Island Knowledge



“Why do loggerhead turtles need us to turn the lights out at night?” “What is an anhinga?” “What’s the story behind Mitchelville?”

Visitors to Hilton Head Island come from all over the world, and they often are unfamiliar with the Lowcountry’s history and natural resources. So they turn to the people they encounter every day during their vacations: Hilton Head Island’s waiters, bartenders and hotel employees.

Sometimes, these folks know the answers to tourists’ questions. And, of course, sometimes they don’t. The University of South Carolina-Beaufort partners with the local hospitality industry to turn those “I don’t know” answers into “Well, let me tell you about…”

While the university’s new hospitality campus — which opened in the fall — is focused on training those interested in hospitality careers, the school also offers programs for those who have been manning the industry’s front lines for years. The Island Ambassador Program is dedicated to training hospitality workers on island ecology and culture so that they can quickly and confidently answer any question curious tourists might have. Even those who have spent years on the island might be surprised about what they can learn about its past and its wildlife, school officials said — and they might be surprised by the impact they can have on the island’s tourism industry, its leading economic drivers.

“Island Ambassadors create exceptional guest experiences so that visitors not only want to return, but have the desire to bring their friends and family back with them,” said program director Keri Olivetti, of USCB’s Center for Event Management and Hospitality Training.

To become an officially certified Island Ambassador, program participants attend a half day course that covers island knowledge, island culture, and island ecology. The island knowledge class focuses on the island’s history and the impact of tourism. The island culture course highlights Gullah culture along with the island’s art, theater, dance, sports and water activities. And during the island ecology segment, program participants learn about local wildlife and the island’s various ecological systems — the beaches, dunes and maritime forests, along with the marshes and tidal creeks.

Participants find that becoming an island ambassador helps them succeed at work. Christina Price was a bartender at Dunes Houses when she completed the course two year ago. She’s now the beachfront restaurant’s manager but still uses the knowledge she gained from the program.

“We always get asked about nature and animals. They ask a lot of questions about the sea turtles,” Price said, adding, “I take my own initiatives to learn things about the island, but it was cool to be able to do it at work.”

Price has lived in the Lowcountry for 14 years, but many local employees are recent arrivals. USCB tries to tailor the course curriculum to participants’ backgrounds; if most of the students are relatively new to the island, the coursework will be different than if they’d been in the Lowcountry for decades. Employees from Sonesta Hilton Head Island Resort, Palmetto Dunes, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors are some of the 1,450 island ambassadors who have completed the course.

Experts say that a focus on educating hospitality workers on the area’s history and ecology can pay off: Researchers at Clemson University found that the Island Ambassador program “helps employees exceed customer expectations” and “supports the workers themselves and increases their pride.”

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Island Ambassador training courses are free for employees of participating businesses, through a partnership of USCB and the Town of Hilton Head Island. If a company hasn’t joined the program, USCB will work with interested employees to ensure they can participate. For more information or to enroll, call Kerry Jarvis at 843-208 or email