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A Legend Profiled: John Curry Marks his 70th year in the Hospitality Industry,
Much of it Spent Helping Hilton Head Island Make its Reputation
By Jim Faber, The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 5, 2007 --Seventy years ago, John Curry was making sure guests were comfortable at Curry's Camp Baldy, a resort his parents owned in the Sierra Nevada in California.

This week, Curry was doing much the same thing, but on a grander scale -- offering his expertise in hospitality and resort management as a consultant on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

Curry turned 77 this week, marking a remarkable 70th year in the hospitality and tourism industry, much of that time on Hilton Head Island.

"My folks had a resort in Southern California, and I started making fires in the fireplaces and that sort of thing," said Curry of his start in an industry that brought him to Hilton Head Island more than 30 years ago.

Even before arriving on Hilton Head to serve as executive vice president at Sea Pines Resorts, Curry had a successful career. He had worked in numerous management positions at his family's resorts in California and as director of hotels for the Walt Disney Co.

But Curry's role in shaping the hospitality industry on the island and throughout South Carolina started in 1973 when Edward "Ebbie" LeMaster, president of Sea Pines, lured Curry away from Howard Johnson hotels.

The island was, of course, different in those days.

Sure, tourists came during the April-to-September busy season, but "the rest of the year you could lay down on the highway and not get run over," Curry said.

SEA PINES BANKRUPTCY

Curry's most important role came during one of Hilton Head's darkest times. In 1986, Hilton Head Holdings, the parent company of the Sea Pines Co. and seven other subsidiaries, filed for bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy involved Sea Pines, Shipyard Plantation, Wexford Plantation, Port Royal Plantation and Indigo Run. More than $100 million was owed to about 2,000 creditors, many of them local companies.

Curry was appointed trustee in the bankruptcy, which ended in 1988 after the assets were sold and the companies dissolved.

"John was new to the intricacies of bankruptcy, but he was experienced in resort community management," said Marc Puntereri, who worked with Curry during the bankruptcy. "It really was his leadership that held together hundreds and hundreds of employees and vendors and gave confidence to thousands and thousands of tourists and property owners."

The island almost lost the PGA Tour event, the Heritage golf tournament, during the bankruptcy, but Curry, Angus Cotton, Joe Fraser and others were able to raise $1 million to create the Heritage Classic Foundation and keep the tournament here, Curry said.

The PGA Tour tournament gives the island a yearly stage for national television exposure.

ACCOMMODATIONS TAX

Another accomplishment, which had statewide impact, was Curry's work to pass the state's accommodations tax law, which generates money for local governments, as well as for the arts and for tourism promotion. He's still on the state Tourism Expenditure Review Committee.

David Warren, former chairman of the town's Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, said the tax has been important for the island. Thirty percent of the local haul goes to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce for tourism marketing. Much of the rest goes out in grants for tourism-related projects.

The money has been used to help launch such events as the Hilton Head Concours d'Elegance & Motoring Festival and support the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Warren said. Major recipients also include the Island Recreation Center, the Coastal Discovery Museum and the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.

PROMOTING THE ISLAND

Making the island a year-round tourism destination was also something Curry worked hard to do, said Cotton, a former partner in Curry's consulting business and the original general manager of the first Marriott resort on the island.

About 30 years ago, Curry, Cotton and others started making winter visits to Midwestern cities and plied business and civic leaders there with wine, beer and pictures and stories of Hilton Head, Cotton said.

The visits, which took place over a decade, were vital to raising the island's profile, Cotton said.

"John will just keep after something, like a bulldog," Cotton said.

At that time, Curry owned Sand Dollar Management, one of the largest villa rental companies on the island. He owned that company from 1976 through 1991.

Curry also served as chairman of the island's Visitor and Convention Bureau for 17 years until 1992. He has been involved with Beaufort County's airports for many years and is on the county Aviation Advisory Board.

"If there's a walking encyclopedia of airport history, John is it," said David Ames, aviation board chairman.

Since 1991, Curry has owned a hospitality consulting firm called the Curry Co. The work has taken him to Japan, Bulgaria, Jordan, China, Thailand and Croatia, among other nations.

Despite ever-growing global competition, Curry is bullish on the island's future as a tourism destination.

"You've got to have wonderful golf and wonderful beaches," Curry said. "We have, in addition to that, wonderful cultural amenities that set us apart."

Curry's wife, Valerie, helped foster those amenities when she was involved in setting up the island's renowned international piano competition in 1996 and returned as director in 2003.

WIDE INFLUENCE

Curry's tourism influence reaches throughout the state. He is frequently called upon by the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism for his expertise and advice, said Marion Edmonds, director of communications for the department.

"He is a good representative of the island to the state," Edmonds said. "He is a calm and very knowledgeable voice when it was needed to explain things to the legislature or the governor."

Edmonds said there hasn't been an issue that affects coastal tourism in the past two decades that Curry hasn't been asked about by the agency, either officially or unofficially.

The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce named its John F. Curry Tourism Award after Curry when it presented the first such award to him in 2000. It wasn't awarded again until this year, when Joe Fraser received it.

"To say he has left an indelible mark on the tourism industry would be a vast understatement," said Bill Miles, chamber president and CEO.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

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