Quest for data doesn’t take a vacation – Coastal Observer


Quest for data doesn’t take a vacation

Data can show how visitors travel and spend money within the county.

A vacation getaway isn’t what it used to be.

Along with footprints in the sand, visitors are leaving cellphone and credit card data for companies to scoop up, analyze and sell.

“There’s a lot of information out there,” said Adam Zappia, a sales director for Zartico, a Utah-based firm that provides data for tourism marketing. “It’s messy to clean it up.”

Georgetown County’s Tourism Management Commission is looking at Zartico to help answer questions posed by County Council about the effectiveness of the county’s marketing. That marketing is paid for through a 2 percent state tax on short-term rentals that raised $2.3 million for the county in fiscal 2023.

The tourism commission gets most of its $1.4 million budget from that accommodations tax. The remainder is awarded for “tourism related expenditures” in the form of grants to local government agencies  and nonprofits.

In approving those grants last year, council members said they wanted to know more about where the tax is collected and how effective the grants are in attracting visitors.

The Chamber of Commerce provides tourism marketing for the county under the oversight of the Tourism Management Commission. 

“We know where people are coming from. We have a good idea of that,” said Mark Stevens, the Chamber tourism development director.

The staff looked at Zartico for data that could verify what it knows from experience, he said.

Quest for data has been going on since the accommodations tax first became available for marketing in the mid-1980s. The rise of online services hasn’t wholly solved the problem.

The commission and its predecessors tried to get occupancy data from vacation rental companies.

“There was always a reluctance,” said commission member Bob Jewell. “I’m not sure we ever cracked through that.”

Zappia told the commission last week that his company has cracked that by buying information from Key Data, a company that specializes in short-term rental data.

“We see directly into the property management systems,” he said.

Those are from 16 area companies that represent 900 properties, he added.

Commission member Will Dieter, who owns the Dieter Co., was skeptical.
“I wouldn’t think all the rental companies around are giving them access,” he said of Key Data.

The Chamber currently gets occupancy information from Air DNA, a service that “scrapes” data about which properties are booked from the internet. That service currently costs $4,400 a year.

Although the Chamber and Zartico haven’t settled on a specific scope of service, the estimate ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 a year, Stevens said.

Zartico’s rental data is combined with information from credit cards and cellphones. “Spending in my opinion is the most important data set we bring,” Zappia said.

It can show where the visitors who spend the most money come from. And phone data can show how they move around the county.

He showed the commission data from Beaufort, where the local chamber was debating the need to promote nearby Fripp Island. 

“These devices go downtown. They go out into the community,” Zappia said. “You can see where they’re going within the destination.”

In the case of vacationers at Fripp, that included some who had gone fishing offshore.

But Zappia also said the data is limited. Although the company gets the best that’s available, it only represents 5 percent of electronic devices.

“This data’s meant to show trends, not absolutes. That’s important,” he said.

While tourism marketing organizations are always asked to identify their customers and where they come from, Zappia said that kind of data is only available to the CIA and the NSA.

“There’s no answer to that question,” said Stevens, even from the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

While the Zartico data would be helpful, even as a one-year snapshot of activity, Stevens said a steady stream could be more than it needs or can apply.

“We can spend every single penny on research, as opposed to spending the money on marketing to get people to come here,” he said. “It’s Catch-22.”

The broad array of data can shift the conversation away from the volume of visitors to their value, Zappia told the commission.

“We don’t want to just talk about volume estimates anymore,” he said. “Are they spending money in-market?”

That was among the questions County Council members had. While they weren’t directed at the Chamber’s marketing, Stevens said that prompted the search for new sources of data.

But he added, “research and data can give us so much information, but what we do with that information is going to be equally important.”



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