Turbo-Tourists Vital to Future Economic Success

By Dana W. Todd
May 31, 2012

When we think of promoting tourism for South Carolina, we think of attracting visitors to come and experience our state’s beaches, mountains, golf courses, cultural attractions and historical places. We want visitors to travel to and through our state, spending money at events, in restaurants and hotels, and at destinations sprinkled within our borders.

Demographer Patrick Mason is thinking one step ahead. He wants some of those visitors to “come back and stay awhile” as the Southern phrase goes. Through the Center for Carolina Living and CarolinaLiving.com, he has tracked a segment of transient leisure visitors who find South Carolina so irresistible, they permanently move here after vacationing and put down roots. He calls these people “turbo-tourists,” and you may be surprised who they are.

Mason estimates turbo-tourists at more than six million relocators each year – half of whom are over age 50.

“Turbo-tourists spend more, stay longer, and return more frequently. They have many investment motivators, including the purchase of a primary or secondary home, investment or startup in a new business venture, or land acquisition,” Mason says. “Destination marketers should understand that tourism is the birth mother of another huge $13 billion Carolina economic engine called the in-migration industry,” says Mason.

“Beyond a $2,000 to $10,000 vacation, there’s a ‘turbo effect’ when they relocate or acquire a second home, investing $267,000 to more than $1 million in the first year. Plus, each new household creates 1.9 jobs locally,” he continues.

Mason’s Carolina Lifestyle Survey™ reports turbo-tourists are affluent families, and 77 percent are college degreed with a median household income of $119,000. About half are Baby Boomers with a propensity to continue working and volunteering past traditional retirement age. Their friends and family visit, spending money in our area and sometimes relocating in close proximity, bringing their wealth, talent, and tax base.

George and Judy Blanchard moved to Keowee Key in the Upstate after having been invited from their home in Michigan by a South Carolina developer. The Blanchards soon purchased a home site and built a new home, ready to escape Northern winters and looking forward to living near a university.

“Our family loves that we found the Upstate Mountain Lakes region and Keowee Key,” George Blanchard says. “Our grandchildren consider our home a vacation resort.”Susan Ryal moved to Columbia from Orlando to be near her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Thinking she’d mainly involve herself with family, she has ended up with a part-time job, attending many theater and concert performances, and traveling to Charleston every spring for the Spoleto USA Festival.

“I am busier than I ever was in Orlando,” Ryal says, surprised by Columbia’s array of amenities and arts events.

CarolinaLiving.com annually surveys 4,000 families and integrates that data with research from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, the University of South Carolina’s Retiree In-migration Impact Study, and Clemson University’s Benefits & Consequences Study. From analysis of the information, Mason concludes the turbo-tourism sector is growing at a 5 percent annual rate and projects this rate to increase each year.

Mason suggests some states, like Florida, have failed to adequately capture this upper income relocation market, although they have realized retiree population gains due to the abolishment of income taxes. Targeting this lower income demographic, however, burdens the state’s Medicaid program and other government services.

Our neighbor, North Carolina, is marketing a retiree attraction program. North Carolina recently passed legislation to create the N.C. Certified Retirement Community Program, marketed nationally via RetireNC.com.Alabama is marketing to turbo-tourists through promotion of its Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, 500 holes of championship-level golf courses that meander through the state, supported by related businesses such as hotels, restaurants and spas. 

The economic development strategy was conceived and funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, whose leader hopes to spur economic growth and attract affluent families to the state. According to Mason, Alabama leaders document an increase in tourism attributable to the Trail from $2 billion to $10 billion over the last 12 years.

What will make South Carolina successful? Mason stresses that economic leaders and Convention and Visitor Bureau marketing teams need to focus recruitment on the upper income families who are actively working, volunteering, and creating businesses. Affluent retirees aren’t interested in lower taxes but in natural resources in small town communities with nearby cultural amenities and activities to keep them busy. Companies in relevant industries – financial services, insurance, healthcare, real estate, retail, and hospitality – will gain market share by serving these affluent families, according to Mason. There’s consistent growth in the sector, which ultimately equals the potential for added economic prosperity in South Carolina.

“The emerging in-migration industry is a clean, low-cost, job creation machine with expanding metrics that will continue at least through 2030,” says Mason.

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