Greenville’s Tourism Economy: A Conversation with Heath Dillard of VisitGreenvilleSC

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Greenville is a hub for both business and leisure tourists. How do we benefit from this, what challenges does the tourism and hospitality sector face, and what’s next for our community? Tune into this episode with Heath Dillard, President and CEO of VisitGreenvilleSC to find out.

Links:

Heath Dillard Bio.

VisitGreenvilleSC annual report, 10-year destination strategic plan, and brand evolution.

Transcript

Katy Smith:
This episode is posting during Thanksgiving week 2023, when many of you will have family and friends in town to enjoy a meal with you but also to enjoy the amenities our community has to offer. Even if they are your uncle or mother-in-law or cousin, as they wander down Greenville’s Main Street or hit the trail to Travelers Rest or get in line for Black Friday, to the rest of us, they are tourists.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode, we are joined by Heath Dillard, President and CEO of VisitGreenvilleSC, the Destination Marketing Organization for our community, in essence, our convention and visitors bureau. Heath has been on the job here for a year, having worked in Charlotte for the last 18 years, but he’s a South Carolina native and College of Charleston graduate with many family members still living in and around Greenville, so he’s been able to witness the same growth that all of us have seen. He’s interviewed by Derek Lewis, who’s our advocacy roundtable chair and who’s also the Executive Director of Greenville First Steps. They’ll discuss the role of Visit Greenville SC, the benefits of tourism for a community like ours, the challenges the tourism industry faces, and what he sees as he looks ahead.

Derek Lewis:
[0:00] So thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate it. So Greenville has been making a real conscious effort to get folks to come here over the last decade or so. And I’m struck every time I walk down the street by the number of people that you know have their maps out and are trying to figure out where they are.
I assume they’re visiting here. Can you tell us about like who is the typical person that would be attracted to visit Greenville and why would they?

Heath Dillard:
[1:36] I think that has actually changed a lot over the last 10 or so years I think originally, they were probably leisure visitors looking to come and visit downtown enjoy the river, walk, enjoy something at the Peace Center or the arena, the growing culinary scene.
That’s really where, you know, Greenville made a name for itself.
It started to really build a reputation as a really a beautiful place, nature and outdoor recreation, great culinary.
That’s continued to expand. That’s still true today that we see lots of leisure visitors.

[2:08] So we see a lot of Friday, Saturday, but that’s spilling over into Thursdays and Sundays as well.
What I’ve seen over the last several years is that that is starting to be leveraged more from a business and conference and convention meeting standpoint as well.
And so you’re starting to see, businesses really lean into those recreational elements, those leisure, those typical leisure travel type of elements to say, well, they’re not just for the leisure visitor.
When we, when we want to have a business meeting, we want a good meal.
We want to entertain clients. We want to, to be in a beautiful place.
It’s safe and walkable and all those same things. And, and we’re really seeing Greenville start to flex its muscles a little bit in, in the group and meetings space as well.

Derek Lewis:
[2:50] So is that typically what happens is first it’s kind of individuals and families, and then it’s businesses saying, let’s get all of our families together?

Heath Dillard:
[2:56] No, I think it depends on the market. I think some places, and actually coming to Greenville, it’s actually quite the opposite of Charlotte, where I’ve spent the last little bit.
Some places are very much, if you build it, they will come. And so they invest in the meetings infrastructure.
They might invest public dollars in building a massive convention center hotel.
They might build a massive convention center and they build a meetings package that makes it really ideal for meeting planners to host events.
And that was the case in Charlotte. You know, we had a major hub of American Airlines.
We had 700 some odd flights a day in 150 nonstop cities that we served.
We had a huge convention center and a dynamic hotel package.

[3:39] And that got us a lot of interest in hosting conventions. But then what we would find is we were competing with similar-sized cities in Nashville and Austin and Tampa and Louisville and places like that.
And what we found was that we weren’t winning our share of that business because although we had the logistical elements, we couldn’t sell as well as we might could have as some of those other cities on the leisure and recreational elements.
And so, while we were shortlisted a lot, we couldn’t really win over the fun factor.
Greenville is quite the opposite. Greenville has grown very much so on the back of its leisure reputation and being this really fun and unassuming, sort of walkable type of place.
And what we’re finding is the same reasons that people might want to relocate a business are often some of the similar ones that we’re now seeing for people wanting to land a convention or a conference or some sort of business meeting.

Derek Lewis:
[4:37] So, you guys that VisitGreenvilleSC have really been focusing on that idea of bringing business to Greenville as tourism.

Heath Dillard:
[4:49] Correct.

Derek Lewis:
[4:50] Where do you find most of the successes from that? Who are you primarily finding would want to come to Greenville?

Heath Dillard:
[4:58] We do the leisure marketing, so that’s obviously a huge component of what we still do and have been doing now for more than a decade.
But what we’re finding is that our growth and our potential to continue to evolve is to leverage that into the group sector.
We host conventions of a wide variety of different sizes, some as big as the giant TD Synnex event that we just hosted a few weeks ago, which occupies every hotel room in our market.
We host meetings as small as 14 people that are really high-level board and executive retreats.
And so really everything in between.

[5:33] I think the future for this market is for our organization to really align with the economic development interests of the various organizations that exist here and say, hey, we want to continue to fill hotel rooms through group and convention business midweek, but we want to do so in alignment with the efforts of those economic development agencies.
So what industry sectors are we proactively and strategically going after?
How can our organization play a role in maybe bringing that industry conference here?
How can we, when we get that industry conference here, showcase the community in such a way that businesses who are here on a networking type of an event might say, wow, this is a great place for this sector of our industry, or this is a great place to relocate a business, or maybe it’s a person who works remote who might say, well if I can work from anywhere, why wouldn’t I work from here?
And so we really want to align ourselves. And I think the future of our convention sales efforts will be more towards that, is how do we align with those economic development agencies at the city, the county, and across the whole region to bring the kind of conferences here that allow us to more strategically pitch business relocation.

Derek Lewis:
[6:40] So let’s talk about hotel rooms. I am struck every time we walk around downtown how many people are checking in or checking out of a hotel on any given day.
And it’s not just during the summer.
On a Tuesday in October, there’s a line at the valet at a hotel.
How many of, how many people are, how many of our beds are being used on a typical day in Greenville?

Heath Dillard:
[6:58] Yeah, we have across all of Greenville, across all of Greenville County, we have almost 11,000 hotel rooms on any given night.
Across the entire year, we run just over 70 % occupancy.
So that means on the balance, we have about 7,500 rooms that are occupied every single night of the year.
That varies, right? 40% on Sunday up to 90% on Saturday.
But I think that’s what surprises a lot of people in this market is that on any given day, you could sort of pull out of a hat that there’s 7,500 hotel rooms that are occupied across all of Greenville County.
And they’re here for a wide variety of different reasons.
Some are here for a leisure event, whether that’s a Saturday or a midweek.
Some are here for a business meeting, some are here for youth amateur sports, some are here passing through from Canada to Florida, and we’re a great stopover point.
There’s a million different reasons, but what has happened is for whatever reason they’re traveling, Greenville has shown up on their radar in a lot of different ways, and we’ve really leveraged that reputation that we’ve seen grow over the last decade or so, and we can influence trips and travel across all of these different sectors.

Derek Lewis:
[8:01] So when you think about 70-75 % occupancy, I’m assuming that’s a good number?

Heath Dillard:
[8:06] That is a good number. Yeah, this, you know, before we saw hotel development in the mid-2010s, this market might have done 75% on an annual basis, and that’s pretty rare. That’s incredibly high.
Running 68-70 % is still very, very good, even with all of the hotel development that we’ve seen in the last six or seven years.

Derek Lewis:
[8:25] So when you kind of look forward to the future, like what’s the number that Greenville should be at and kind of how do we get, how do we get there?

Heath Dillard:
[8:33] Yeah. You know, hotel development that had already been started, projects that were coming out of the ground when COVID began completed, you know, they, those, those didn’t really pause for the most part.
So those hotels completed, but, but once we were into, once we were into COVID and there was all the uncertainty around when we travel begin again and, and, and, and post COVID, you know, the inflation and interest rate environment that we’re in has made it tough.
So I think we’re going to see a few year post-COVID break from supply growth, actually.
So I think our existing hoteliers are going to enjoy this sort of post-COVID boom of not a lot of new supply coming into the market that might compete with them.
And so they’re going to just continue to enjoy the benefits of the growing demand.
But eventually, not just Greenville but all markets will start to see development happen to try and take advantage of that demand growth.
And my sense will be that it takes 18 to 24 months or so to complete a project, and so it’ll probably be 25 or 26 before we start to see meaningful supply growth again.
And that when we do, we’ll probably have two to three years of elevated supply growth. We’re not going to go from 11,000 rooms to 22,000 rooms overnight, but it wouldn’t surprise me to go from 11,000 to 13,000 over a five or six-year period.

Derek Lewis:
[9:51] And when we look about, like, what are the investments that the city or the county or the state can make to kind of increase that, that tourism utilization?
Like what are the recommendations for kind of what Greenville needs to move forward?

Heath Dillard:
[10:03] Yeah, most municipalities and ours included, aren’t necessarily going to invest in an individual project, you know, an individual hotel coming out of the ground, other than what they might do infrastructure-wise for any development project, but they’re not going to necessarily, leverage tourism tax dollars or other taxes in order to incent a basic hotel to come out of the ground.
What we might do, and what we’ve talked about a lot in this market, is how do we continue to invest in the sectors that we think have a big opportunity for us.
And so there’s been a lot of talk of a, of a downtown conference center.
You know, we need to continue investment in the, in the existing convention center.
And so we can, we can utilize the taxes that tourists and visitors leave behind through the accommodations tax at hotels, through the 2% hospitality tax on prepared food and beverage.
And these are millions of dollars annually. We can, we can leverage those in a way that allows us to invest in assets that will spur future demand and help to continue to fill the hotel rooms that don’t yet exist but will eventually.

Derek Lewis:
[11:05] You know, I think about groups coming here I mean, obviously, the one that comes to mind for me most is basketball.

Heath Dillard:
[11:11] Oh right.

Derek Lewis:
[11:11] The huge tournaments that we’ve been able to get. Are we at a point now where we where Greenville is on the list for kind of those next step tournaments or is there more that’s needed to be done here before we can kind of be considered for a suite 16?

Heath Dillard:
[11:29] All of those governing bodies have certain requirements, size and scope of the competition facilities themselves.
I think Greenville has shown itself very, very well for the kind of events that we host.
Our organization has an incredible partnership with Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
In fact, our board chair is Beth Paul, who’s their general manager, so it helps that we’re in alignment that way.
But they’re an incredible team, and they work very well with our team in order to bring these kind of events to town.
You know, you have to have good partnership with the venue for an NCAA event.
You have to have a sponsor.
So Furman and the Southern Conference have to be on board in order for us to go bid and try to bring those events to town.
We’ve shown that we can produce really high-experience events with SEC women’s basketball.
We’re host, we will host the 2026 men’s first and second round.
Dawn Staley herself said that there’s no better women’s final regional that exists outside of Greenville.
So we think with that experience this year that was a… that was an experiment by the NCAA by putting two regionals in one city, and so it was Greenville in Seattle hosting the two regionals each, so four regionals in two cities.
We think that will probably continue, and we’ll be able to do that.
The way we have executed Bassmasters has put us on the radar for future Bassmasters, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see us on every three or four-year rotation for that tournament as well.
And so those are the kind of things that we continue to build.
Those are really mega events that happen over a week or a weekend.
What really, really turns the dial in terms of overall visitor economy are the hundreds of other events, and they don’t make headlines like the NCAA or the Bassmasters or things like that, but they’re really the ones that add up collectively to generating the kind of demand that we need in this market to support the restaurants that we have, to support the arena, to support the hotels that we have, and to really fuel the overall visitor economy.

Derek Lewis:
[13:34] When, when we look at like attracting those kinds of things, like if you had to circle one that’s on your personal, like when I get that to come here, then I’ll, I’ll, I’ll feel like Greenville has arrived.
Like, is there something on your radar?

Heath Dillard:
[13:49] I think we want to continue to expand in, in college athletics.
It’s great to be able to host the men’s and women’s basketball.
I would love to see us go after some of the other ones. I don’t know if we’re quite big enough to do a gymnastics, but man, that’s like the SEC gymnastics is an incredible event. Volleyball is an incredible event.
Those are events that just bring thousands and thousands and thousands of people to the arena that are sort of outside of the Big Four sports.
You know, we’d love to leverage an asset like the arena to do some preseason NBA or NHL type of events in this market.
I think there’s some things that we haven’t quite touched yet that we can continue to do to round out the sports market.
We also have an incredible outdoor recreational asset, you know, the Swamp Rabbit Trail and the mountains in the northern part of the county, and so there’s some things that we could do from a cycling standpoint, or you know, a running hiking type of event that we haven’t really touched on yet either and all of those governing bodies are aware of Greenville, and they understand how great of a destination we are, and so we’re continuing to work on that.
To diversify our sports offering there as well.

Derek Lewis:
[15:00] So, can we talk about labor for a second? Because I know one of our earlier conversations we had with the restaurateurs, they talked about the fact that, as Greenville grows and as prices for houses and rent goes up, it’s been really challenging for a downtown restaurant to be able to staff its facility with people without figuring out a way either to get them here or to subsidize their living.
Are the hotels having those same challenges and are there any recommendations that you or they have for kind of what Greenville needs to do to address that?

Heath Dillard:
[15:35] Yeah, I think everybody has that challenge. Our industry, maybe more so than any other industry, continues to be very labor-intensive.
I don’t think we’ll find a way to automate ourselves out of hospitality.
It’s a very personal, human-to-human interaction type of business.
So, we are the fourth largest employer in the Greenville metro area.
One in nine people employed in this region work in hospitality and leisure.
So it is an industry where visitors really drive employment, right?
They create the kind of wages and income that help support that.
And at the same time, as we continue to grow, as you pointed out, some of those same people are affected by the growth.
I say that those 51,000 people that make up our industry are the asset that sort of differentiates Greenville from all of our competitors.

[16:26] They’re the ones creating these millions of interactions on an annual basis that leave people feeling that we’re a warm and welcoming and inviting place.
And so we completed a strategic plan back in March that was really created from feedback from the industry stakeholders who said, you know, the evolution of VisitGreenvilleSC is not one of strictly just a marketing organization, but one who helps us manage this visitor economy and one who helps us with these types of challenges.
And so I’ve said over the last several months that our new strategy is not necessarily…
Tourism growth for the sake of tourism growth, but tourism growth in ways that it makes a positive impact back on our community and we see workforce is one of those very key social responsibility pillars that we have. And so we want to partner with organizations that are already working on things like affordable housing. We want to partner with organizations who are advocating for transit solutions and, investment and transportation and infrastructure because, quite frankly, most of the people who are working you know, you mentioned downtown restaurants don’t necessarily live downtown.
[17:39] And so We have to invest in in the thing that it continues to drive us, and that’s our people.

Derek Lewis:
When you think about communities around the country, I mean, this is not a problem that’s unique to Greenville County… Are there other cities or municipalities in the country that you would kind of point to and say these guys have started to kind of crack that nut of labor and transportation and housing in a way that maybe Greenville could learn from? 

Heath Dillard:
I think that’s part of the issue is that there hasn’t been this silver bullet that somebody has where you can just rinse and repeat or replicate it in another market.
[18:16] I would say Greenville’s been progressive in some of its approaches.
Actually, this past year, city council approved a resolution that would take 15% of the state A-tax, which is derived from mostly visitor spending, and put that towards affordable housing initiatives.
And I don’t know that there are very many communities that are doing that type of thing.
There are a few, and they’re typically island-type of locations where you literally have to support workforce housing, or otherwise, you would not have the bodies to operate.
So I think in a more generalized urban setting and suburban setting like we have, I think that’s pretty rare.
So I think we’re making decisions that other communities haven’t yet, and I think that’s going to be helpful.

[19:02] We don’t have as robust of a public transportation system as many.
And I think that that’s another opportunity for us to think about is the next evolution is ensuring that we have more routes, more buses, more higher frequency of stops.
Even when we have a bus stop at a place like the arena, if service stops at 10 or 11 o ‘clock, well, most of the concerts aren’t over by then.
So the bus stop’s really irrelevant to the staff who might be working there that might rely on that transportation to get home.
And so we just have to be really conscious of the human behavior and, you know, whether you’re a late shift bar or restaurant worker or an event worker at our convention center or the arena or the peace center or somewhere like that, is that we’re really thoughtful about how they interact between their home and their work and how do we make it more accessible.
And when you do, you create work options for people in a greater way.
They’re not limited, you know, by the places in their most immediate proximity.

Derek Lewis:
[20:03] And so just to kind of kind of repeat that, because I think I understand.

[20:08] So, the accommodations tax is generated by tourism and leisure.
You would need to kind of use that tax to help cover housing for workers who work in that sector in order to ensure that they can work near the places where they live.

Heath Dillard:
[20:24] Yeah, the city of Greenville has taken up to their share, legally by the state legislature, they are allowed to take up to 15 % of the total, and then they are able to leverage that annual income.
So if you think of the taxes that are generated by those hotels on an annualized basis, they’re able to issue bonds and use the tax revenues to pay off the debt service.
So you’re able to create a multiple effect of what you could buy.
So I don’t know exactly what the number is, but even if it were half a million dollars, you might say, well, half a million dollars doesn’t buy you very much in today’s market, but when you bond against it, you can build more units of affordable housing, and you can use that half a million dollar hotel-specific tax revenue in order to pay the debt service on that.

Derek Lewis:
[21:11] The thing for me when I look at tourism and visitors coming into the area is

[21:15] that that’s extra cars on the street.
It’s extra reservations in a restaurant that maybe I can’t get into because it’s been booked by the hotel.
Like to someone who maybe lives in Greenville and maybe doesn’t feel like they directly benefit from tourism, like what’s the benefit of having that many people kind of coming into our community that maybe are not from here?

Heath Dillard:
[21:38] Yeah, I think it’s really multifaceted, and I don’t think a lot of people either see or understand what those positive impacts are.
We can certainly be frustrated when we’re trying to get somewhere, and there’s a major event, and it causes us delays or, you know, traffic congestion or whatever it is.
But visitors impact our community in a positive way in a lot of different ways.
One is I mentioned over 51,000 people work in the industry.
That’s five times the current number of unemployed.
So without visitors, there’s a lot more people looking for jobs that would potentially need wage and income subsidies in some form or fashion.
So 51,000 people, 51,000 people living in the Greenville metro area, so our MSA working in leisure and hospitality.
And so, you know, that’s 5x of our current unemployed number. And so…

[22:28] Because our industry continues to be very labor intensive, it needs people.
And so it employs people, it gives people gainful employment, it creates wages and jobs and income.
So that’s one thing. Two, to go back to the taxes. Our community, way before I got here, for decades now, have taken these taxes that are largely generated by visitors, and they have reinvested them in the very amenities that we love as residents.
We have very beautiful parks, we have greenways, we have, you know, the Peace Center and Bon Secours, in some ways, those have, you know, been levered by these very taxes that we’ve talked about.
And then third is that visitors create a demand that we would not otherwise be able to support as residents alone.

[23:11] Some certainly would, you know, but estimates suggest that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all restaurant spending is done by visitors.

[23:20] 30 to 40% of the tickets sold at Bon Secours Wellness Arena are by visitors.
So the acts and the concerts that we might go see or the restaurants and the meals that we go have, those businesses may not be there without the demand that exists because of visitors.
So whether it’s a direct investment by the municipalities that are collecting the tax revenues on tourism-related spending, or whether it’s the amenities that simply exist that wouldn’t otherwise that we get to enjoy as residents, that there’s this enhanced quality of life that we wouldn’t otherwise get to enjoy if tourism didn’t play a role in our economy.

Derek Lewis:
[23:59] So you’ve been here in Greenville for about a year now?

Heath Dillard:
[24:02] Almost a year, right.

Derek Lewis:
[24:03] All right, so you guys are, you’ve kind of completed your planning.

Heath Dillard:
[24:06] Right.

Derek Lewis:
[24:06] And so if you look forward five years from now, and we’re having this conversation again, what would be different about Greenville as far as kind of tourism and, than is now?

Heath Dillard:
[24:18] I think our organization is in the midst of this shift from simply growth for the sake of growth, and that we want to grow in alignment with the community’s needs and interests.
I talked about aligning some of those convention sales efforts with economic development.
I think that’s part of it. Somebody asked me if there’s 7 million visitors today, how many visitors do you expect in five years?
And I said, I actually don’t care if it’s still 7 million if it’s the right kind of visitor. You know, how do we leverage what we already have, and maybe it’s the same visitors staying Thursday, Friday, Saturday as opposed to just Friday and Saturday, how do we continue to build demand in a way that might not have some of the negative consequences as growth for the sake of growth has. And then I would say we want to play a key role in partnering with our city, with our county, with all of the municipalities across the county. We have incredible data on who’s coming and why they’re coming and when they’re coming, and all these different things, and how do we serve in an advisory capacity to invest wisely in what the future development of the tourism industry here is in Greenville.

Derek Lewis:
[25:24] Heath, we really appreciate your time today, and I appreciate the vision that you’ve brought to Greenville and to bring in folks here, so thank you for all you’re doing.

Heath Dillard:
[25:31] Thank you for having me. 

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Kyle Gutschow Photography from Getty Images Pro on Canva.

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