Helen Hill is perhaps the embodiment of the person any city would want to lead its tourism efforts.
Always bubbly, effervescent and friendly to a fault, she helms the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She has done so since 1989, two weeks before Hurricane Hugo barreled ashore just north of Charleston.
A Charleston native, she led the Holy City to world renown with back-to-back No. 1 rankings from readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the nation’s best tourist destination and, on top of that, best-in-the-world ranking last year.
But she almost missed her calling as the No. 1 cheerleader for all things Charleston.
Hill’s father, the late Bob Turner, was head of a mortgage company, and Hill just knew she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“In my second semester at Clemson, I knew accounting wasn’t my thing and I thought about doing something else,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What else could I major in and transfer all of my credits?’ I looked around, and tourism was it.”
Hill, an Ashley Hall graduate who was Helen Turner before getting married, had no inkling she would ever be interested in the tourist trade — until she changed majors.
She landed a summer internship at the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, where her job was to respond to visitor inquiries. In the pre-Internet age, they were all by hand, though she said there were only four or five a week.
By comparison, last year the Charleston CVB fielded 2.5 million inquiries.
“Can you imagine answering all of those by hand?” she asked with a hearty laugh.
Hill earned her degree in tourism in 1985 and came to Charleston to put her education to work. She served a short stint at Wild Dunes Resort as a concierge before moving to the Charleston CVB in 1986 to sell ads for the visitors’ guide, and later was sales manager for meetings and conventions.
Back then, the CVB was in the Rice Mill building off Lockwood Drive. It had five employees, including Hill, and a $750,000 budget. It later moved to Mary Street, just in time for Hurricane Hugo, and stayed there until 2003.
Since then, its has held a pro- minent place on Upper King Street, where new development is blossoming daily on some of the hottest property in the city. The CVB now employs 45 with a budget of $12 million, slightly larger than Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum’s annual spending plan.
In September 1989, Hill became CVB executive director. Two weeks later, Hurricane Hugo ravaged the city.
The storm tested her abilities as a leader. “I got to work with a lot of great people during an intense time,” she said. “We laid a lot of groundwork then that we still deal with today.”
As for the agency now, she said, the CVB has a better idea of what it is, and that allows it to invite people to visit, live and work in the area.
“Because Charleston has grown so much, you have a lot of people who have moved here who have a passion to keep Charleston special,” Hill said. “You want to grow in the right way.”
The agency’s core mission is “to put more heads in beds,” she said. “That’s what brings people to the community and puts people in restaurants, hotels and golf courses. We have done a lot of research with the College of Charleston that allows us to focus on our opportunities.”
For instance, tourist studies showed that people from the heavily populated Northeast corridor wanted to come to Charleston, but no low-cost carriers delivered directly to the city.
“That’s how we sold JetBlue on coming here,” Hill said. “And that’s why they have already added a second flight on Saturdays.”
The CVB also doesn’t get into turf battles over all the competing municipalities in the Greater Charleston area because visitors from elsewhere don’t know or care where one city begins and another ends. Nine government entities have united to be marketed as one unit. They are Charleston, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach and Charleston County.
“Every government entity should have its own identity, but when marketing to the rest of the world, it helps to have one collective group,” she said. “That’s a big deal because it allows for a big impact in a very crowded world. Tourism is a huge business here. It needs to be supported.”
The chairman of the CVB’s board of governors is convinced Hill met her calling in life.
“She is probably one of the best tourism leaders in the country,” said Frank Fredericks, board chairman and managing director of Wild Dunes Resort. “She is the type of person who brings in all the right people in the community. She knows how to work with partners for the benefit of the tourism industry, and she does this better than anyone. She has taken it from a small-town operation to a big-city enterprise.”
The College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis estimates that 4.83 million visitors brought in $3.58 billion to the Charleston area economy in 2012. That’s about one-fourth of all tourism dollars in South Carolina.
“It’s the history that makes us special,” Hill said. “There is not another place like this in the United States of America. This is not Anywhere, USA.”
“Charleston has returned to the (economic) prominence it had before the Civil War,” she added. “We have taken that as a challenge for the next 25 years to be as great as the past 25 years. The time to look forward is when you are on top.”
The CVB represents 500 members. They include restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions. Two-thirds of its budget, about $8 million, goes to marketing.
“From a business perspective, we think tourism is the first step in economic development,” Hill said. “You are not going to start a business here if you weren’t a visitor here first.”
To help that along, the CVB worked with other groups around the city to lower the cost of air service over the past few years by attracting low-cost airlines.
“High prices and lack of service together was the No. 1 competitive disadvantage for Charleston,” Hill said.
The CVB helped attract Southwest Airlines, which started service in March 2011, and JetBlue Airways, which started flights in February. It pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing specifically for each airline to entice them to serve Charleston.
“We believe destinations are going to be haves and have-nots,” she said. “For a community to be successful, air service is key. Otherwise, you are marketing to your drive market, and that’s very limited. The couple who comes to Charleston by car is a different visitor than the flier from New York. The first-time visitor does more stuff and spends more money. It’s important that you have both.”
As for those highly marketable Conde Nast rankings, Hill said that being No. 1 just means you take more hits.
“It makes you work harder,” she said.
And since you can’t go any higher than No. 1 in the world, Hill said it’s the CVB’s responsibility to protect the brand that is Charleston and ensure that the visitor’s experience remains high.
“That’s where we can’t let our guard down,” she said.
As for that perpetual cheerfulness that helps make her perfect as a goodwill ambassador for the city, Hill simply said she was blessed. “I am in the right job for who I am,” she said. “A lot of people don’t love their job. I really do.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.