Tourism, economic development work hand in handJun 01, 2017 08:42AM ● By Makayla Gay
By Emily Stevenson
Greenville has seen a surge in tourism in the past several years. In March, the Bon Secours Wellness Arena played host to the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, bringing many new visitors to the area and gaining national television exposure that money can’t buy.
But experts say it’s more than luring vacationers to the Upstate.
“It’s not just about tourism,” says Simon Hudson, director of the SmartState Center of Economic Excellence and Tourism at the University of South Carolina. “People see [Greenville] on TV and think, ‘Maybe that’s a good place to take my business, maybe that’s a good place to relocate.’ So it’s not just tourism, it’s economic development. It works very closely together.”
David Montgomery, vice president of sales with VisitGreenvilleSC, the city’s official tourism group, understands that. The organization’s popular hashtag, #YeahThatGreenville, has been utilized nearly half a million times – often from people who already live here.
“That quirky tagline has really taken hold, not just as a travel and tourism moniker but also within the city of Greenville. A lot of people use that as a source of community pride.”
Since 2011, two years before the hashtag’s creation, VisitGreenvileSC has tracked data on the city’s tourism. Direct new tourism spending is increasing at a rate of 3.1 percent per year. In 2011, hotels operated at a 61 percent occupancy rate. In 2016, that number had risen to 73 percent. The national average is 66 percent.
Montgomery credits the #YeahThatGreenville as the catalyst for the growth.
“There are 36 other Greenvilles out there in the U.S., so we felt like we needed to distinguish ourselves from the others,” he says. “I think our biggest opportunity was built in awareness and distinguishing the brand. Now it’s about leveraging that brand with some additional advertising and getting in front of the tourism audience who maybe are considering going to Charleston or Asheville and getting them to consider Greenville as a destination.”
With the exception of Nashville, Tenn., Greenville has outperformed nearly every other comparable city in the region.
“From an overall tourism standpoint, the market has been on a very good trend now for the past five years,” says Montgomery. “It’s definitely been a trajectory that’s been positive for a number of years coming out of the recession.”
The industry has experienced such a boom that new hotels are popping up downtown at alarming rates – especially to existing hotels who are worried about the effects of oversaturation.
“For us, the biggest concern is that there are so many new hotels going up,” says John Geddes, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Poinsett. “We need people to have reasons to travel to Greenville. The downtown has traditionally been very strong, which is the reason why hotel developers are coming into downtown, but at some point what does that look like? There are some limitations with supply and demand. That’s what Greenville is testing out now.”
Montgomery says VisitGreenvilleSC understands the situation and is working hard to draw more visitors to the area.
“We’re growing from a standpoint of hotel rooms,” he says. “We can’t stand idle. We have to find travelers to fill those rooms. Our goal is to expand that reach so maybe it’s expanding our geographic footprint beyond just the southeast and reaching travelers from other destinations besides our own backyard.”
While Greenville has directed marketing campaigns at other U.S. cities, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., Hudson says the city would be better served to court international visitors, who spend four to five times as much as domestic tourists.
“We’re attracting an increasing number of international tourists because of Charleston, but they’re not staying that long,” Hudson says. “They see South Carolina as somewhere to pass through. They might go to Charleston, but then on down to Disney [World]. We need to work harder at getting them to appreciate there is more to South Carolina than Charleston.”
A recent TravelBird study of the Most Instagrammed Tourist Attractions showed that, of the top 15 Instagrammable destinations in the United States, Charleston ranked number 12 with 1,438,532 Instagram tags. A little ways up the coast, Myrtle Beach was listed at number 10, with 1,602,759 tags.
Though Greenville hasn’t had enough social media tags to make it onto the list, once visitors make it to the area their reaction is nearly always positive.
“What we find is when they do come here, they’re always blown away,” says Hudson.
Some are so blown away that they decide to relocate to Greenville
“A lot of people come here as first-time visitors, and they become advocates of our destination and tell its story to family and friends,” says Montgomery. “We see a high frequency of return travel. To a certain extent, we have people who come as visitors and wind up moving here permanently because they fell in love with the destination.”
Others may not take the drastic step of moving to South Carolina, but they do refer the area to friends, relatives, and colleagues looking for a unique destination. Others come for a personal vacation but suggest the area as a location for conferences and team meetings.
“We see a lot of people who come to this market and experience it on an individual basis, and it plants the seed for that organization they belong to, to come back on a bigger scale,” says Montgomery.
Montgomery says the city has secured the Bass Masters tournament for March of 2018. They’re also in talks with the NCAA to host men’s basketball, women’s basketball, cross country, and baseball.
Hudson, who moved to Columbia seven years ago to do research on the state and help tourism in South Carolina, frequently cites Greenville as an example of what to do right.
“What I think Greenville has done a good job of doing,” he says, “is making it an attractive place to live, work, and play.”