Luring Southwest Airlines involved Peninsula Grill chef Robert Carter's famous coconut cake, Wadmalaw-made Sweet Tea Vodka and a barbecue tool affectionately named the "Charleston Hooker."
It did not involve economic incentives.
The low-cost airline announced Tuesday that it would launch service to Charleston International and Greenville-Spartanburg International airports within a year, and that it would do so without the kind of cash cushion that has become so commonplace in courting airlines today. As rumors circulated about Southwest, industry analysts said Charleston couldn't land the company without opening its wallet -- and with good reason.
Southwest starts service to Panama City, Fla., this month, thanks to a promise from north Florida's biggest real estate developer that it will pay the airline for any losses it incurs during its first years in operation. AirTran Airways, the discount carrier that served Charleston until December, asked for a subsidy to stay in town a few more months, but local officials decided they could end up paying millions of dollars for any long-term commitment.
Two incentives packages sat on the table, waiting for approval. A state bill would set aside $15 million for air service, and a county proposal would impose a 5 percent fee on car rentals for the same purpose.
But Monday night, long after business hours, the members of "Team CHS" -- the local air service group consisting of aviation, tourism and economic development officials -- received calls on their cell phones that effectively put those proposals to rest. Southwest didn't need them.
That's not to say Team CHS didn't do a good bit of deal-sweetening on its own. The courtship between Charleston County and the Dallas-based company included exchanges of presents and intensive wining and dining.
Southwest first caught the team's eye in October 2006, before AirTran arrived in Charleston, and the team made a presentation to the company the following June. At the time, Southwest still needed work on its strategy for medium-size cities and came back with a polite "not now."
Last June, two years later, Team CHS asked for a second date, and Southwest's planning department made its first formal visit in August.
Team CHS greeted the airline representatives at Charleston International, took them on a scenic tour and then brought them to a meeting in the South Carolina Aquarium's board room, around the corner from live exhibits and overlooking Charleston Harbor. That evening they took the Southwest assembly by horse-drawn carriage to the Rooftop Bar at the Market Pavilion Hotel for cocktails and then on to a private dinner at Charleston Grill. They put them up at the elite Club Level at Charleston Place and, the next day, took them on an aerial tour before lunch at the tony Sanctuary on Kiawah Island.
Another three groups of Southwest officials came back, each time looking more specifically at the operations and landscape here, each time letting the people who earn Charleston's reputation for world-class hospitality make sure they had everything they needed.
Between visits, Team CHS mailed to Dallas news of local developments and accolades, always with something to eat -- benne wafers, Carolina rice, Charleston Cookie Co. baskets. The campaign showed Southwest, a company known for its customer service, how this community matches its ideals, said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She remembered the reaction from the consultant who works with the local aviation authority when he saw the "Charleston Hooker" grill tool pop up on the list of mailings.
"Gary Edwards came in here kind of pale and said, 'What did y'all send them?' " Hill said.
Southwest officials decided in January that yes, Charleston was a viable market for the company and set about working out an agreement with Team CHS.
All the while politicians -- including Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham -- massaged the discussions.
State Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, took special care to make sure the Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg communities viewed each other as allies and not competitors in the campaign to win Southwest.
"I met with (Southwest officials) several times, and every time I talked with them it was always about what their plans were," Harrell said. "It was less about negotiating and more about what they wanted to do when they got here. It was buying questions versus shopping questions."
This past Halloween, per tradition, everyone at Southwest's headquarters dressed up in costume. Chief executive Gary Kelly appeared at work in a blue-checkered jumper as Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz."
Staff members at the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau gathered for a photo in the boardroom at their King Street office, also in costumes, with a poster: "The yellow brick road leads to Charleston."
The message they received back from Dallas, according to Hill: "Y'all so get us."