Hotel revenues in Charleston plunged by $17 million from March to July amid the coronavirus pandemic compared to the same period last year. The ripple effect spread further.
COVID-19 cancellations cleared streets of crowds ordinarily drawn to such events as Live on the Levee, Art Walk and FestivALL along with cook-offs, tournaments, conventions and festivals.
“If you’ve lost $17 million in hotel revenue,” said Tim Brady, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, “that’s a significant number of people not coming to the city, not walking down Capitol Street to eat at Adelphia [Sports Bar and Grille], get ice cream at Ellen’s [Homemade Ice Cream], buy something at Taylor Books [Cafe],” Brady said. “We’ve lost a lot of spending.”
The visitors bureau pivoted to focus on more localized marketing methods and local businesses, Brady said.
“What we recognized early in time is that we need those businesses to remain successful and be around after the pandemic, because those are the things people will want to be here in the future,” Brady said. “We’re going to continue that through the fall and winter because these locally owned businesses are struggling and we want to make sure we can help them get through in any way we can.”
This summer is the reverse of last year’s record revenue run at Adelphia, said owner Deno Stanley.
“All the things we do here in summertime have been fantastic in years past. The biggest boon last year was the soccer [tournaments at Shawnee Sports Complex]. We were slammed day after day, and usually July and August are a little slower, but last year we had our best summer ever,” Stanley said. “This year, well, this year had us rethinking everything.”
When the pandemic began shutting down businesses, Black Locust Woodshop on Lee Street had been open just 153 days after Casi Pourfarhadi and Dan Riffle opened in late November.
“When we were looking for locations for the storefront, we were in downtown and we thought this would be perfect, you know, we could bring in 30-40% of our business at Art Walks, those kind of events,” Pourfarhadi said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen, though.”
Featuring hundreds of artists and spanning 15 days in June, FestivALL is usually a sure draw. The nonprofit organization staging the event adapted a digital format and will do the same for its fall event, said Maria Belcher, the group’s executive director. Belcher said organizers learned lessons amid the shutdown that could improve the events when they resume in person.
“This actually gave us an opportunity to engage with audiences we haven’t before, without geographic barriers or catching people who happened to be in town for another event,” Belcher said.
Dance groups filmed how-to videos for different dance styles. Some artists presented online galleries. Others hosted workshops.
“Yes, there was a learning curve, definitely, but these are things we can use in the future, no matter how FestivALL is held,” Belcher said. “The internet isn’t going anywhere, and we’ve learned to get creative, learned new ways to reach more people with our art.”
Each year, Belcher said, events such as FestivALL — in-person or not — only happen because of community buy-in. She said that’s held true during the pandemic, but there is sometimes a feeling of loss.
“It was a bit bittersweet. We’re still finding that community online, but it made us, to a certain extent, yearn for that in-person participation anyway. It didn’t take that place or fill that cup fully,” Belcher said. “People were happy to have something to engage with. During this time, it’s so important to have creative outlets and places you can go to feel joy and human connection.”
Pourfarhadi said the pandemic has strengthened connections in the city’s art scene. Artists talk more and bounce ideas off each other. There’s a feeling that everyone is being hit with similar struggles.
Stanley said this is true across the city and beyond.
“This is not just a local or state situation. It’s national, it’s global, and we’re all in this together, we all understand what will get us through this. We’ll bounce back and do the things we need to do to get through it and get others through it,” Stanley said. “We have a lot of great places downtown, and we all band together. One of the things this did for us as a community is we’ve banded together. We’re stronger together, and we’ll survive it together.”