Curtis Shubert admittedly thought he knew it all about Hilton Head Island. He has been a resident for nearly three decades and makes his living sharing that knowledge as manager of Yellow Cab Tours on the island.
But he was pleasantly surprised to find out he was wrong.
Shubert is one of many local hospitality professionals and business people who have taken advantage of the Island Ambassador program offered by the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for Event Management and Hospitality Training, a series of three free seminars aimed at helping educate those who interact most with the island's many visitors.
“It's part of my personality to think I know everything,” Shubert said. “I was shocked at how much I learned. It was incredible. … I was able to change my tours completely and add so much to them.”
The Island Ambassador program has been around since the early 1990s, but its most recent iteration was created in 2011 with the birth of USCB's Center for Event Management and Hospitality Training. The center took over the program from the Hilton Head Hospitality Association and revamped it to meet the changing needs of those on the front lines of the tourism industry.
“When we took over, we thought, ‘Why reinvent the wheel?’” said Keri Olivetti, director of the center. “Then we started with the program, and the wheel needed to be reinvented.”
After a series of focus groups, the program was reformed into three seminars — Island Knowledge, Island Culture and Island Ecology — that cover everything from the activities available to visitors to the area’s Gullah and Civil War history to the wildlife found in island’s maritime forests, in local waterways, and even beneath the surface of its famous beaches.
The program has gained steam this year, Olivetti said, as word of its value reaches beyond the traditional hospitality circles. No longer does it serve only hotel and restaurant employees, but also real estate agents, lifeguards and librarians, to name a few.
To date, the program has produced 279 certified Island Ambassadors — a title reserved for those who complete all three seminars — but a total of 1,276 people have attended at least one of the sessions.
Among them are the staff members at the Hampton Inn on Hilton Head, where general manager Skip Young credits the program with helping his hotel become one of the top properties in the Hampton Inn family in terms of customer service.
“It was just a phenomenal experience,” Young said. “So much of our staff comes from out of town, so we were able to train them more on Hilton Head, and they are able to talk with our guests more intelligently about all there is to do here.”
As the center continues to expand its capabilities and moves to the planned USCB Hilton Head campus, Olivetti hopes the program will educate many more residents and commuters about the island's rich heritage and robust selection of offerings for tourists.
“Everyone on Hilton Head really should be an ambassador,” Olivetti said. “Whether it's directing them to a local restaurant or showing them which aisle in the Harris Teeter the salad dressing is in, we all have important interactions with our visitors.”