For the last twenty-five years, the CVB has been enhanced by the personable and brilliant Helen Hill. She is the Executive Director. If you have not met her, you have not been around Charleston long enough. You will. She’s vivacious, energetic and aptly – Charleston’s number one fan.
Hill was in New York City during the October 2011 announcement of the ‘Reader’s Choice Awards’ of Conde Nast Traveler, considered the ultimate authority on the topics of world travel, luxury hoteliers, top cruise lines and signature events. There, accepting the award with her as America’s #1 Travel Destination was Charleston’s very own comedic son, Stephen Colbert. Charleston first appeared in the top ten of American cities in 1993. San Francisco had been perched atop this list for more than a decade. Those avid travel connoisseurs that trot the globe – not the advertisers, publishers or editors – establish the rating system. So, it’s a fair tally.
There was wall space left at the CVB after eleven consecutive years as America’s most mannerly city by Marjabelle Stewart, America’s renowned expert on etiquette. At Mrs. Stewart’s passing in 2007, her widower husband proclaimed the permanent award to be Charleston’s by noting that the most mannerly city in America is always Charleston and that future awards should go to that city that raises itself closest to Charleston’s standards.
Hill has seen the other accouterments, as well. Charleston firsts, all! The Holy City and surrounding community has been at the top of magazine and journal poll lists as America’s most livable city, America’s best city for tennis, America’s best beach resort, America’s friendliest city and a plethora of other firsts, finest and best. These have not happened by default or accident. It took great strategy. It seems we had to decide not to be everything for everybody. That’s where Helen Hill became the savvy liaison to the rest of the world. She did it with style and aplomb.
“It has been critical in the market that we have been able to advertise and sell Charleston when others have pulled back. It’s because we have sewn together nine funding governments from Kiawah to North Charleston with other corporate and private interests,” Hill explained, “and they work cohesively. Our leadership has been willing to go under the banner of ‘Charleston.’ We at the CVB are the protector of the brand.”
That brand has also moved to the world stage as the #3 travel destination on the globe. Conde Nast Traveler found a place for Charleston tucked right behind Sydney, Australia, and Florence, Italy. This high honor was reported by the United Press International. “The upscale travel magazine tallied 8 million votes as part of its annual Readers’ Choice survey, which ranked cities around the world based on their ambiance, friendliness, lodging, restaurants, culture, sightseeing and shopping.”
That’s right. Number three worldwide – ahead of Paris, London, Cape Town and Vancouver. Step aside, Barcelona, Rome, Quebec and Buenos Aires. Vienna, Singapore, Bangkok…hah! Back of the line! With the awards come the responsibilities. We have to maintain our standing and even look to improve.
“Funding is essential. We also have a true sense of community on tough issues in Charleston. We seem to have a disposition to agree or disagree agreeably,” Hill detailed. “It is important in Charleston to not lose what is special. We cannot be everything to everybody. We can’t forget how we got to number one. We have to stay true to who we are. Here, you get that old city market experience, the carriage tours, the beautiful living history seen in our old homes, the beaches, the unique Charleston events, the friendly people and more. When you walk out on King Street you may see something you know and then something you don’t know that’s authentic. There are a few national chains like The Gap or Banana Republic, but you also see the unique Charleston retailers like Christian Michi, Croghan’s Jewelers or Bob Ellis Shoes. They say ‘Charleston.’
“We cannot become something outside of our identity. That’s why the theme park ideas or large building proposals don’t fit. They do not meet our brand as ‘Charleston.’ We recognize the expectation of who we are to others.”
Hill has been the belly button of Charleston’s historic emergence. She has orchestrated the community by pointing her baton in the rhythms of rapture. The city was devoid of everything necessary for it’s latent phoenix-like rise just fifty years ago. It has everything now. The people that were there then are astonished now. They have praised Hill for her magnificent role.
“Helen Hill has been ahead of the curve and has kept ahead while others have fallen back.” expressed Kathleen Cartland of the Charleston Metro Sports Council. “She is so very adept at combining our resources and targeting the things that fit the community as a whole. Her personality is a perfect fit for what she does.”
Our Eden has it all. Outdoor activities like golf, sailing and tennis? Check. Cuisine? Among the best. Events? Something for everybody. History? Well, yes! Architecture? Preserved and timeless. Gardens? Stop and smell the camellias. Ambiance? Take a sip. The people? Are you kidding me? The best. Period.
As in Eden, there is this tree with apples. Those forbidden apples have sometimes led to a lot of public conversation. Our normally civil deportment has been more audible recently than we are accustomed. There is the Boeing debate that has surfaced as the airline giant has built a modern plant in North Charleston. The controversy is brought on by the U.S. Justice Department in the inherent grievances of union states (Washington) versus right-to-work states (South Carolina).
There is also another forbidden apple – the controversy of port dredging. It has split our politicians. The super-container ships will need a deeper harbor. The 2005 Arthur Ravenel, Jr., Bridge was built with those ships in mind. But the federal funding that supports international commerce has been difficult and other cities – like our neighbors in Savannah – have been in competition for available dredge funding. The viability of the port is at risk.
But the most sinister ‘apple of upheaval’ would – on the surface – seem to be quite innocuous. Lucifer himself must have pointed it out. You see, the world has discovered Charleston. The people who own cruise ship lines have read the magazines. The famously low skyline of the historic peninsula makes a docked cruise ship become a delightful vantage point to survey the city. Unfortunately, those ships cast a monumental shadow. The other obtrusiveness has been chronicled and detailed ad nauseum. There’s the vehicular loading and unloading traffic, the blocked water views, the concerns of air and water pollution and even, egads!, people without collared shirts or proper footwear walking into our market area. This is an affront to proper Charleston sensibilities! They should issue Seersucker suits and Weejuns at the gangplank.
On the other hand, Charleston is a tourist dream. You can’t keep people out. Cruise ships bring people. They spend money here in varying amounts – according to what side of the argument is auditing. The suppliers like dairies and grocers are thrilled. There are other fees the port collects. Cruisers spread the good word and so many of them come back by other means on follow-up visits. In addition, the city is planning a major upgrade of its only cruise terminal. This can mitigate some of the negative issues, but will certainly be a catalyst for other cruise lines.
“98.9 % of all first time visitors to Charleston give a positive satisfaction report,” Hill noted, “and so, many of these folks will likely come back and stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants. So, there has to be a balance of what’s good and what’s not concerning the cruise industry.”
Hill has been a pivotal voice in the current debate. She has even submitted a balanced view to the local newspaper. Her plan calls for no more than two ships to visit per week or a maximum of 104 cruise ship visits per year. In this way, the terminal slip is vacant and the sightline open at least five days a week. It’s a way to have the upside advantage, but not the overdose. By way of comparison, it’s the two glasses of wine the doctor advised that made you healthier, not the three bottles you drank that gave you a hangover for the ages. Too much of anything has rarely been beneficial.
The debate has made headlines outside of Charleston. That’s normally not our way. Factions are making frictions into fractions. Mayor Joe Riley, a downtown resident, has been mostly supportive of a controlled cruise industry with a new and better terminal. But the normal ‘give and take’ has been given and taken.
“Historically, Charleston has been an amazing melting pot of cultures, ideas and values. When you look at the three plus centuries of interaction between all of the groups you see a very genuine appetite for harmony. People have worked together here for the common good. It has been a positive indication of our self-identity – who we are and what we expect of ourselves. If anything, this has been a place where respectful people disagree in a most respectful manner. I’m not sure our cruise ship debate always shows us in that light. That’s why we, the CVB, have offered a reasonable and effective solution that the highest majority can appreciate as the best solution. Cruise ships will not be going away. But they can be reasonably scheduled to everyone’s benefit.”
So being ‘numero uno’ is always tenuous. Things can change. Charleston is closer to being number one in the world (Sydney, Australia) than being number four (San Francisco). However, factors such as the world economic swoon and some relevant safety concerns have reduced travel. The ability to experience Charleston in the most meaningful ways have been extolled by those that do it best – travel agents. They like our weather, our ambiance and our events. By most standards worldwide, we a deal. It’s up to those conduit-like organizations to ‘keep ‘em comin’. The CVB and Helen Hill know how to stay on top. Watch out, Sydney!
Thomas (Tommy) McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.