How do you sell Hilton Head? Alligators
By DAVID LAUDERDALE
Hilton Head Island was up to its alligator belt in alligators when Sea Pines began 60 years ago. And that’s about all it had.
Developers were land-rich and cash-poor, with more dreams than schemes. How could they possibly get travelers along U.S. 17 to come take a look?
Cue the alligators.
They named the largest one Albert — the beast that walked into history alongside Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser. Their picture together in the Saturday Evening Post of March 3, 1962, grabbed America’s attention and never let go.
David Pearson was there. He tells about it in a new book about his public relations career called "JFK and Bobby, Arnie and Jack … and David!"
He was a bachelor in his 20s, and the first Sea Pines vice president of marketing and public relations, when he took a bet on Sea Pines in 1959. Now he’s come home again at age 84. Nine months ago, he and his wife, Anne, moved back to Sea Pines.
He was in a small group of well-educated but young executives drawn to the charismatic Fraser, a developer quoting Julian Huxley on the value of wilderness to the soul.
He writes: "One day I told Charles I needed a new typewriter. He said, ‘You do? Go sell a lot.’ "
When Pearson was with United Press International, he’d always heard that stories with animals and children get a lot of play. So, with no marketing budget or written marketing plan, Pearson got a young woman to stand with a golf club by a lagoon. He hooked a piece of chicken to a fishing pole. This would lure Albert into his first jaw-dropping photo-op.
Pearson wrote a story to go with the picture, titled: "The Golf Course With The World’s Greatest Hazards."
"It went viral," he said.
John McGrath joined the Sea Pines dream after meeting Fraser at Yale Law School.
Surely, he was second-guessing this career move as he bent his tall frame over to guide Albert around with a stick.
He too tells about Albert’s big day in a new book by Mark Brian Glick, "Amongst the Mythmakers: Recollections of John Williams McGrath."
He says Donald O’Quinn and Hassel Heyward of good Bluffton stock wrangled the creature onto solid sand. It was about where Sea Pines recently opened a $15 million, 23,000-square-foot golf clubhouse to replace the old Plantation Club.
"The photographer kept calling out to Charlie to get closer to the beast," Glick writes.
" ‘Act like it’s a walk in the park’ and ‘be casual’ were the strange admonitions coming from the unflappable photographer. Charlie dutifully obliged and history was made."
Pearson said, "The Saturday Evening Post picture was the ne plus ultra of the alligator."
But it wasn’t their only marketing trick.
Fraser loved history, and he saw it as part of a storyline that would draw people to Hilton Head.
Pearson said he paid someone to mine the National Archives for local history. He felt islanders would be interested in their Spanish and French neighbors of the 16th century, the Revolutionary War skirmishes, the antebellum plantation owners, the Union occupation during the Civil War, and America’s first freedom.
In 1961, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Port Royal here, Sea Pines staged a blowout near Coligny Circle. Pearson said military jets flew overhead, Army artillery was hauled to the scene, and troops landed in helicopters to re-enact a battle on the beach.
But even when Sea Pines built an oceanfront inn and a golf course, business was slow.
"So I coaxed a few dollars from the company and ran some small ads in the Wall Street Journal," Pearson writes. "We used headlines like ‘NO-NEON!’ playing up our uncrowded beaches. The next ad’s headline ran ‘GNO GNATS!’ That one told about our unusual insect-control program tied to our conservation ethic. We ran it in Natural History as well.
"Neither one pulled that great."
So they decided to go for broke. They advertised the cheap rates of $13.50 per night, per couple.
A quarter century later, Hilton Head tourism leaders would convince the new Red Roof Inn not to hawk its island location with its "Sleep Cheap" slogan.
But as Pearson writes, "That little ad got us through the tough winter of 1960."
And then there was the horse-drawn carriage.
McGrath had helped Sea Pines finally get a significant loan. He had worked up a plan outlining how the $1 million-plus would be spent on roads and drainage and utilities to undergird the grand dream.
But among the first things Fraser bought was a carriage with horses to take guests of the inn on tours of Sea Pines property.
Pearson said: "John was a good Catholic, so his quote was ‘Jeezo-Peezo, Charlie!’ "
Pearson writes of an unsung hero of Hilton Head’s development — a resident named Charles Pelham who was a retired advertising executive.
He arranged for editors and publishers to meet with Pearson at a hotel in New York City, but he said Sea Pines needed something to show them if wanted to attract their interest.
Pearson said he was able to swap a couple of Sea Pines fairway lots to a filmmaker in Columbia to get a 24-minute color film on the Sea Pines dream.
From those meetings came a big spread in Sports Illustrated in 1962, and stories about Hilton Head in a number of other national publications.
Pearson and McGrath are now the only survivors of that earliest group of young Sea Pines executives. Both spoke at Fraser’s funeral at Harbour Town in 2002.
Both went on to remarkable careers. Pearson left Sea Pines in 1963 to work in public information at the Peace Corps under Sargent Shriver. His book includes the moving story of the long night he was on duty at the White House when President John F. Kennedy’s body was brought home.
Fraser’s carriage lives on, perhaps a symbol of his unconventional ideas that tested his staff but led to the Urban Land Institute’s highest land-planning honors. It has been found and restored, and now sits beneath a specially built roof outside the community gardens in Hilton Head Plantation.
And when Hilton Head erected a statue to honor Fraser in 2010 at the Compass Rose Park, he’s still striding casually beside Albert the alligator.