How much is too much of a good thing?
Charleston residents have watched in recent years as the city has become one of the top tourist destinations in the country and by some accounts the world. According to the College of Charleston Office of Tourism Analysis, the city welcomed 4.9 million visitors in 2014, and all those people need a place to stay. As the city's reputation has grown, so has its hotel industry, which has generated a healthy amount of revenue for the area. Averaging a daily rate of about $188 per room on the peninsula in 2014, the hotel industry contributed more than $8 million to the city through property taxes due to visitor spending.
But while it may be a prime money-maker for the city, the addition of each new hotel attracts more and more scrutiny from residents worried about the impact to their quality of life. The situation has become so heated that in John Tecklenburg's campaign for mayor, he promised to place a one-year moratorium on approvals for new hotels if elected. While Tecklenburg believes this plan would allow for a wider range of businesses to enter the city, what would it mean for the hotel industry and those it employs? Is it time that Charleston seriously considers putting the brakes on hotel development?
This is the type of question that Wayne Smith thinks a lot about. As associate professor and chair of CofC's Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, he pays careful attention to the city's booming tourism industry and the role that hotels play in the growth of Charleston. According to Smith, a pause in the construction of new hotels may be just what the city needs.
"Sometimes it's good for the community to stop and take a breath. Let residents catch up and then figure out a plan that makes sense where you can balance residents' needs with the tourists' needs," Smith says. "That's something Charleston's always been good at. We are a livable city. This is what attracts tourism here. We're a living, breathing city. We're not a tourist district. We're a city that people are coming here and enjoying, so we've got to make sure that we're doing everything to maintain the reason people are coming."
In Smith's opinion, a one-year moratorium wouldn't have much of an effect on the city's hotel industry. He says hotels are currently having difficulty hiring enough employees to meet demand and predicts that the amount of new hotels expected to open in Charleston will serve to slow the rise of room prices. While the growing number of hotels is a sign of a healthy local economy, growth needs to be managed to protect the tourism industry.
"No one likes to see business totally stopped, but I think there's this concept that you have to understand that there's a balance between community and the tourism industry," Smith says. "The tourism industry doesn't want the community to lose anything. The tourism industry wants a happy community because that's what the tourists are coming for. Tourists aren't necessarily coming to see a hotel. They're coming to see Charleston. If Charleston's not special and unique, why would they come?"
So it seems a lull in new hotels may benefit the city, but what about the needs of those who rely on the industry to make a living?
Sean Dulle spent years working in Charleston hotels, holding positions as a bellman, bartender, front desk manager, night manager, concierge, server, and valet. Having left the business a little more than three years ago, he knows about life both in and out of the hotel industry, and he is keenly aware of the issues that employees and owners face.
"I think that a lot of hotel workers, and I worked with hundreds of people over the years, they generally expect the hotel to give back because they're working so hard and they're watching these hotels make money," says Dulle. "The line-level worker looks at a hotel and goes, 'They're charging that person $389 tonight to stay in Charleston, and I'm only making this amount of money a night. That's not fair.' But that line-level worker isn't always aware of the heavy asset that the hotel faces or the market rate."
According to Dulle, working in hotels downtown as a college student is a great experience, but many of the industry's employees struggle with transportation and parking because they just can't afford to live on the peninsula.
"Living close to where the hotels are is very difficult, and that adds to the transportation issue. A lot of these workers are in Goose Creek, Moncks Corner, Summerville, deep West Ashley, and are working in these downtown hotels, or they're living in an apartment with six or seven other people, especially the housekeeping and housemen crews," says Dulle. "A lot of them work with agencies and are living in a communal area. They'll get bused in to work. One guy will drive a van and drop off a crew. That's all good, but it points to the fact that there is a little bit of a disconnect. Shouldn't the worker be empowered to get themselves to the office every day? Needless to say, the nucleus of hotels in Charleston is in the city, but the workers aren't there. That's a very difficult thing for these hotels right now, no doubt."
Kevin McQuade worked with Dulle and has served as concierge at what is now the Courtyard Marriott Charleston Historic District for 16 years. For McQuade, the rising number of hotels has had both positive and negative effects on the tourism industry.
"You're forced by all the competition to up your game and look for ways to improve your service. It's hard to stand out here because of all the hotels," he says. "Tourists are our bread and butter, but it's a fine line. The city has done a great job of managing things. Mayor Riley has done a great job, but Charleston is in danger of going past the point of no return."
McQuade agrees with Dulle on the issues of parking and affordable housing for those who work in the hotel industry. They say parking for employees is often an afterthought when constructing new hotels, and without any realistic housing options downtown, workers must rely solely on public transportation to get to work each day.
"I remember years ago when CARTA shut down for two or three days, a hotel general manager was interviewed, and his point was a lot of his workers did come via bus from North Charleston, and it was hard for him to get people to work those few days because they did rely on public transportation," says Dulle. "Maybe one of the reasons hotels are having trouble finding workers is because it's a hard city to get in and out of. You can't park anywhere. They don't provide parking for their employees."