ENC tourism includes military-related visitors -- whether they come to visit family or revisit the base on a reunion.

It’s not just the base that brings military to the area.

According to Onslow County Tourism manager Kristin Loflin, military reunions are becoming another draw for the region.

“We end up getting involved with the local businesses, if say a military reunion comes to town … we always want to promote the local places,” Loflin said.

One group held its reunion in March at the Hilton Garden Inn and Loflin said hotels are expecting a handful of others as the busy season approaches.

Coming to town

The National Montford Point Marine Association, for example, will be holding its National convention in July at the Jacksonville Hilton Garden Inn.

Johnny B. Young, Jr., president of the Montford Point Association in Jacksonville, said the convention is being held locally this year for two reasons.

"They are coming here because that’s where it all started -- Montford Point started at Camp Johnson," Young said.

The Montford Point Monument renovations will also be completed and turned over to the Secretary of the Navy on July 25.

The monument will be another attraction for convention-goers, but Young it's important to give the very first African-American Marines a chance to revisit Jacksonville.

"Most of the original Montford Pointers are in their 90s and this may be the last chance they have to come home," Young said.

From the National Association, Young said there are 44 chapters total and they will be coming from far and wide.

Joe Geeter, a public affairs officer for the National Montford Point Marine Association, said the convention has been held in Jacksonville four times over the past 20 years.

This year, Jacksonville was the pick because the the Hilton Garden Inn "that fits everybody," Geeter said. "And that the monument would be ready... was just the icing on the cake."

According to Geeter, usually about half of the total 44 chapters are represented at the convention.

"The Chamber of Commerce is great (help), this puts us on the map and everything -- this is a big deal," Young said.

How it started

Just this year, six reunions are scheduled in the area.

“And these aren’t even ones we’ve reached out to,” Loflin said.

Loflin and her colleague, Lisa Murabito, military affairs manager for the Chamber of Commerce, attended a recruiting trade show through Your Military Connection in Myrtle Beach to reach out to veteran groups outside of Jacksonville.

The event gave them the chance to meet with event planners and promote Jacksonville as a place to “Receive a Hero’s Welcome,” highlighting local military destinations, as well as restaurants and day trip ideas.

“The earlier we can get involved in planning, the more effective we are,” Loflin said.

While the trade show did not immediately bring business, Loflin said she is hopeful it will pay off as some groups begin planning reunions over the next few years.

“We’re excited for it,” Loflin said. “If we can continue to get some (reunions) like that the investment will pay off.”

Increased tourism

Just within the first few months of the year, Jacksonville hotels have reported an increase in booking, which lines up with February’s STAR Benchmarking report saying business has gone up compared to February of last year.

The STAR report publishes month-to-month data for hotels to compare business annually.

County data, covering 2017 tourism revenue, will not be published until this fall.

“It will be interesting to see once I get the occupancy tax reports,” Loflin said.

Previous data, though shows the 2016 tourism revenue was impacted by military visitors, with 34.4 percent of all visitors somehow related to the military.

Tourism revenue, too, increased in 2016, with $222 million countywide.

Whether they come for a holiday, before a deployment, or just for a visit, Loflin said Jacksonville certainly sees the impact of the base on tourism.

Craven County saw an increase of travel expenditures in 2016, with $136.99 coming in, according to the Impact from Visitor Spending from Visit NC.  This was a 4.9 percent increase from the previous year.

In Havelock, military tourism brings business into the community, too.

Gary Curry, vice chair and hotel/motel representative for Craven County Tourism and Development Authority, said training events are an especially big draw for the area.

"That's a big driver in our area," Curry said.

While Havelock does not typically host as many military reunions as Jacksonville, families visit their service members often.

The manager of a Hilton property, Curry said contractors and family-members drop into Craven County year-round for training, holidays and deployments.

"Depending on the graduation, transferring, or deployments coming in and out -- a lot of those (families) are staying somewhere," Curry said.

To make the visits worthwhile, Curry said many hotels in the area will encourage extended stays by offering special discounts or rates for booking more time.

Many hotels offer military family discounts as well.

"We understand and appreciate what they bring to the community," Curry said.

Other draws

However, there is no definitive information on the numbers of military-related tourists.

Camp Lejeune, which allows service members to sponsor family members in order to visit the base, does not even record civilian visitors, according to public affairs officer Maj. Lori Miller.

And some military visits are limited to the base, so they’re not paying the occupancy tax.

Loflin said while the beach, especially North Topsail, is a big attraction for Onslow County, but some families will stay on Lejeune’s Onslow Beach so their stay is treated more like a day trip.

“They’re staying on Onslow Beach but they’re still going to eat at our restaurants,” Loflin said.

Other attractions include history-centered sites, like the Moores National Battlefield and Lejeune Memorial Gardens.

 

"A lot of people who travel here are military history buffs," Loflin said.

Among these travelers Friday was Tim Wilson, from Memphis, Tennessee.

Wilson told The Daily News he came to the Lejeune Memorial Gardens as part of some military sightseeing along the East Coast.

“I’m here for work, but I took Friday off for a vacation day and thought I’d catch some of the Revolutionary War sites,” Wilson said.

Traveling with his wife, Michele, Wilson said it was their first time in North Carolina and they were impressed with all the things to do in Jacksonville.

As for the gardens, their favorite memorial was the Vietnam amphitheater and glass walls.

“We’ve been to D.C. and seen the other one, but this kind of caught us by surprise,” Wilson said. “It was a nice find.”

 As the area approaches the busy season, Loflin said her job is to help with advertising ahead of time, to bring people into the area.

“Depending on what’s going on on the base, our numbers can get a little skewed,” Loflin said.

For example, large training exercises may bring in more military contractors, or families will often come in to see off their loved ones before a deployment.

In general, though, the busy season for Eastern North Carolina remains from April-September.

“A lot of people, when they think tourism, they think Wilmington, Mrytle Beach or the big dogs,” Loflin said. “(But) we definitely see the effects of tourism.”