It's taking off: Incentives that lured Southwest a good deal, officials say

Southwest Airlines.

Wade Spees

It was one year ago this week that officials announced Charleston International Airport had landed Southwest Airlines, saying the deal got done without any incentives from the state.

Local incentives were a different matter entirely. The total bill for the discount airline added up to more than $1 million, but area tourism and airport officials say it was money well spent.

The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau led the charge, kicking in $800,000 to help pay for Southwest advertising and marketing ahead of the carrier's March 13 launch.

The Charleston County Aviation Authority, which owns Charleston International, waived landing fees totaling about $75,000 for Southwest for one year. It also paid $150,000 to redevelop the Dallas-based airline's terminal area and another $10,000 for marketing.

Greenville, which also landed Southwest, ponied up an inducement package valued at about $4 million, according to the Greenville News. As part of that, the Upstate kicked in $800,000 for the marketing campaign and, together with Charleston's donation, matched Southwest's $1.6 million contribution to sell South Carolina to other areas.

"We are trading pennies for dollars," said Chip Limehouse, chairman of the aviation authority. "This is a very good business deal for the Lowcountry, and I will take that deal all day long."

Limehouse said the volume of flights has increased 30 percent at Charleston International since

Southwest arrived, with much but not all of that attributable to the discounter. He said about 5 percent of the gains have come from other airlines increasing service and dropping fares.

"The tri-county economy is starting to shake off the recession and go in a positive direction," said Limehouse, who also is a state Republican lawmaker. "All of these things are combining to make the business climate at the airport very friendly."

Helen Hill, the CVB's executive director, said the marketing campaign is already paying big dividends.

"It's been wildly successful," she said.

The $800,000, which came directly out of the CVB's budget of about $10 million -- from public funds such as hotel taxes and private funds from restaurants, hotels and touring companies -- is paying to advertise Charleston in key Southwest destination markets, such as Houston, Nashville, Chicago and Washington. Special emphasis was placed on Houston and Nashville, Hill said.

"The states of Texas and Tennessee are in the top 10 states of inquiry about Charleston but not in the top 10 states of visitation to our area because it was challenging to get here," she said.

With Southwest, it's now affordable to get visitors to Charleston from those markets, Hill said.

"Everything is up, from rental cars to hotel occupancy," she said. "We are experiencing the Southwest effect."

Hill said the CVB is putting together a new marketing campaign for next year and will probably kick in an equal amount to bring visitors from the city's "feeder markets."

The CVB recently asked Charleston County for an additional $250,000 from tourism-related tax collections to further promote Charleston.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The carrier announced on May 11, 2010, that it would add South Carolina to its growing route system.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.