Hurricane Irma’s cone of uncertainty last month took a hefty chunk out of the local tourism business, according to figures from the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis.
Irma hit Charleston as a tropical storm Sept. 11, helping trigger an 11.3 percent decline in Charleston County hotel occupancy for the month compared to a year earlier, according to the newly released data.
Occupancy had been on an upward swing all year long before the storm scare.
This was the third year in a row a major fall storm had dampened Charleston tourism, but Irma inflicted the hardest hit. Hurricane Matthew caused occupancy to drop 5 percent in October 2016. The flooding of October 2015 caused occupancy to drop 6.8 percent.
"There were more than a few factors that contributed to the decrease in visitation after Irma,"said Perrin Lawson, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau's deputy director. "First, Irma came right on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, so hurricanes were 'top of mind' for much of the country."
Also, he said, Irma's projected path as late Sept. 7 "was parallel to the east coast, potentially having a direct impact on the Charleston area."
"Irma's eventual path up the Florida gulf coast and into the southern United States put much of our drive market in the storm's potential path, meaning visitors would have to drive through the storm to reach Charleston," Lawson said.
The projections resulted what he called "significant lodging cancellations" and national media coverage "also had a residual effect on visitation after the storm had passed."
Wayne Smith, chairman of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the College of Charleston, cautioned against making too much of the drop in occupancy, noting that there were more available rooms last month than a year earlier. New hotels had added 379 rooms to the inventory, bringing the total to 16,417.
"You may have had the same amount of visitors, but because we have more hotel rooms it looks like it’s further down," he said. "So even if you had the same amount of people, it would look like a bigger drop because there is more inventory available."
The increase in inventory contributed to the occupancy drop, but it was mainly due to the national publicity as the Irma approached, said Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
"Charleston County had very little physical damage from Irma, less than from the flood and much less than Matthew, but the lost business was greater," he said. "That’s because of the publicity in the feeder markets, from Atlanta to Ohio to upstate New York. They hear the words South Carolina coast and hurricane, and if they have a reservation they cancel it. and if they were thinking about coming to Charleston, their plans change.”
Also, insurance adjusters and others involved in damage assessment came into Charleston after the flooding and Matthew, making up for some of the lost lodging business. That wasn't the case after Irma, Parrish pointed out.
"That's a quick bounce when you have physical damage that didn't happen this time," he said.
Parrish said he expects the next occupancy report to be back to normal.
"I think Charleston County has fully recovered," he said.
For the year to date through September, occupancy averaged a strong 79.3 percent, including the hit from Irma.