BY RON BRINSON
“We can’t just do ‘hospitality’ — we must be ‘hospitality.’ ”
— Dick Elliott, president and founder, Southern Maverick Kitchens
Travel industry ratings are a dime a dozen, or cheaper. But Conde Nast’s Readers Choice survey is a big deal, and with over 46,000 international travelers participating, it has declared Charleston the world’s top travel destination.
Wow! Wonder what hoteliers, restaurateurs and cabbies feel about that in Paris, London, Rome and Hong Kong? How about San Francisco, Miami or Las Vegas?
Or, praise be, Savannah?
What about us Charlestonians? We’re patrons of this honored market, too.
If traveling folks think Charleston is tops-in-the world, what do we think of our community’s welcome wagon?
Do we care? We should.
The hospitality industry is Greater Charleston’s over-achieving, under-appreciated economic engine. This industry isn’t just about America’s most beautiful city and its tout ensemble of architecture and Southern charm.
It’s dynamic private enterprise doing business that directly engages public interest. Just like the port, tourism is a fiercely competitive international business that operates with impacts that must be accommodated by a supportive community.
We older folks might reminisce about the hotels and fancy restaurants that defined the tourism “industry” 50 years ago.
The Francis Marion and the Fort Sumter were the top hotels, right? And if travelers wanted a white table cloth restaurant, they had the Colony House or Perditas, or they could head over to Everett’s or Henry’s. While remembering those old days, we can appreciate that the Greater Charleston’s tourism industry — now Conde Nast’s world No. 1 — has come a mighty long way, fast.
So as world travelers honor our hospitality industry, let’s salute it. It’s a powerful economic operation built by risk-taking entrepreneurs and many talented and creative hospitality designers. But now at its peer summit, where does this up-and-coming industry go from here?
The swelled-head do-nothing syndrome surely lurks, and the warning lights should be blinking; slipping toward mediocrity is easier than the journey to the summit and staying there.
But rising from the top is tough, and the Holy City has noticeable tourism operational issues. One is seasonal congestion. Conde Nast’s recognition puts Charleston on must-see lists of tourists from all over the world, guaranteeing crowds will grow.
A world-class tourism operation will stay ahead of this challenge, right?
Most travelers will confirm that traffic jams and sidewalk clog-ups rank right up there with bad meals and smelly hotel rooms as reasons a good trip gets spoiled.
We are reminded, too, that Charleston’s hospitality industry is a mutually dependent co-op.
It’s not just a restaurant here, a hotel there, or a carriage ride over cobblestones. A bad dining experience can taint a nice hotel experience; an excellent meal will never fully offset a sloppy hotel room, sassy desk clerk or slick-talking cab driver. Add it up and you get the destination’s reputation. Conde Nast readers have adjudged Charleston’s reputation as golden — right now.
And Dick Elliott sees an opportunity to make Charleston’s “best” better. You won’t get a mediocre meal or indifferent service at Elliott’s upscale restaurants. (That’s true about most of Greater Charleston’s white-tablecloth restaurants — if you can find a parking place, or work past another very nice waiter or waitress gratuitously using “we”: “Will we be having desert tonight?”)
Elliott is challenging his colleagues to create a new “top” in service quality. He sees his concept in shades of “genuine.”
“Genuine hospitality is expected by guests of the restaurants and hotels that are defining Charleston’s reputation as the world’s best,” he says. “There’s no room for attitudes that we’re doing guests a favor by ‘letting’ them visit Charleston, or any of our hotels or restaurants. The goal is an unaffected mindset of hospitality and professionalism that engages guests with genuine empathy for their expectations.”
People and training disciplines are the key to a constant sharpening of Charleston’s hospitality edge, Elliott believes. In his approach, the ultimate prize is neither praise nor good tips. It’s genuine hospitality, which will generate praise and good tips.
His concept makes good sense. Our hospitality industry has earned some major league stripes, but it is not perfect.
It never will be, of course, and that humbling reality should motivate a constancy of commitment to make Charleston’s best better.
Ron Brinson, a member of North Charleston City Council, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.