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Travel expert predicts 'unstoppable' recovery for Charleston, other leisure destinations

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A resurgence of leisure travel is driving the COVID-19 recovery for tourism in Charleston and other destinations. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Last year, members of the Charleston area's Travel Council logged onto their computers to participate in a virtual version of their annual meeting.

At that time, the region was just a few months into a global pandemic that caused unprecedented job losses, unpredictable demand changes and deep decreases in revenue for the tourism industry. 

But last week, the group was back to its regular programming, with an in-person gathering at Kiawah Island Golf Resort's new West Beach Conference Center, a venue that was unveiled in early 2020, just before the public health crisis started shutting down large gatherings and group travel. 

As in past years, the tone of the event was back to one of optimism now that tourists are making their way back to the Lowcountry, following a pattern-breaking year when visitor numbers and tourism-related revenues shrank by about a third. 

"Thankfully, over the past two months, we've enjoyed a remarkable recovery as leisure travelers are returning in record numbers," outgoing Explore Charleston chair Michael Tall said in his welcome to the hoteliers, local officials, tour and attraction operators and other local tourism leaders who attended the June 8 meeting. 

Clayton Reid, Travel Council

Clayton Reid, CEO of the travel-focused marketing group MMGY, speaks to the Charleston area's Travel Council at its annual meeting on June 8. Provided.

The event's featured speaker, Clayton Reid, CEO of the travel-focused marketing group MMGY, was bullish on the outlook for the rest of this year. 

"There's a perpetuation now of travel recovery that is unstoppable," Reid said. "And you are seeing that in your community." 

In recent weeks, Charleston's hotel occupancy rates have been near pre-pandemic levels, and average rates have been outstripping 2019 levels. The week that Kiawah Island hosted the 2021 PGA Championship in May performed particularly well, with occupancy up 5 percent countywide over 2019 numbers. The average daily rate for rooms also exceeded pre-COVID figures by 13 percent.  

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Reid pointed to a "traveler sentiment index" his firm has tracked since 2007. After the last recession, it took about three years for that yardstick to fully recover. During the COVID recovery, that same amount of growth happened in about nine months, Reid said. 

And, according to MMGY's metrics, 81 percent of people are placing more importance on taking vacation days in 2021.

"Demand is higher than you realize," he said.

Travel experts have been talking about "pent-up demand" since the early days of the pandemic lockdowns, but the availability of COVID vaccines allowed more of that demand to translate into near-term bookings. 

A preference for traditional hotels is also coming back after short-term rentals reigned during the height of the pandemic. Of active leisure travelers that MMGY surveyed about the accommodations they're interested in using over the next 12 months, traditional chain hotels and resorts were ranked at the top, with 48 percent and 45 percent choosing those lodgings, respectively.

And a willingness to start venturing out to less familiar destinations has started to return, according to Reid's data. While most travelers' initial post-pandemic trips will be to visit friends or family or go back to a past vacation spot, almost a third said they were planning a second trip to a major U.S. city. 

Right now, Reid said, leisure travel is driving the recovery, and that's causing rates to go up on weekends and in leisure-focused destinations like Charleston.

Looking further out, though, that initial pent-up-driven jolt from vacationers will start to wane, and that's when Reid said he predicts group business will come back in earnest. Conventions and the like will offset the leisure slippage somewhat while bringing rates back down and returning the industry to more "traditional patterns."  

Reid also spoke about his firm's recently completed report about the Black travel market which found Black U.S. leisure travelers spent $129.6 billion on domestic and international leisure travel in 2019. 

Understanding that market is important to places like Charleston that are in top destination states for Black travelers. Florida is No. 1, per MMGY's report, attracting 10 percent of Black overnight travelers, followed by North Carolina and Texas. South Carolina attracts just under 5 percent. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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