Working To Warm Up Winter Travel

By Cece Nunn, posted Dec 15, 2023
The Christmas Flotilla in Carolina Beach brings in thousands of spectators in a typically slow month for beach visitors. (Photo by Leeann Tluchowski)
When LeeAnn Tluchowski moved to Carolina Beach, she noticed a decrease in beach tourism during the fall.

“It would be kind of a ghost town after Labor Day,” said Tluchowski, who moved to Pleasure Island in 2006. 

But post-COVID, the tides have changed.

“We’ve definitely seen that change,” she said.

Tluchowski, chair of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, and partners opened Mālama Cafe in Carolina Beach during Memorial Day weekend in 2020.

“The off-season has gotten significantly shorter in the years that I’ve been down here, so if the weather’s nice, which it was this year, and we don’t have a hurricane, our shoulder season is pretty much through fall,” she said. “And then December, January and February is our quiet season.”

However, she added, the island hosts holiday events throughout December, including its Island of Lights series. This year’s Island of Lights events included the Christmas Parade and Christmas Flotillas on Dec. 1-2.

“There are thousands of people who come out and hopefully spend some time in our restaurants and hotels and businesses and kind of hang out for the weekend,” Tluchowski said. “It also brings a lot of people onto the island from Wilmington and other parts of the county, which is always nice.” 

Hotels and other businesses during the winter months may operate with reduced staff or limit services available, such as seasonal children’s programs and special activities, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Hotels also offer special packages and off-season room rates to attract visitors. Some may even offer a special rate for local residents,” she said.

Lisa Corley, director of sales at Lumina on Wrightsville Beach, a Holiday Inn Resort, said winter evens out beach hotels’ competitive edge over inland properties.

“Being right on the beach, offering an oceanfront or harbor view from every room, providing the resort experience is not as important to the mix of business coming to Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach in the winter months,” Corley said. “We are all trying to get the same piece of business at similar pricing.”

Lumina on Wrightsville Beach promotes staycation and “holiday cheer” packages targeting “people who love winter on the beach and our local population to see our renovations we completed last year.” 

Corley described other tailored efforts.

“We partner with other businesses to work together to bring people to the island like our scuba diving experience we are getting ready to roll out. We make more sales calls to drum up more business,” she said. “Our oceanfront restaurant, Solstice, is always open to locals as well as to hotel guests. It brings in a lot of foodies all year long. We participate in Burger Week and Cocktail Week, and of course, having the largest event space on the ocean in North Carolina, we host a lot of holiday parties.”

Tourism officials use room occupancy tax (ROT) numbers to measure monthly growth year over year, but ROT collections are based on rates, not actual occupancy, Hufham said.   

“While people do visit our beaches during January and February, these are among the smallest months for room occupancy tax collections,” Hufham said. “Weather often drives January and February ROT, as we are known to have mild days even during the winter months.”

Tluchowski said the off-season months are kind of a locals’ season on Pleasure Island.

Restaurants and stores offer specials they post on social media and through the chamber of commerce.

“Some places have traditionally shut down in the off-season, but as the years have passed, more and more are staying open. There’s more people down here,” Tluchowski said, which helps to keep people employed longer. “We hope to see that happen this winter.”
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