All the industry executives who set up operations in the Charleston area first visited here and decided it was a place where they wanted to live and entertain clients, according to a man whose job is selling the city.
Take Boeing, for example, says Andy Rankin, director of investor relations with the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. People may think the airplane maker built a plant in North Charleston instead of expanding in Seattle to avoid a union.
Not entirely, Rankin said Tuesday during a luncheon meeting organized by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. He says the Boeing plant's site manager told him the company picked Charleston not only because of the lack of unions but because of the city itself.
"A lot of it has to do with entertaining clients," Rankin said.
The fine restaurants, expanded airport and upscale hotels that have grown out of the tourism industry are the very amenities that also help attract industry to Charleston, he said.
"No one ever built a company or expanded a national headquarters or brought a new company to Charleston without being a visitor first," Rankin said. "We see that play out time and time again."
Rankin was one of three people involved in the tourism industry who spoke at the luncheon at the King Charles Inn. He was joined by Brent Gresham, area manager for Charlestowne Hotels, and John Laverne, owner of Bulldog Tours, a Charleston native who has seen how tourism has transformed the city.
"Everybody asks are we getting saturated," Gresham said, referring to the growing concern that too many hotels are being built in Charleston.
He responded by pointing out that Charleston’s hotel occupancy remains 6 percent to 7 percent above the national average, despite the increasing inventory, and room prices continue to rise.
The average hotel occupancy in Charleston County rose from 71 percent in 2012 to 76 percent in 2016, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. The number of rooms during that time period increased from 16,484 to 18,875, not including beach rentals. The average room rate rose from $124 to $149.
The market is especially strong on the high end, with visitors willing to pay up to $700 a night for some of the nicer downtown rooms, Gresham said.
The CVB recently created a position that focuses exclusively on getting more of the world's luxury market, Rankin said.
Developers see these numbers and conclude there is plenty of opportunity for growth, Gresham said.
The panel didn’t discuss how city planners are grappling with ways to minimize the traffic impact of new hotels. Efforts to curb their growth have failed to gain the support of council.
Laverne says he remembers in the 1970s when downtown Charleston was "a wild place to be," with boarded up stores and businesses.
"I get it that tourism is pretty much a hot topic," he said. "All the wonderful events in the new Gaillard are all made possible because of tourism. Boeing being here, Volvo, Mercedes, that’s all possible because of tourism. These people are not going to build facilities in mediocre places. They want something special."
About three dozen people attended the luncheon and had the opportunity to ask questions. One person asked if there is a danger that the national chains locating downtown will ruin the local charm that makes King Street nationally famous.
“The magic is in the mix, and we need both,” Rankin responded.
International visitors look for the name brand chains when they visit an American city. But the local stores such as Dumas, Berlin's and Ben Silver get the attention of the national travel writers and help sell Charleston.
Another question was whether Charleston would expand its convention market. Charleston is limited to groups of a couple hundred not only by meeting and exhibit space but by the number of available seats coming into the airport and the size of hotels near the North Charleston Convention Center, Rankin said. Many of the bigger convention planners look for cities where 1,000 people can stay at the same hotel, he said.
Laverne added that Charleston should stick with smaller groups anyway.
"I don't think we want to be everything to everybody," he said. "Let's stick with what we're comfortable with and what doesn't drastically impact our daily lives."