When South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster ordered a coastal evacuation on Sept. 11 with Hurricane Florence bearing down on the East Coast, it marked the fourth year in a row that the city of Charleston has experienced a blow to its tourism and meetings industry. This time around, 26 groups had to cancel their meetings and conventions in Charleston as a result of Florence, said J. Perrin Lawson III, deputy director and vice president of business development at Explore Charleston.
Last year, Hurricane Irma slammed into Charleston; in 2016, it was Hurricane Matthew; and in 2015, sustained rain caused flooding throughout the city, dropping hotel occupancy by almost 7 percent. This time, Charleston escaped the brunt of the storm, which made landfall in Wilmington, N.C., and has caused flooding in many areas across North and South Carolina.
As part of the city’s assistance with Hurricane Florence response efforts throughout the state, the Public Service department delivered 3,500 sandbags to Pawleys Island yesterday and is delivering an additional 1,500 today. pic.twitter.com/AGpxF1GUdT
— City of Charleston (@CityCharleston) September 24, 2018
When a storm like Hurricane Florence is on the horizon, making the right decision about holding a meeting is always a game of chance. For planners who had meetings scheduled in destinations that were in the path of Hurricane Florence, the timing of their decisions depended on their groups and their own appetite for risk and crisis management.
“The cancellations came at different times based on each planner’s level of concern over the weather forecast,” Perrin said. “On Monday afternoon (Sept. 10), Governor McMaster ordered an evacuation that would begin at noon on Tuesday, which resulted in the cancellation of all remaining meetings.”
While some organizers cancelled early to avoid potential weather issues, others were prepared to move forward with their meetings until after the governor issued a mandatory evacuation. For instance, the Steel Manufacturers Association, which was scheduled to hold its Safety and HR Committee Meeting in Charleston on Sept. 17-19, waited to announce its cancellation until Sept. 13, days after the evacuation was announced.
With extensive experience in recovering from storms and getting back to business quickly, coastal destination staff are experts at regrouping and rescheduling the meetings and events that may be interrupted by hurricanes or flooding. In Charleston, for instance, many of the 26 meetings that were cancelled due to Hurricane Florence have already been rescheduled, and destination staff are in the process of working with planners to reschedule most of the remaining ones, Perrin said.
Rather than rescheduling, some groups, such as the Water Quality Association, launched virtual events rather than the in-person events they’d originally planned.
Destinations Work Toward Recovery
This time, Charleston largely escaped the impact of the hurricane, but the city’s meeting and tourism industry will still suffer the negative consequences of lost room nights, along with shifting schedules to accommodate rescheduling the groups that had to cancel during the evacuation. But local industry professionals understand that the impact was minimal, and because other storms will come, it’s important to get back to business and orchestrate a speedy recovery.
“We were very fortunate that Hurricane Florence did not make landfall in South Carolina, and did not cause any damage to the Charleston area,” Lawson said. “However, the economic impact of lost visitation during this week is estimated at $63 million. Our primary concern at this point is getting our 40,000 hospitality employees back to work as quickly as possible. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with the communities that have been severely impacted by Hurricane Florence.”
One of those communities is Wilmington, N.C., the beach destination where Florence made landfall on Friday, Sept. 14. The storm surge caused record flooding in the area, leaving hundreds of thousands stranded and without power. But “cleanup efforts are well underway, and businesses are preparing to reopen throughout Wilmington and its island beaches,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB.
The Wilmington International Airport is open for business, roadways leading to the Wilmington area are beginning to reopen, including Interstate 95. And the Wilmington Convention Center is scheduled to be back up and running by Oct. 1, Hufham said. “We are in the process of reaching out to hotels, facilities, and venues regarding their status as key management personnel are beginning to return to their offices,” she added.
As leaders in the local tourism industry return to their homes and offices, bureau staff expect that recovery efforts will quicken, and the area will be open for business in the coming weeks.
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama.