Tourism Recovery and Resiliency: "Get on the rollercoaster and get ready for the ride!"

Written by Carleigh Hoy, Dixon Hughes Goodman, CYP Steering Committee Member

On Thursday, November 5th, Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston, presented an energetic and optimistic overview of where the City of Charleston is headed after a tough year for the hospitality and tourism industry.

She referred to the year 2020 as a rollercoaster multiple times throughout her presentation, first comparing the beginning of the year to the feeling you have on Space Mountain when you just don’t know when your stomach’s going to drop. The spread of COVID-19 triggered that sensation of a downward freefall to those who work in the hospitality and tourism industry worldwide. In a short period of time, the industry entered a depression, and it is still in one. An estimate from the United Nations estimates $1.2 trillion will be lost due to COVID-19, with the United States’ GDP comparably one of the hardest to be hit. Hill put that number into perspective by explaining that our tourism economy is experiencing a hit ten times worse than the aftermath of 9/11. In April of this year, TSA reported a record low total number of people who traveled that week on airplanes: 87 thousand. That number should be compared to the 2.2 million people who were traveling on airplanes just last year at the same time. That decrease in travelers directly impacted and continues to impact local economies worldwide that greatly rely on tourists, which unsurprisingly includes Charleston.

Continuing with her rollercoaster euphemism, Hill pointed out that “The best way to have a lot of fun is to have a good seat belt.” By this she meant that the first step in rebounding our local economy and bringing tourism back to Charleston was to have all of the correct safety issues in place, including the enforcement of the controversial citywide mask mandate, which became effective July 1, 2020. Once these safety measures were in place, Charleston was already set up to outperform most other cities as the world began work to rebuild. Hill chalked up Charleston’s strategic position to its reputation as a destination for leisure travel. This reputation allowed two specific markets within the hospitality and tourism industry to emerge stronger than ever: micro-weddings and golf. Micro-weddings, which are weddings with all the usual vendors but with 20 or less guests, have grown exponentially in Charleston this year due to the need for social distancing and many couples’ determination to still hold their weddings.  Golf is also on the “upswing” in all of South Carolina, and, specifically in Charleston, the golf market is outperforming last year due to people craving outdoor activities.

While there are certain markets already performing well, Hill and her team are hard at work bringing back Charleston’s entire tourism and hospitality industry. Their main advertising focus remains on those who can drive to Charleston easily, but she recognized that with airline travel on an upward trend they should begin thinking bigger. With the holiday season right around the corner, Explore Charleston released a commercial advertising Christmas in Charleston on the same day as Hill’s presentation not only to surrounding states but also to cities such as Los Angeles, Nashville, the District of Columbia and Lexington which all have direct flights into Charleston International Airport. Unfortunately, their reach will not extend overseas since there are still high international travel restrictions, which can be seen through British Airway’s cancellation of flight paths into secondary cities like Charleston through 2021. Last year, around 10% of tourists in Charleston were international, so these restrictions will continue to be a major impact through next year. On a similar note, cruise lines continue to be cancelled until further notice.  

Hill ended her presentation urging CYP members to “get on the rollercoaster and get ready for the ride – fun is coming!” She discussed some of the many great events planned for 2021 that are sure to rejuvenate Charleston’s tourism and hospitality industry, including the PGA golf tournament being held on Kiawah Island in May where Charleston will be on the world stage. The opening of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in late 2021 is also of great note. The board of the IAAM is working in partnership with the renowned Smithsonian Institution to tell new stories and share history from our country’s beginnings that have not yet been shared with the world. Additionally, Charleston was recently named Conde Nast’s Number One Small City in the United States for the tenth year in a row, which has continuously been fantastic free advertising.

I know I speak for all of us when I say we are so excited to see all the amazing things that Helen Hill and her team at Explore Charleston have in store for 2021, and we are so grateful for their continued work on the revitalization of our hospitality and tourism industry!

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