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A very long trip: How Charleston landed its first nonstop overseas flight

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By around 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Charleston International Airport and British Airways will have made history. The first nonstop flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Charleston — and the first-ever nonstop transatlantic air service in the state — will have landed in the Lowcountry.

The path to that touchdown was a long one, going back years — even decades.

The twice-weekly service between Charleston and London was first announced in October, giving a jolt to the state’s already-thriving tourism industry.

Many Charlestonians won’t bat an eye — or even groan — when the city, again, tops another travel list or garners a feature in a glossy publication. But just a few decades ago, well within the memory of locals who have come to expect those accolades, Charleston was fighting to be noticed at major travel conferences.

The popularity of Charleston with the British, who have consistently become the city’s top overseas market, had to be earned, too.

In the early 1990s, a newly-formed travel marketing collaboration between Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach known as Coastal South Carolina, USA made it a mission to tap into that travel market.

A brochure released in 1993 laid out its goals: “Convince British travelers that Coastal South Carolina, USA had everything they were looking for... and get on a first name basis with the U.K. travel agents, travel writers, tour operators, and tour wholesalers who make things happen.”

The brochure references a study from the United States Travel Tourism Administration, which included a list of the “very sought-after” British traveler's wish list. That list, the brochure describes, was “a winning lottery ticket.”

Those wished-for features — shopping, restaurants, beaches, golf and history — were the very same assets that local and statewide tourism officials highlighted in their comments about 25 years later, at the announcement of British Airways’ service to Charleston.

Testing the waters

The Holy City had its first shot at becoming an international flight hub more than 80 years ago, in 1936. Pan American Airlines, which dominated in air travel at the time, announced that it had chosen Charleston as a western terminus for transatlantic flights.

The (Charleston) Evening Post declared that the airline's choice was “definitely placing Charleston on the map as one of the truly great air centers of the world.”

On the front page of the Charleston Evening Post on Sept. 17, 1936, the paper reported that Pan American Airways had announced that Charleston was chosen as a western terminus for transatlantic flights.

According to the article, the airline planned to run survey flights into the port the next year and start scheduled air service “of at least a seasonal nature” in 1938. It planned to use the West Point Rice Mill on Lockwood Drive for Pan American offices, immigration, customs and other travel-related functions.

The new service would use seaplanes, which, at the time, were considered the best aircraft for over-ocean journeys. The planes, Boeing 314 Clippers, would carry both mail and passengers.

Charleston’s warm climate, location relative to major U.S. cities, “splendid harbor” and apparent willingness “to do anything possible in the way of cooperation” all factored into the selection, the article said.

Subsequent articles also noted Pan American’s existing agreements with Imperial Airways, a British precursor to modern airlines like British Airways.

Then-Charleston Mayor Burnet Rhett Maybank was quoted saying that the air service would not only benefit Charleston from a tourism standpoint, but its impact would also be felt in other South Carolina cities like Columbia and Greenville.

But it never came to be. The service didn’t get off the ground in time, and a few years later, World War II tore through Europe. Plans for the flight service were set aside.

When the war ended, so did the opportunity.

Forming an alliance

About 50 years after Charleston’s first chance at international air travel status, the Charleston County Aviation Authority was building a new airport terminal that included a federal inspection station.

For David Jennings, who at the time served on the aviation authority’s board, that prompted visions of jet-setting international travelers flocking to South Carolina's coast, which was rare at the time.

“You could walk for days and never hear a non-U.S. accent,” he said.

At the state level, travel marketing attention focused largely on Germany, but with the common language and cultural connections that Charleston shared with the British, Jennings thought it made sense to put more emphasis on the United Kingdom.

Hoping to expand Charleston’s visibility on the travel stage, Jennings decided to represent the city at the 1986 POW WOW, the only major U.S. travel conference at the time. During the event, attendees booked appointments with destinations.

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At that first appearance, no one asked for a meeting with Charleston. (This year, Charleston has a waiting list.)

Instead, Jennings walked around, trying to scrounge up appointments. Many people didn’t know where Charleston was, he said. One even asked, “Is that somewhere near Puerto Rico?”

Far from discouraged, he and another representative from the Charleston County Aviation Authority attended their first World Travel Market, a London-based trade show for the global travel industry, the following year. That time in the U.K. provided some valuable insight. The vast majority of European travelers were booking their vacations out of a catalog.

“If you weren’t in the brochure,” Jennings said, “people weren’t coming.”

Jennings concluded that Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach needed to join forces to get the attention of British travelers. He believed then — and still believes now — that the three coastal cities do not compete with one another on the international stage.

That idea became Coastal South Carolina, USA, a collaborative marketing group between the three destinations that still operates today.

In 1991, when Kiawah Island hosted the Ryder Cup, known as the “War by the Shore,” the Charleston area reached new prominence in London as it made the front pages of several British newspapers. That year’s tournament was the first Ryder Cup to be televised live, and the event was filled with the kind of competitiveness, big personalities and controversy fitting for the real-time coverage.

“Golf is a thing we knew, way back then, we could stand on the international stage,” said Helen Hill, the longtime head of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Seeing the momentum build, Coastal South Carolina, USA put out a call a few years later seeking Lowcountry boosters willing to “work long hours without additional pay to fly halfway around the world, sleep in small rooms, drink cocktails without ice, and spend all their time meeting new people.”

Defining the destination

The offerings advertised in those first European travel catalog appearances — South Carolina’s beaches, Charleston’s history and the many golf courses along the coast — still are promoted today, but one now-crucial ingredient to the Lowcountry's package wasn’t initially emphasized, Jennings said. Food was added later.

During one of the first overseas trips when the group decided to highlight the region’s cuisine, James Beard award-winning chef Louis Osteen was supposed to serve shrimp and grits to British guests. But Osteen’s grits didn’t make it through the trip, so he had to settle at the last minute for some European-sourced polenta.

“That’s when we learned,” Hill said, “if we have food, put it in the carry-on.”

It quickly became clear, Hill said, that incorporating food into the Charleston story resonated with British travelers whose share of the area’s visitor numbers was growing. In recent years, travelers from the U.K. have accounted for about 20 percent of the Charleston area's international visitors, according to figures from the College of Charleston.

“We could tell from surveys our U.K. travelers were really interested in a sense of place,” Hill said. “Some of them know our history even better than we do.”

British culture and history is woven into the city of Charleston, even its name. The settlement started as "Charles Town," after King Charles II of England. After the Revolutionary War, the name was shortened to Charleston.

The city's gardens also became a key component of that cultural connection, Hill said. In recent years, representatives from Charleston have participated in the London area’s annual Hampton Court Flower Show and even created a display garden complete with plants native to the Lowcountry and a replica of the Pineapple Fountain in Waterfront Park.

Sealing the deal

With a confident grasp of the British travel market and a couple Condé Nast titles under its belt, Charleston made a pitch to British Airways about six years ago. Though the airline didn’t bite, Hill said Charleston definitely made an impression that it was rising on the global travel stage.

“When you’re talking to British Airways, you’re competing with the world,” Hill said.

The conversations kept going, and British Airways found success with new service to Austin, Texas, then New Orleans and Nashville, Tenn. When it came time to select a new air service destination, data led the way, said British Airways’ senior vice president for North America Simon Brooks. So the popularity of its routes to other southern cities also built the case for Charleston.

Over the years, British Airways saw the potential for multiple customer segments expand.

“It was obvious to us that the vacation market existed in Charleston,” Brooks said, but there also was growth in business travel and a notable number of British expatriates.

Today, Brooks said he “has not known the levels of excitement” that Charleston, and the state as a whole, have shown since the announcement in the fall. The airline’s Boeing 787s will be flying into a Charleston with a more developed downtown, an increased presence of European-based businesses and a visitor count that continues to rise.

“This couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Hill said.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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