David Erbacher remembers when Columbia was just a dot on the map. Today, that dot fuels a growing tourism and hospitality sector that is something of a best-kept secret.
“A lot of people in years past have said ‘Columbia’s a pass-through town,’” said Erbacher, the director of sales at the Hyatt Place Columbia in the Vista. “But when we’re able to advertise and show people and other destinations what Columbia has to offer, I think it really makes people second guess.”
A group leading the effort to make people consider Columbia a destination is Experience Columbia, also known as Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism, a nonprofit dedicated to marketing Columbia as a destination for tourism. Experience Columbia consists of nine members, with five representing the city of Columbia, two representing Lexington County and two representing Richland County.
Marketing funds, in part, come from the nonprofit’s Destination Marketing Program, which has hotels collect a 2% fee from guests, in addition to the South Carolina state sales tax, when the guests check out. Hotels, which decide individually to participate in the program, turn the money raised over to Experience Columbia but get 40% of those funds back for specifically marketing their property. The only stipulation is that the money has to be used outside of a 50-mile radius from Columbia.
Experience Columbia “want us to benefit just as much as they benefit,” said Marcus Munse, co-owner of Hotel Trundle, which opened in April. “The idea is that we all win. It’s not meant to restrict the progress of the properties or the city. The idea is that we’re collecting it so everyone in Columbia as a whole moves forward.”
Experience Columbia also lists all participating hotels as a “preferred hotel partner” on its website and marketing materials.
“It’s our job to not only market our hotels, but we also want to market the city of Columbia,” Erbacher said. “And we all have very strict budgets to work off of and areas of that sort, so any extra funds that we can generate to promote A, our hotel, and B, the city of Columbia, is to me, a positive any way you look at it.”
Bill Ellen, president and CEO of Experience Columbia, said the seven-year-old Destination Marketing Program has raised about $1 million per year, all of which goes toward marketing. The program currently has 23 participating hotels.
“It allows these hotels, particularly the smaller hotels that don’t have huge advertising (and) marketing budgets, it allows them to get a lot more bang for their buck than they could,” he said. “They couldn’t go out, a lot of them, or wouldn’t budget to go out and purchase a billboard. But we purchase 15 billboards and we get them at a much better price than somebody could go and purchase one.”
Rita Patel, who co-owns Hotel Trundle with husband Munse, said the program has especially helped the Taylor Street property get off the ground.
“The redistribution of the marketing dollars that we’re able to spend is very helpful,” she said. “We were able to turn that back into an ad in the visitor’s guide, and having been a new property, it helps with our marketing budget to kind of lighten that cash load.”
Ellen said it also gives the region a boost when competing for tourism in the state.
“We’re very proud of it,” Ellen said. “It’s allowed us to market. Our funding in Columbia is somewhat limited compared to our competitors. Our budget is much, much less than the other destinations in the state, so it has allowed us to compete with them much better than we would without this program.”
Ellen said the program was modeled after similar ones in Charleston, Greenville, Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach. “We modeled it originally after Greenville’s since we kind of compare better with Greenville than we do the coastal resorts, obviously,” he said.
Hotel guests can opt out of paying the fee, listed separately on guests’ bills, if they request, but that practice is uncommon, Ellen said. Erbacher said since the Hyatt Place opened in 2015, only two guests and one company hosting an event at the hotel declined to pay the fee.
Erbacher said he believes being part of the program gives him an advantage over hotels that don’t participate.
“If you look at a hotel that’s a select service of the same budget structure, (we have) the opportunity to advertise to meeting planners and the opportunity to advertise to other destinations,” he said.
Erbacher said some hotels oppose the restrictions that Experience Columbia puts into place, such as the 50-mile radius requirment, but Erbacher doesn’t see that as a drawback.
“It kind of defeats the purpose of a destination marketing program if we do all our advertising in Columbia, because we’re trying to market people outside of Columbia to draw them in,” he said.
Munse said he doesn’t understand why every hotel in Columbia hasn’t joined the program.
“It’s not like we’re putting (up) our own money, and if the guest says, ‘I don’t want to pay that,’ — it’s fine, you just take it off,” he said. “We collect what we can to help the city out, because we don’t have as many dollars as the four other (destination) cities in South Carolina, and so we kind of need everything we can get to help market.”
List of participating Columbia-area hotels:
Aloft Columbia Downtown
Columbia Marriott Hotel
Courtyard by Marriott Columbia Downtown at USC
Embassy Suites Columbia – Greystone
Hampton Inn Downtown Historic District
Hilton Columbia Center
Homewood Suites by Hilton
Hyatt Place Columbia/Downtown/Vista
Inn at USC Wyndham Garden Columbia
Springhill Suites by Marriott Columbia Downtown/The Vista
Towneplace Suites by Marriott Columbia SE/Fort Jackson
Aloft Columbia Harbison
Columbia Doubletree by Hilton
Fairfield Inn by Marriott Columbia Northwest/Harbison
Hilton Garden Inn Columbia/Harbison
Hyatt Place Columbia/Harbison
Tru by Hilton Harbison Columbia
Wingate by Wyndham Lexington/Columbia
Fairfield Inn & Suites Columbia Northeast
Courtyard by Marriott Cayce
Hampton Inn Columbia I-26 Airport
Holiday Inn & Suites Columbia Airport
This story first appeared in the Nov. 5 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.l