Swanky Sanctuary hotel at Kiawah Island hits the 10-year mark

The vast lobby at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort offers several nooks where guests can read, work and relax in a quiet setting overlooking the ocean.

Unveiled 10 years ago this week, the Sanctuary has remained in its own league of ultra-luxury, unrivaled by any other hotel in South Carolina, or even the Southeast.

Its guest list regularly includes politicians, past and sitting presidents, celebrities and international royalty. The list of accolades the hotel has received is equally as impressive, boasting the highly coveted distinction as a Five-Star accommodation by Forbes and a Five-Diamond hotel by AAA.

Many upscale hotels strive for such achievements, but for the Sanctuary, they were expected. Before developers broke ground on the hotel in 2002, billionaire Bill Goodwin and his partners in Virginia Investments Trust, the group that owns Kiawah Island Golf Resort, said they wanted the Sanctuary to earn the top-tier travel ratings within the first two years of opening.

While it actually took about four years to achieve those goals, it was that dedication to perfection that may have paved the way for The Sanctuary's success in the early years, and it remains central to the hotel's mission today, said Roger Warren, president of the resort.

"I think that you have to start out with a plan of what you want to be and who you want to be, and from the beginning, we wanted this to be a luxurious seaside experience that captures the pure Southern style of hospitality," Warren said. "Most importantly, when we set out to create an idea of what they could expect when they came to the Sanctuary hotel, I believe we have met and exceed those expectations."

Talk of constructing an elite hotel on Kiawah Island began in the late 1990s as investors of the seaside getaway devised a plan to launch the vacation spot onto a worldwide stage.

Hotel General Manager Bill Lacey, who was hired to be the rooms manager when the Sanctuary first opened, said Kiawah had an identity problem even though it was a backdrop for the famous 1991 Ryder Cup, an international professional golf competition.

"Early on, and this was really interesting, a lot of people outside of South Carolina didn't know where Kiawah was. A lot of people thought it was in Hawaii, or some sort of tropical island," Lacey said.

The resort broke ground in 2002 on the $125 million project. The 255-room lodging that spans 25 acres is to this day the most expensive hotel ever built in South Carolina. It opened Aug. 20, 2004.

Designed like an antebellum Charleston mansion, it's an ornate, rambling tribute to Southern architecture, with stucco, brick and wrought-iron fences wrapped around each balcony. Its walnut floors are even designed to "creak" with every step.

Plus, since the structure is raised 20 feet above sea level with a quarter-million tons of dirt, each level of the hotel offers clear views of the Atlantic Ocean.

"We're very proud of our hotel and the position it's taken in the hospitality industry in this country, and I think it's a credit to our owners and the commitment they made to building its quality," Warren said.

Warren said that although Charleston's hotels were generally more "recession-proof" than other hotel markets, the Sanctuary still faced its share of challenges as the economy started tanking about six years ago.

"I think any hoteliers that open a new hotel, you tend to gravitate toward as much group business (like corporate retreats) as you can because you can get it down on the books a lot sooner than leisure travel. ... When the recession hit, the group business fell off entirely," he said. "What we've learned is that we have a very strong social market - golf groups, families, vacationers - and we didn't know how strong that would be in the beginning."

The Sanctuary has experienced some of its best years yet since 2012, when the golf resort hosted the PGA Championship. The privately owned resort does not release financials, but Sanctuary GM Lacey said hotel revenue reached an all-time record last year, which is what he termed "the PGA afterglow."

"The PGA tournament really put us on the map internationally, and occupancy has climbed as a result," he said.

And like many other scenic hotels in the Charleston area, the wedding destination business has fueled revenue growth in recent years.

"We're looking at ways to continue expanding that area of our business," Lacey said.

Warren said that, in the Sanctuary's next decade, the resort plans to take advantage of the "room for more rooms."

"We're at a point where we're going to need to make some decisions about what we want to do to grow," he said. "We want to create more space, whether it's here at the Sanctuary or on another property we own on the island, to increase the number of room nights that we can offer to people."

The resort announced two years ago that it would determine whether it was feasible to construct a 150-room hotel on the West side of the island at the site of the former Kiawah Island Inn, which was the only hotel on the resort prior to the Sanctuary opening. It would likely include a "value oriented" experience, with a pool, retailers, restaurants, and a new clubhouse for the Cougar Point Golf Course.

"We're in an analysis period to figure out what's next," Warren said. "What we do know is that like the Sanctuary, it will be unique, and first-class, and something that people will talk about."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.