MYRTLE BEACH — In a resort town where tourism is king, it's important to be No. 1.
In Myrtle Beach, landing first on a list of attractions, like being dubbed home to the country's best boardwalk by Conde Nast Traveler last year, becomes a point of pride trumpeted by local politicians.
Years ago, the city even made a point to bring in a team of sand sculptors to build what it dubbed the world's largest sandcastle.
But marketers in South Carolina's most lucrative tourist destination are also working to create the same positive media coverage that might become the talk of the town. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce routinely arranges visits for travel media and bloggers, sometimes picking up their expenses.
“Some travel writers expect to be courted and treated like royalty, and we are happy to do so," outgoing chamber President and CEO Brad Dean said in an October interview. "There are others that, they’re more like a traditional journalist, they’re independent and they just want access.”
The Myrtle Beach chamber has spent roughly $108,000 in public money in the past five years on line items titled "travel writer" or "media visit," according to its spending reports. Those reports account for the money it receives from a 1 percent sales tax for tourism promotion.
Competing for attention online is vital in the current travel and tourism environment, industry members and analysts say. But the relationships between marketing agencies and newer digital media are sometimes unclear — leaving the question of whether an assessment of a trip was colored by the perks given to the writer.
Tourism marketers have long jockeyed to get travel writers into their restaurants, lodging and attractions, according to Sheila Backman, a professor with Clemson University's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management program.
But as digital media platforms have grown and other professions that might have driven visitation — such as travel agents — have dwindled, travel bloggers and social media gurus are the new frontier of marketing, Backman said.
"The view is that these people that are writing these blogs are just a new form of travel writer, and you have to treat them the same way," Backman said.
Bethany Winston, who runs a website about the Greenville and Spartanburg area, said the Myrtle Beach chamber reached out to her directly to ask if she was interested in writing about the Grand Strand.
“For me, it was a great fit, too, because I needed the content on my site,” she said.
That interaction resulted in a beach trip for Winston's family and an article on her site about how to spend spring break there. Winston declined to fully describe her financial arrangement with the chamber but said they helped with some costs, such as tickets for attractions.
In some cases, destination marketers may strike more specific deals with bloggers and other digital media creators.
A sample agreement that the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau provided to The Post and Courier showed that the marketing group would expect certain content online after a social media influencer visited the city. That included two Instagram posts daily with specific tags; a blog post about the visit within two weeks; and 10-15 high-resolution photos within two weeks, along with the rights for the CVB to use those images.
In exchange, the influencer gets a three-night hotel stay and a pass granting access to "more than 30 of the Charleston area’s most popular attractions and tours," among other perks.
Doug Warner, of the Charleston CVB, said the group carefully vets who it might host to make sure his or her audience fits the desired demographic. In most cases, he said, member organizations will offer the free rooms themselves, with the CVB itself paying relatively few expenses.
About 70 percent of the writers the group courts are from legacy print publications, Warner said, while 30 percent are from digital media.
But in many cases, writers contact the CVB themselves and ask to come to town, Warner said. Charleston has a robust presence in travel media and has landed atop "best of" lists many times, including as the favorite U.S. city for the readers of Travel+Leisure Magazine.
"Most communities in the country would love to be in the position we are in, with the amount of exposure we get," Warner said.
In the highest echelons of social media influence, it can still be difficult to distinguish whether a post was encouraged by freebies, or even a direct payment. In September, 21 high-profile social media users received letters from the Federal Trade Commission asking them to disclose any financial relationship with companies they had mentioned on Instagram, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The FTC said that simple references to the companies sponsoring a post — like writing "thank you" and tagging them — were not adequate to follow regulations on deceptive advertising.
“There’s some education the general public has to take," Backman said. Just as media consumers are trained to understand what an ad looks like in a newspaper, “they now have to translate this into the digital space.”