Hilton Head, SC was one of the first resort areas in the U.S. to take into account its impact on the environment. It started in the 1950s with Charles Fraser, who built Sea Pines Resort and rerouted the marina to save an old oak tree. Today, he’s buried beneath that oak tree.
“Sustainability is very much in our DNA because prior to the 1950s, Hilton Head was primarily a fishing and farming coastal islet,” says Susan Thomas, VP of Hilton Head VCB. “One of the things that’s interesting is when people first come to Hilton Head, they’re almost always across the board physically stunned by the natural beauty of the island and the protection our modern forefathers and local government put into place to protect the tree covering, the views, the blending of architecture with the environment. It’s such a critical part of who we are.”
About 18 months ago, the VCB unveiled the “Hilton Head Island Difference” program showcasing the many different CSR-related opportunities for groups. That initiative helped lure the annual Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference to Hilton Head in September—the first time it’s been held in the southeast.
In addition to that, the VCB is developing a number of new island-wide programs. The “Eco Smart” program beginning 1Q 2012 will promote on-island suppliers with national or regional sustainability certification. And they’re working with USC, Beaufort to establish eco training for guides, tour ops, etc.
Meanwhile, six of the golf courses have been certified as Audubon Wildlife Refuge Sanctuaries, with more on the way. And the island was just certified in August by the American League of Bicyclists for its 50+ miles of bikeable paths.
We’re heading up to the 3-day program chock full of educational sessions and offsite tours showcasing the many initiatives put into place by both the private and public sectors. In the meantime, we checked in with Thomas to see how the island’s susty spirit is evolving.
Q: Susan, what does the Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference mean to Hilton Head?
ST: It’s enormous for Hilton Head because it puts us on the world stage literally and says that we are a sustainable community, we have an ongoing commitment to improve the community, and we want to work with our colleagues around the world in our industry to promote sustainability.
Q: How has the Hilton Head Island Difference program been received by groups?
ST: That has been a very popular program for the destination. A lot of planners who are looking at valuating different destinations determine their fit with Hilton Head really in as much from a philosophical standpoint as much as a value standpoint. They’re making their travel and convention services buying decisions based on the Hilton Head Island Difference as an indicator that this destination, this community, is inline with what we’re all about.
Q: What types of groups does Hilton Head cater especially well to?
ST: We attract all types of groups but many of them tend to be more active. They want to do an activity on the beach or on the waterways, accompanied by a naturalist who talks about the environment, like refeeding oyster shell beds for example. We’re also finding that planners tend to want to put these activities into their group agenda as an optional activity before the conference or on the last day in the last slot…. It really becomes like a teambuilding program.
Q: How significant a selling point are themes such as eco-tourism and CSR for Hilton Head, with relation to well known draws like your spectacular golf and beaches?
ST: There’s a very high level of awareness of how hard we’ve worked to protect and preserve the environment in the community. That outweighs in all of our visitor profiles the amenities you mention, golf and beaches, in terms of what’s so special and significant about Hilton Head. Those are very important but what’s distinctive is our natural beauty.
Q: What does the way forward look like?
ST: There is a reinvigoration in our community. It’s an awareness that we have not only protected what we have for the past century, but moving forward we need to make sure we’re doing all the things we can in terms of what technology now allows us to do to build sustainability. That, and doing a better job honoring our cultural heritage, which ties into sustainability.
At the beginning of next year, we’re unveiling out ‘Eco Smart’ initiative. It’s an umbrella program for any business in the community who has earned certification from any number of sustainability programs, whether it’s national or regional, as long as we’ve vetted it and said it’s the real thing. And then we’re going to recognize them as an Eco Smart businesses and market them to meeting planners who say, ‘I want to patronize restaurants, hotels, golf courses, tour operators, etc., who have taken documented steps to lesson their environmental impact.
Q: Is sustainability that much in demand by your visitors?
ST: We did a green/sustainability research study on the individual visitors side about a year ago. A really high percentage of our visitors want a green, sustainable experience. When they come here, they want to patronize those businesses. Now where they draw the line is, they think it should be mainstream. They don’t want to pay a premium for that.
Q: How does Hilton Head’s natural surroundings impact the success of a meeting or conference?
ST: We live in very busy stressful time, and when a company or organization has a chance to sit in a high touch environment–although we’re very high tech too–and engage in meaningful strategic planning and dialogue, then it’s a chance to put aside our day-to-day pressures. If a group wants to escape this very frenetic culture we have in America right now and focus on some specific things they want to accomplish during a conference, then we are the right environment for them. That’s what we bring to the table.
That’s the takeaway from the Hilton Head experience. You’re able to rejuvenate and reconnect in a meaningful way.