In 1951, there was one hotel on Hilton Head Island: the Sea Crest on North Forest Beach Drive. It had a grand total of two rooms, but expanded to eight by 1960.
The Sea Crest was built because day-trippers to this little-known island “were constantly getting stranded, having missed the last ferry trip of the day back to Buckingham Landing,” according to a newspaper column by Jim Littlejohn from the files of the Heritage Library on Hilton Head.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of Monthly’s yearlong 30th anniversary celebration, we are highlighting 30 years of different industries in each issue. This month, we feature the accommodations industry and how it helped shape Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and the surrounding Lowcountry.
Today, there are now about 6,000 villas and homes available for vacation rental and thousands of hotel rooms on the island, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
But back in the day, Hilton Head was very isolated.
"When I first came here — on the swing bridge — one of the things I remember most was the day after Labor Day when we thought we were the only ones left on the island,” said Michael Notartomaso, CEO of Vacation Time of Hilton Head. “There were about 4,000 people here … a tiny place, but so easy to see what the attraction was. Its beauty is stunning.”
Many others agree.
The accommodations industry is now one of the biggest players in tourism and the local economy.
“We are the No. 1 driver in our community,” said Carolyn Oliver of Spinnaker Resorts. “We provide jobs, our guests are here and shopping, they’re in our restaurants, they’re playing golf and tennis. Tourism is what it’s all about, and people come here not only because they are active, but they also want a lower-key vacation without all of the neon signs.”
Change, change and more change
With the development of Sea Pines in the mid-1950s, the boom had begun and hotel chains took notice.
In 1959, the William Hilton Inn, which was owned and operated by the Sea Pines Company, opened with 56 rooms but eventually expanded to 80 rooms. It also offered a concept that would define resorts in the coming years: planned activities for guests.
Next came the Adventure Inn on South Forest Beach Drive, which opened with 45 rooms in 1963. In 1976, it was purchased by Dennis and Jean Lowes, who had a groundbreaking vision for the resort: timeshares. “Timeshares were an unknown product at that time,” said Notartomaso.
The year 1976 also saw the development of The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa at Port Royal Plantation. It operated as an InterContinental Hotel for one year before switching over to The Westin. Then came others: A Marriott opened in 1981 at Shipyard Plantation and operated as such from 1981-92. In 1994, it became the Crowne Plaza Resort; today, it is a Sonesta Resort.
In 1988, the Comfort Inn opened near the airport. It later became Hampton Inn Hilton Head.
In 2000, The Inn at Harbour Town opened at Sea Pines Resort. The 60-room boutique hotel is the only Forbes Four-Star inn on the island. In 2005, William Goodwin acquired Sea Pines’ resort and real estate operations for approximately $23.4 million. His RiverStone Group LLC has since invested more than $50 million back into the resort.
Park Lane Hotel & Suites began its life in December 2006, when the Triton Hospitality group purchased what was then the Residence Inn by Marriott. Prior to that, the property was a Radisson Suite Resort.
A new day
As the hotels and resorts started to age, a new century brought a new era of renovations.
“What we’ve seen over the last two to three years has been a revitalized environment on the island due to new town codes,” Notartomaso said. “Reinvestment is revitalizing the hospitality industry on the island.”
In fact, many resorts on the island have made major changes in the last few years.
The Beach House Hilton Head Island, formerly a Holiday Inn, was completely renovated in 2014.
Around the same time, the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort in Palmetto Dunes saw $17 million in renovations. The hotel originally opened as the Mariner's Inn in 1983.
The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in Port Royal Plantation was renovated at a cost of $30 million. Those renovations were completed in 2013.
The Sonesta Resort at Shipyard also underwent major renovations to the tune of $30 million.
And the Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa in Palmetto Dunes saw $12 million in renovations.
Additionally, the 63-room Best Western Ocean Breeze Inn, now occupying an annex of the former Metropolitan Hotel on Lemoyne Avenue, was completely overhauled and reopened earlier this year.
And there’s more to come, including:
- A new Marriott Residence Inn at Heritage Plaza on Pope Avenue.
- The Grand Hilton Inn, which will be located in the main area of the former Metropolitan Hotel on South Forest Beach Drive.
- A Hilton Home2 Suites and a Marriott SpringHill Suites at the former Motel 6 site on Marina Side Drive.
Expansion and renovations are also happening west of the bridges. In Bluffton, the Inn at Palmetto Bluff — one of the top hotels in the country — is adding 150 rooms as part of a $100 million expansion. Bluffton is also home to several chain hotels built in recent years, including Candlewood Suites, Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites, Suburban Extended Stay, Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield and Hilton Garden Inn.
At one point, that was unimaginable in the Bluffton area.
“My mom told me she remembered running out of gas back in those days on U.S. 278 and was worried no one would drive by to help,” Oliver said.
Home, villas and timeshares
As hotels and resorts were being built, villa and house vacations rentals came into vogue on Hilton Head.
One of the first vacation rental companies was Island Rentals and Real Estate, which was formed in 1959 to offer rental services to visitors and property management services for part-time residents.
At about the same time, Lancaster Rentals and Real Estate was formed and became the first rental management company combined with a real estate sales division. The rentals and real estate divisions later split in the late 1990s and the rental division became what is now Resort Rentals of Hilton Head Island, one of the largest management companies and remains locally owned and operated to this day.
Later, timeshares became a popular option.
Many people were also buying second homes and renting them out to vacationers. That made property management companies very popular because they provide a huge variety of services to both owners and vacationers, including marketing, maintenance and more.
One trend that has grown through the years is renting large vacation homes.
“There has been an overall shift to guests looking for vacation rentals rather than just hotels and resorts,” said Meg Park, sales and marketing manager of Beach Properties. “They’re looking for big houses for big reunions. Part of that is because families are split all over the place. Technology can push people apart and they want to spend time enjoying each others’ company or just talking to each other.”
Larger vacation rentals also offer visitors all the comforts of home.
“Additionally, the price is more manageable with five or six families than it would be with multiple hotels rooms,” Park said. “They also get the amenities of home, such as a kitchen and washer and dryer.”
Another new concept is the “shared economy.”
“It’s similar to how Uber has changed the taxi business,” said Bob Hawkins, partner and president of The Vacation Company. “People in some cities are now renting out rooms in their houses to vacationers. It is becoming a shared economy, and it’s a major change the accommodations industry will be facing.”
Another change facing the industry are the additional amenities guests demand with each rental property, whether it is a small villa or a large home. Years ago, it was enough that a villa had a television; today, it has to have one not only in the living area but in each bedroom, as well as wireless internet access throughout. A home with a pool once was considered a luxury; now, the pool has to be heated and accompanied by a heated spa and the home’s interiors have to be updated every five years to keep up with consumer tastes.
The accommodations industry in Bluffton and on Hilton Head has flourished largely because “it’s a destination that people come back to year after year,” Park said. “We have a lot of repeat guests and now we’re getting people who came here as children who are now bringing their kids.”
The industry also continues to change with the times.
“It has changed significantly mostly because of the rise of the internet,” Hawkins said. “Years ago, we used to put ad in Southern Living and travel magazines, and folks would call to ask questions and we’d send pictures and other information. Now they can go to several internet sites to research and book online. They also look at sites with ratings and reviews. So much information is available, and they can even use their mobile phones with the use of apps. So we have an industry that has totally expanded and changed.”
And those changes are very positive, according to industry insiders.
“It’s a good thing that we constantly evolve,” Notartomaso said. “We are making sure a new generation of vacationers gets to come to a world-class place that has retained its natural beauty. These are exciting times, but it is amazing to look back and see where we were and where we are now.”
In the future, not only will guests demand more services from their accommodations providers, but rental owners will be more demanding of their property management companies. The key to success in the future vacation rental industry will be to identify the needs of guests and clients and find an affordable way to provide these services to both sectors.
Meanwhile, major renovations both on and off the island continue.
The new Holiday Inn Express at 2 Tanglewood Drive recently celebrated its multi-million dollar renovation with a grand opening and ribbon-cutting.
The Westin is adding a new feature, calling it the Grand Ocean Terrace. Scheduled to open in March 2017, the 5,000-square-foot space will offer unobstructed ocean views elevated nine feet above beach level.
“The renewal of Hilton Head Island has elevated our destination to among the most sought-after in the country. And not just for the summer. Meetings and conferences, as well as destination weddings, are now flocking to us all year long. New all-season venues, like the new Grand Ocean Terrace at The Westin, encourage year-round usage of our facilities. This, in turn, is great for our associates and local economy,” said Gail Wargo, marketing director at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa.
BY THE NUMBERS
$1.1 billion: The 2015 economic impact of tourism in the Lowcountry
2.6 million: The record-breaking number of visitors to the Lowcounty in 2015
6.7 percent: The percentage that occupancy is up in the first quarter of 2016
18.5 percent: The increase in the metric called the RevPAR that looks at “are they coming and are they spending”
Sources: DestiMetrics/STR Report; USCB-Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute
HOW OLD ARE YOU?
BEACH PROPERTIES OF HILTON HEAD
21 years in business
Beach Properties of Hilton Head is a locally run vacation rental company that represents over 340 luxury homes and villas on Hilton Head Island. “What makes us unique is our focus on providing excellence in customer service to our guests, owners and the Hilton Head community,” sales and marketing manager Meg Park said. “We strive to make sure each guest has a memorable vacation experience that makes them want to come back again and again.”
COASTAL VACATION RENTALS
3 years in business
Coastal Vacation Rentals offers a fabulous selection of properties, from cozy one-bedroom villas in oceanfront resorts to sprawling homes in spacious plantations. “We’re a smaller company that offers a more boutique-type of service,” operations manager Dean Collett said. “We look after our guests and look after our owners using a hands-on approach.”
10 years in business
A boutique company offering only the finest oceanfront and oceanside rental properties in Sea Pines, Forest Beach and Palmetto Dunes. The company puts an emphasis on relationships with both owners and guests. “Our team is passionate about every aspect of our business with superior customer service,” partner/general manager Lori Romolo said.
3 years in business
The company offers a full range of vacation property management services and a variety of vacation homes to choose from. “We strive to create the most memorable vacations for our guests, and so far we have not disappointed,” property manager Tim Ferguson said.
ISLAND GETAWAY RENTALS
28 years in business
A local family-owned business that prides itself on its reputation and the manner in which they treat guests, owners and visitors. It’s a part of the fabric of the Hilton Head Island community that gives back and ensures the island’s place atop the list of premier resort destinations. “We tailor our management program to each owner’s specific needs relating to their personal use and expectations of their property,” Lindsay Watts said. “Over half of our staff has been here 10-plus years.”
RESORT RENTALS OF HILTON HEAD
58 years in business
Offering a variety of nearly 500 private vacation homes, villas and condos ranging from one to nine bedrooms, economy to luxury, and oceanfront to ocean walk, with many pet-friendly options available. Resort Rentals of Hilton Head Island has been helping families plan their dream vacations since 1958.
THE SEA PINES RESORT
59 years in business
The world-famous resort offers a broad range of accommodations catering to every imaginable taste. From the romantic embrace of The Inn & Club at Harbour Town to luxurious vacation homes for two to 12 guests, options of virtually every shape and size await, ensuring your utmost comfort. “As the first resort community on Hilton Head, we have proudly taken part in the growth of the hospitality industry on the island,” Sea Pines president Steve Birdwell said. “The Sea Pines Resort is the result of innovative land-planning and resort development philosophies. From the very beginning, we have had the clear and focused goal to be a world-class destination.”
SEA TURTLE GETAWAYS
33 years in business
Sea Turtle Getaways offers privately owned homes and villas in Sea Pines Plantation, North and South Forest Beach, Shipyard Plantation, Palmetto Dunes and Singleton Beach. “We’re small, personalized and do business the old-fashioned way,” owner Renee Taylor said.
SEASHORE VACATIONS, INC.
20 years in business
Seashore Vacations is a vacation rental company specializing primarily in condominiums and townhomes in the Forest Beach, Shipyard and Sea Pines areas. “Primarily, we represent properties that are either on, or close to, these beach areas,” Lila Konecny said. “Shipyard Beach Club, North Forest Beach, Coligny Beach, South Forest Beach and Sea Pines Beach Clubs: almost all of our properties are either on these beaches or a short walk to them.”
SONESTA RESORT HILTON HEAD ISLAND
3 years in business
Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island is a AAA-approved Four Diamond resort that sits on Hilton Head Island’s beautiful beachfront inside Shipyard Plantation. It features 340 guest rooms and suites that offer a range of scenic views, including its lushly landscaped semitropical gardens, spectacular beach and lagoon-style swimming pool. “From the moment a guest is welcomed to the resort to checkout, the resort’s staff is committed to providing a personalized and positive guest experience that keep visitors returning year after year (and sometimes season after season) for that special ‘Sonesta touch,’ ” said Chris Bracken, director of sales and marketing.
33 years in business
Spinnaker Resorts offers a unique array of accommodations, activities and amenities, whether you are looking for vacation ownership or a last-minute getaway with the guys or girlfriends. Spinnaker Resorts developed its first timeshare project in Hilton Head in 1983 and continues to provide an array of exceptional lodging options from secluded villas to condos with stunning views.
VACATION TIME OF HILTON HEAD
40 years in business
Vacation Time of Hilton Head Island is a full-service, family owned and operated real estate company established in 1976 by Dennis and Jean Lowes. Three generations are represented in the business today and many employees have been with the business for 20 years or more. “Longevity and years of continuity in business set us apart,” CEO Michael Notartomaso said. “We are family owned and operated, and we still like each other!”
THE VACATION COMPANY
29 years in business
The Vacation Company currently has more than 280 owners/partners and employees that are dedicated to providing the best possible experience for its guests. In its rapidly evolving industry, The Vacation Company continues to lead in technological advances that improve its guest experience. “Although we understand the importance of technology, we thrive on creating personal relationships with owners and guests,” partner Beth Henzler said. “Everyone is family when working with The Vacation Company.”
THE WESTIN HILTON HEAD ISLAND RESORT & SPA
30 years in business
The newly renovated The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa promises both relaxation and invigoration for your family amidst the beauty of Hilton Head Island’s world-famous beaches.
WYNDHAM VACATION RENTALS
6 years in business
Wyndham Vacation Rentals focuses on short-term rentals in the premier resort areas of Hilton Head Island including Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, Shipyard, Forest Beach, Singleton Beach and Folly Field. From one-bedroom villas to eight-bedroom oceanfront homes, the company offers a full spectrum of properties. “As part of Wyndham Worldwide, Wyndham Vacation Rentals is the only Fortune 500 rental company on Hilton Head Island. The international brand is a trusted name both owners and renters can rely on; this gives us a major marketing advantage no other company can match,” Kimberly Morris said.