he expects the tourism market to expand "exponentially" in coming years.
He pointed out that Life magazine named Beaufort the most romantic town in the East in 2005, and Southern Living magazine named it the best small Southern town last year. The city has also been featured in books such as "The 100 Best Art Towns in America" by John Villani, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" by Patricia Schultz and "America's Most Charming Towns & Villages" by Larry Brown.
"Beaufort attracts high per capita income clients who don't want the Myrtle Beach atmosphere," Gavigan said. "People come to Beaufort County looking for a slower pace and the charm of Beaufort, not the oceanfront Ferris wheel feel."
Increased tourism and higher room rates also mean more money in the city's coffers as a result of Beaufort's 3 percent accommodations tax on overnight stays. That fee is in addition to a 2 percent state accommodations tax.
During fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30, Beaufort took in $397,278 in accommodations tax revenue, which it used to fund police and fire service and to maintain streets, parks and the city marina. That total was 27 percent higher than the city's accommodations tax revenue in 2002, when Beaufort took in $311,073.
"If there are more hotel rooms and more are rented (next year) than this year, then there should be more revenue, but what that amount will be, I don't know," city manager Scott Dadson said. "Hotel rooms and anything else in the tourist economy is always subject to ups and downs.
But (more hotel rooms) can't be a bad thing from a revenue perspective."
He speculated that if there is an increase in accommodations tax revenue, the city will use the money to cover the rising cost of providing city services. He added that the revenue could assist in adding personnel for park maintenance, fire and police duties.
"But I bet you there's a lot of other people who would like to see it put into marketing and other things that would try to grow (tourism) even more," Dadson said.
Mitchell said there are no reliable statistics about the number of visitors to Beaufort or northern Beaufort County, and the city's accommodations tax collection is the best indicator of the tourism trend. And she expects that upward trend to continue.
"Beaufort as a small town and a historic destination is (being) more and more discovered," she said. "We've gotten a lot of coverage outside of the state and the region ... for outdoor adventure, art, history and culture."