Michael Blake, Sanctuary Food and Beverage Director

Michael Blake, food and beverage director at The Sanctuary Hotel on Kiawah Island, shared his career story for a video introducing Explore Charleston's new diversity initiative, Heart for Hospitality. Provided/Explore Charleston

Charleston-area tourism leaders are developing a new industry-wide diversity initiative which may be the first of its kind to come from a visitors bureau. 

The program, Heart for Hospitality, is still in its preliminary stages, but early goals and plans were recently presented to representatives from hotels, restaurants, attractions and other tourism-related groups. 

The industry's workforce development issues are "more prominent than ever," said Helen Hill, CEO at Explore Charleston, which markets the region to visitors.

In addition to its primary role as a destination marketer, Explore Charleston has focused in recent years on workforce needs, including recruitment, retention and housing and transportation for hospitality workers, particularly on the Charleston peninsula. 

Keeping up with the demand for help in that sector has become increasingly difficult. About 70 percent of the 7,000 hospitality and tourism jobs added in South Carolina between July 2018 and July 2019 were in the greater Charleston area, according to labor data from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. 

The goal with Heart for Hospitality, Hill said, is to improve not just in the recruitment of workers from underrepresented communities but also in the opportunities those workers have after they're hired. 

"We also have an opportunity to ensure entry-level jobs are the starting point of a career rather than a dead end," Hill said. 

Helen Hill (copy)

Helen Hill is CEO of Explore Charleston. File/Provided

The core ideas for the program came from a steering committee, which included leaders in the hospitality industry and individuals who lead diversity and inclusion initiatives at other local institutions, such as the Medical University of South Carolina and The Citadel.

Consultant David McNair, who was brought on to help introduce Heart of Hospitality, said one of the first steps the group took was to look for a similar organization that was already running a hospitality-focused diversity initiative. 

"We haven't found one yet," McNair said.

Since it doesn't appear that another destination marketing organization has created this type of program, there wasn't a blueprint. And even as McNair presented the program to the industry at a kickoff meeting at the Charleston Area Convention Center, he advised the program was still being developed. 

"We want you to create this along with us," McNair told the group.

First, they plan to bring in leaders from hotels, restaurant groups, attractions and other CVB members for their own training. That would likely start with a class on unconscious biases, McNair said. 

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Another network of training sessions would be developed for current and potential hospitality workers. 

Anyone recruited for the program would participate in an orientation. From there, they could move on to a general hospitality training course or training that's specific to either food beverage, attractions and retail, or hotels.

Recruiting people for those courses, McNair said, will be some of the most difficult work.

A portion of the participants will likely be recruited from within — people working entry-level hospitality jobs such as housekeepers and stewards who want to advance within the industry — and others could be recruited from virtually anywhere in the community, likely starting with schools and churches.

Some of the businesses, such as hotels affiliated with global brands like Marriott and Hilton, already have diversity and inclusion programs. For those properties, McNair said, the new initiative will act as the Charleston-specific supplement to their existing resources. 

"You can send someone to a general program on diversity, but if you don’t know that community and what that community needs, you don’t have all the puzzle pieces," he said. 

The Charleston region is also home to boutique hotel properties, independently-owned restaurants and standalone attractions that don't have the resources to operate their own diversity initiatives. For some of those smaller properties, Heart for Hospitality will likely become a primary resource for these programs, McNair said. 

Explore Charleston plans to start Heart for Hospitality training for industry leadership in early 2020, McNair said. After that, the start of training programs for workers will be based on the level of interest. 

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

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.