When the founders of Spoleto Festival searched for a U.S. venue that would match Spoleto, Italy's quaint charm and abundance of performance spaces, they didn't need to look farther than Charleston.

The Dock Street Theatre, Gaillard Auditorium and all the historic churches peppered throughout a landscape of walkable streets more than qualified the Holy City as an ideal host for the U.S. version of the Italian arts festival.

"When they (Spoleto founders Gian Carlo Menotti and Christopher Keene) first came to Charleston to look for a site for the festival, they wanted a place that embraced the festival ... and they also wanted a series of theaters," said Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA. "It was also essential that the city be a place people want to visit."

But when the first festival was held in downtown Charleston in 1977, it was hardly the place Conde Nast readers would later vote as the best travel destination in the world. Redden said that although the city's charm was undeniable, there weren't many upscale hotels - Charleston Place wouldn't be built for another few years - and there were only a handful of high-brow restaurants. Most of King Street was still "slightly iffy," as Redden put it.

This year, Charleston perhaps has never been more equipped to handle the 70,000 to 80,000 attendees of the annual spring arts extravaganza and its counterpart, Piccolo Spoleto, the city of Charleston's showcase for local artists based in Marion Square. Spoleto opened Friday and runs through June 8.

The city is now known as a hub for inventive cuisine, luxurious lodging and abundant shopping. And according to some local tourism professionals, it was the surge of Spoleto guests over the years that ultimately helped pave the way for the city's now-flourishing hospitality industry.

"Certainly tourism in Charleston has changed radically, and in some ways I think the festival stimulated that growth," Redden said.

Festival-goers

The typical Spoleto attendee is older than 50, has a college degree and an average annual household income of about $130,000, according to an audience survey conducted by the University of South Carolina in 2005. About 50 percent to 60 percent of the festival's attendees are from out-of-town, Redden said.

Affluent and educated travelers are typically the type to be interested in fine art and cultural activities, and they're also more likely to spend money on nice hotels, food and other goods while they're here.

Paul Stracey, general manager of the Belmond Charleston Place hotel, said the hotel's guests who are in town for Spoleto "are not afraid of shopping or spending."

"If they're coming from areas that are potentially more expensive, then we may even seem like a deal," Stracey said.

Another South Carolina study found that Spoleto attendees contributed $85 million to the Charleston economy in 2008. (The festival's economic impact has not been studied since then.)

While that's no small sum, perhaps their most valuable impact has been that they may have helped put the Holy City on the affluent travelers' radar.

"(Spoleto) established Charleston as a cultural mecca and an arts destination." said Helen Hill, executive director of Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This was very important in making Charleston more appealing to well-educated and affluent travelers."

Redden added that in the early years of the festival, national media could afford to send reporters to Charleston to cover Spoleto, which gave the city unprecedented exposure.

"It was difficult to write about this city without writing about its charms. ... If you were writing about chamber music, you ended up talking about the Dock Street Theatre, or Ella Fitzgerald in the Cistern, inevitably you talked about live oaks and Spanish moss," Redden said. "I think what it did was reinforce that Charleston was a city of immense beauty."

Meeting the demand

When thousands of high-income travelers started showing up in Charleston each summer for the festival, it wasn't just art that they wanted to experience.

Dick Elliott is president of Maverick Southern Kitchens restaurant group, which oversees restaurants such as High Cotton and Slightly North of Broad. He said Spoleto visitors created an initial demand for fine cuisine, which would later be met with a thriving culinary community.

"The Charleston restaurant scene was very different in the mid-70s when Spoleto started, and I think one of the things that contributed significantly to the growth of Charleston's restaurants were the people who came to town for the festival," Elliott said. "They were looking for interesting food and very good food, and I think Spoleto played a large part in what we're enjoying today."

Everett Smith, chief executive officer of Charlestowne Hotels, said Spoleto was one of the busiest times of year for his lodging businesses in the early years. Now, he said, the hotels stay busy year-round.

While guests in town for this festival will still boost occupancy, he explained that "hotels needed it more back then."

Spoleto "was a big thing for downtown Charleston when it first started, just like when Charleston Place opened," he said. "I don't think we had very much going on at that time. It was a much different city then. ... It was just very impactful, and it still is today."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail