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Hilton Head: A stroke of (green) genius

Courtesy Hilton Head Island-Bluffton VCB

Hilton Head draws hordes of visitors year-round, but this 12-mile-long South Carolina barrier island is far from a typical beach destination.

After the bridge connecting the island and mainland is crossed, the difference is palpable. From the single major highway, U.S. 278, that circles the island one does not see beachfront hotel upon beachfront hotel.

In fact, no beach is visible. Nor are any high-rises, bright streetlights, neon signs, garish billboards or Golden Arches.

Instead, homes and buildings are painted to blend into carefully manicured landscaping, and residential roads curve around maritime forests of pines, palmettos and live oaks. Some 50 miles of bicycle and pedestrian pathways make it possible to bike or walk the entire island.

It is all by design.

Land management ordinances in place since the 1950s protect the island’s natural resources, including sea turtles. Most of the island is divided into 11 “plantations,” or multidimensional gated resorts, akin to community neighborhoods, with accommodations, activities, residences, beaches, and amenities such as shopping centers tucked tastefully into the landscape.

In the 1950s, a visionary real-estate developer, Charles Fraser, ensured the island’s greening when he put into effect a master plan for Sea Pines Plantation, a community built in harmony with the environment, and laid the groundwork for eco-safe development of the entire barrier island.

“Thanks to Fraser, Hilton Head was built as a sustainable green destination before the concept became popular,” said Dave Zunker, associate director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Head Island – Bluffton Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Green measures draw meetings

In September, Hilton Head’s green aspects brought the International Ecotourism Society’s (TIES) fifth annual conference to the island. It was the first time the conference had been in the southeastern United States. At the event, Hilton Head was presented with Audubon International’s Green Community Designation.

“We like being considered as an appealing destination to those who really know what sustainability and green are all about,” Zunker said. “TIES chose us because we have that heritage and because we have ordinances in place that protect the island’s ecosystem.”

“As the country’s first eco-planned community, Hilton Head has a green legacy that is a definite draw for meetings,” said Jack Reed, the CVB’s executive director.

Hilton Head’s pristine environment makes it especially popular for gatherings that want to reduce their carbon footprint without sacrificing the advantages of an island resort. Hilton Head’s major meeting properties do both.

Sea Pines is going strong
At the south end of the island, Fraser’s Sea Pines Resort thrives a couple of miles past a gate with a $5 entrance fee for nonguests and nonresidents.

Sea Pines’ red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse is a Hilton Head icon, seen on postcards and on television promos for the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage Tournament, played on Harbour Town Golf Links, the best course in South Carolina, according to the South Carolina Golf Rankings panel.

The 5,000-acre property, with its 50 lagoons and lakes, is self-contained. In addition to the 60-room Inn at Harbour Town, it includes 400 homes and villas, seven restaurants, three golf courses, five miles of beach, 15 miles of bike trails and one of the top tennis centers in the nation, directed by U.S. Open and Wimbledon winner Stan Smith.

Sea Pines has two meetings facilities. The 10,000-square-foot Harbour Town Conference Center is but a few hundred yards from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin at the resort heart. Adjacent to the Ocean and Heron Point golf courses two miles away is the 9,000-square-foot Plantation Club Conference Center.

“The Harbour Town Conference Center’s Heritage Room is in the original 1960s clubhouse,” said John Munro, director of hospitality, sales and marketing for Sea Pines. “Its two terraces overlook the Harbour Town Links and Harbour Town Yacht Basin. You’re standing in the middle of history. It doesn’t get much better.”

The tartan-themed Heritage Room accommodates 80 for a reception. A clubhouse sellout for 250 combines that room with the Heritage Grill and its wooden golf club collection.

Jim Mallory, executive director of the Non-Ferrous Founders Society, found the Inn at Harbour Town, a AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Four Star award winner, a “perfect fit” for the 110 attendees at his annual meeting last year.

“All of our functions were on site,” he said. “We had an evening event outdoors at the Liberty Oak [a huge, historic live oak tree] and another on the inn’s patio. The staff made my experience as a planner easy. The meeting was on a weekend, but nearly everyone stayed a few extra days. We’ve rebooked for 2014.”

Sea Pines’ measures to maintain a balance with nature are visible. A low-ropes course is part of a 605-acre nature preserve. Cars typically stay parked while attendees take a trolley, walk or pedal a bicycle around the resort.

Harbour Town has options
Packed with vessels, the Harbour Town Yacht Basin is a base for fishing, sailing, parasailing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boardings. The Spirit of Harbour Town offers sunset dinner cruises or takes passengers to Savannah for a Paula Deen Trolley Tour. A sister vessel, the 149-passenger Vagabond, is Hilton Head Island’s original narrated excursion boat. It tours nearby Daufuskie Island.

“A team-building option that’s always good for laughs is a cardboard-boat regatta,” said Rob Bender, the resort’s director of recreation and marine operations. “With cardboard, duct tape and markers, teams of five have to build a boat and sail it across the pool. The boss of a health insurance group was in a boat that sank right at the edge of the pool. His employees loved it.”

Forego housekeeping for food
In Port Royal Plantation, the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa is certified with the South Carolina Green Hospitality Alliance Program. Its Make a Green Choice program rewards guests who decline housekeeping services with a $5 food-and-beverage voucher or 500 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints per night.

All 350 members of TIES stayed and met there. At the conference, the Westin unveiled its all-electric vehicle charger to be used by guests with a Chevrolet Bolt or Nissan Leaf. It is the first hotel on Hilton Head to offer this service.

The AAA Four Diamond property has 412 rooms, 28 suites among them. Its 28,000 square feet of conference space is on the first floor.

“The hotel is built into the environment,” said Skip James, director of sales and marketing. “It’s not just a square box sitting by the ocean.”

Luann Purcell, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), chose the Westin for a conference for 225 of her group’s state provincial leaders.

A Hilton Head Island condo owner, she doubted that the island could provide the four things CASE required: affordable rates, a nearby airport accessible with few plane changes, uninterrupted Internet access and a location that would not require attendees to rent cars.

“I was skeptical, but I presented these to the Visitor and Convention Bureau, and they said, ‘No problem,’” Purcell said. “Our attendees loved the area and even participated in the island’s corporate social responsibility program by picking up beach trash.”

The Hilton Head Island Difference pairs groups of any size with national nonprofits or local organizations such as Deep Well, a food bank. Groups do community service to assist their nonprofit partners.

Palmetto Dunes home to major hotels

Two major hotels are in Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, near the island’s northern end. Like Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes is massive, encompassing 2,000 landscaped acres. The development, with three miles of beachfront, has three 18-hole golf courses, 25 tennis courts, fishing and sailing, and some 125 villas and homes for rent.

On the oceanfront is the island’s largest hotel, the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa.

“From the minute you walk into our lobby and look straight out to the Atlantic Ocean, you get a feeling of grandeur,” said Jeff Miller, sales manager. “From our outdoor decks, the 180-degree ocean view is spectacular for functions from a reception for 2,000 to an intimate, 15-person cocktail party.”

The Marriott’s 45,000 square feet of meeting space includes an 18,000-square-foot ballroom. After a $33 million renovation in 2006, all 513 guest rooms have wireless Internet access and private balconies. The hotel’s spa is one of the Marriott’s top 10.

Since 1989, the South Carolina Association of Counties has held its annual conference on Hilton Head and is contracted at the Marriott through 2015.

In August, Nilda Padgett, the company’s meeting planner, organized that event for 800 attendees who met and stayed there and at three other properties. The location and prices were appealing.

“Bring them a beach, and they’ll come,” she said. “We used to meet Thursday through Sunday, but the Marriott gave us a better rate for Saturday through Wednesday, so now we’ve changed to those dates. Many attendees bring their families and stay in nearby villas.”

The other hotel in Palmetto Dunes is the Hilton Oceanfront Resort Hilton Head Island, with 323 rooms, a steakhouse and a spa. All rooms are privately owned condos (not time-shares).

“Because they were opened as condos, ours are the largest rooms on Hilton Head, and all have kitchenettes,” said Steve Williams, the Hilton’s director of sales and marketing. “Twenty oceanfront suites are 1,000 square feet.”

The family-appropriate aspect of the Hilton Oceanfront appealed to Mary Nelson, marketing manager for Novus Glass, in choosing it for a March 2012 meeting of franchisees. The stay on Hilton Head will be a vacation for many of her 150 attendees and their families.

“We wanted to choose a destination where our attendees would want to go,” said Nelson. “Hilton Head is beautiful, with so many activities. We’ve scheduled a scavenger hunt through the hotel as a way for them to get to know the island and get to know each other.”

The Hilton Oceanfront’s 25,000 square feet of meeting space includes its 10,000-square-foot oceanfront and open-air Shorehouse.

In 2012 and 2013, the hotel will renovate guest rooms and meeting spaces.

Beyond the hotel, golfers can play Palmetto Dunes’ three courses, including Hilton Head’s only 70-par course, designed by George Fazio.

Centrecourt Conference Center overlooks the courts that made Palmetto Dunes one of Tennis magazine’s top tennis reorts in the country. Another venue, Dunes House, lies among dunes and sea oats; it can seat 150 for a beach buffet.

Environmental protection continues
Some five decades after Frazier began developing the island, the environmental principles he practiced are often followed, even by new developments. One example is the Inn at Palmetto Bluff,  part of a 22,000-acre development across the May River from Hilton Head Island near historic Bluffton.

With AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Four Star ratings, the inn is ideal for executive meetings.
Its meeting spaces are personable. A handsome ballroom has vaulted ceilings, windows, a fireplace and a wraparound veranda. A private dining room is designed to look like the inside of a canoe. A waterside chapel was built from lumber gathered at New York’s ground zero. And an outdoor pavilion has a fireplace, oyster pits and a waterfront bar.

Guests stay in 50 water-and-woods-view cottages or in 40 two- to four-bedroom homes.

Like the resort, activities are not ordinary, with alligator tracking and eco-history among the options. There’s golf on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, and Gullah singers can entertain at events. A spa, named Travel and Leisure’s No. 1 World’s Best Hotel Spa in 2010, occupies a private island with a wading-bird rookery.

Palmetto Bluff also contains private residences, and it is being developed so that the ancient maritime forest along the Cooper, May and New rivers is protected. And so, even today, guests enter a tract of land that looks as it did when explorer William Hilton first saw the area in the 1600s.

“We call the five-mile, woodsy drive into Palmetto Bluff the ‘decompression tank,’” said Paulette Peek, director of sales and marketing. “When people decompress, they’re more apt to network and socialize and be creative in their thinking. So meetings are always productive here.”

Thanks to the insightful planning of Charles Fraser and to Hilton Head’s ongoing dedication to Mother Nature, green meetings choices will continue to abound on this well-cared-for island.