‘Not even hurricanes do this’: Coronavirus wreaks havoc on South Carolina hotel industry

Hotel occupancy rates have plunged in Charleston, Greenville and Columbia, South Carolina, as the effects of the coronavirus sweep across the Palmetto State leading to thousands of lost jobs during a key tourism season, reports Greenville News, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

"Not even hurricanes do this," said Wayne Smith, professor and chair of the College of Charleston's Hospitality and Tourism Management Department.

Charleston County hotels are seeing some of the worst effects of the outbreak, with the average occupancy rate dipping below 17% in the week of March 29 to April 4, which is supposed to be during one of the area's high seasons, Smith said.

“Imagine if you’re a retailer and we took away November and December from you," he said.

The area is looking at a $523 million loss in tourism revenue between March 22 and April 18, according to Helen Hill, CEO of Visit Charleston.

King Street in Charleston, SC as Hurricane Dorian moves along the South Carolina coastline Thursday, September 5, 2019. The storm center was 80 miles south-southeast of Charleston at 7 a.m. packing sustained winds of 115 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

And in Myrtle Beach, the situation is even worse. With a city ordinance going into effect March 26 that bans almost all short-term lodging reservations, average hotel occupancy rates are near zero, said Sarah Stevens, communications manager for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Stephens said her organization does not have any financial impact data or projections at this point related to the coronavirus outbreak's economic toll on Myrtle Beach.

Research from Coastal Carolina University's Center for Resort Tourism and College of Business Administration shows that revenue was down nearly 60% per available hotel room on average in Horry County between Feb. 23 and April 4.

People walk and play along the shoreline near evacuated hotels along North Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Tuesday, Septemeber 3, 2019. Forecasters are expecting a water surge as six to ten inches of rain is expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

Statewide, more than 45% of all hotel properties are closed, according to Dawn Dawson-House, director of corporate communications for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.

What to know:Coronavirus in South Carolina

Different type of traveler

In Greenville and Columbia, the situation isn't as dire, though both city's have still taken huge hits.

Normally in the 70 percents this time of year for average hotel occupancy, Greenville County sank to 27% in the week of March 29 to April 4, said David Montgomery, vice president of sales for VisitGreenvilleSC. He said he doesn't have an estimate on the economic impact of the drop off in travel.

Greenville has had a "pretty dramatic downturn" for what are normally strong tourism months in March, April and May, Montgomery said, but "we're still seeing some people travel."

It's just not the typical demographic and hotel preference Greenville sees.

Most of the travelers have been health care, construction and logistics workers and the "vast majority" of them are staying in suburban hotels, closer to the interstate, Montgomery said.

"The downtown market was the weakest segment which is consistent with other urban markets in the state and southeast U.S.," Montgomery said.

A man walks through a subdued Downtown Greenville as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Friday, April 3, 2020.

Columbia's situation has been similar. Hotels in the region had an average occupancy rate of about 29% between March 29 and April 4, said Charlene Slaughter, director of communications for Experience Columbia SC.

There are some travelers related to Fort Jackson, some other government business, some first responders and some business travelers from people whose companies aren't closed, Slaughter said.

This development is not surprising, said Scott Baier, professor and chair of the Clemson University Department of Economics.

"It is not uncommon for professionals to travel to areas of need in times of crises. Following a hurricane, you will have people from power companies and construction companies travel to these areas and stay in hotels," Baier said. "In this case, there were no homes destroyed and all work and leisure travel has come to a halt. Therefore, the only people traveling and looking for lodging are health care professionals and they probably prefer to stay in less urbanized areas to reduce the likelihood they get exposed outside of work."

Long-term impact

The long-term impact of the coronavirus in South Carolina is unknown.

But one area of the tourism industry that likely has had a permanent shake-up is the workforce.

At the beginning of March, Charleston County employed more than 7,700 people in accommodations and lodging — nearly 5,800 of them have lost their jobs at this point, Smith said.

Statewide and in other counties, it's not clear how those numbers compare. A spokesperson for the state Department of Employment and Workforce did not respond to an inquiry seeking statewide and county-level data on lodging and accommodations job losses.

Downtown Greenville can be seen from the window of a suite at Aloft Hotel.

As for Charleston County though, it's going to be difficult to get back to where things were after the effects of the coronavirus outbreak subside, Smith said.

“With all these people hiring at the same time, there’s gong to be a hiring blitz," he said. “What are you going to do when everyone in the city is trying to hire a whole staff of housekeepers?"

That could mean a bidding war for employees, especially if the pool of workers in the industry shrinks from former hotel employees moving on to jobs in other industries after being laid off. Smith said after the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s when a lot employees also lost their jobs, a large chunk of the workforce did not come back to the industry.

“Getting staff back after this is going to be really difficult," he said.

Many hotels could be operating with new staffs and it could take awhile for some places to get back to being fully staffed again, he said.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of a challenge it’s going to be," Smith said.

You can connect with reporter Gabe Cavallaro on Twitter @gabe_cavallaro or facebook.com/cavallarogabe or email him at gcavallaro@greenvillenews.com.

Yikes:About 25% of Marriott hotels shuttered worldwide during coronavirus

There's that:Hilton, Marriott donate free hotel rooms for medical workers responding to coronavirus crisis

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/hotels/2020/04/15/coronavirus-wreaks-havoc-south-carolina-hotel-industry/5135986002/

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