Tourism growing in Richland, Lexington counties

jwilkinson@thestate.comDecember 1, 2013 

Crowds gather at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

— Fewer people attended events at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in fiscal year 2012-2013 than in the four previous years, but they stayed longer in the Columbia area and spent more money in Richland and Lexington counties.

Also, the number of events booked in venues across Richland and Lexington counties by the Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports and Tourism hit a five-year high of 563 in 2012-2013.

And people attending events booked by the authority at venues other than the convention center rose to 121,000 from 80,000 who attended events here in 2008-2009.

Those figures, coupled with other statistics compiled by the authority over the past five years, show that Richland and Lexington counties are growing as a location for conventions, said authority chief executive Ric Luber.

“Columbia is becoming more widely known as a destination,” he said.

Helping with that is the growth of the Vista and Main Street as places to shop, dine and have fun – things that conventioneers want to do when attending meetings. And recent gains are getting media attention.

•  Columbia’s Main Street, which is undergoing a renaissance with historic buildings being renovated, stores opening and 10 new restaurants recently opened or announced, is featured in December’s national edition of Southern Living magazine. The magazine’s The Daily South website also highlighted the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art.

•  This month’s edition of Men’s Journal magazine has a story on Columbia as “The South’s Secret Adventure Town,” for its opportunities for paddling, biking and hiking.

•  And The Charlotte Observer in October highlighted winter events here such as Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo, shopping at Mast General Store and the Famously Hot New Year celebration.

“Our business sectors are thriving, so there’s an uptick of eyes on Columbia,” authority marketing director Kelly Barbery said.

And the numbers show that conventions booked by the authority in venues across the two counties are up.

In 2008-2009, 80,844 people attended 547 events. In 2011-2012, 121,000 people attended 563 events. The money those attendees spent also grew, to $25.64 million in 2012-2013 from $1.66 million in 2008-2009.

Although the number of people attending events at the convention center was down to 127,000 last year from 147,107 in 2011-2012, sales at the convention center rose to $2.1 million from $1.99 million.

The reason, according to the authority, is that meeting planners are booking more multiple-day conventions.

“We’ve been able to grow the quality of the meetings,” Barbery said. “It’s generating more money with fewer people.”

The authority’s marketing staff also is looking forward to completion of the 130-room Hyatt Place hotel a block away on Gervais Street. That will put three hotels within steps of the convention center – including the Hampton Inn and the Hilton Columbia Center – and will allow meeting planners to book bigger conventions without having to shuttle attendees.

“We’re limited with what we can attract now,” Barbery said. “This would give us another new grouping of business that we can book here.”

By the numbers

Convention tourism has grown in Richland and Lexington counties. Here are some statistics from a five-year study by the Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports and Tourism. The numbers are for conventions booked through the authority only and not other agencies. The numbers also do not include leisure travel. The years are fiscal years, which end June 30.

Conventions – attendees – economic impact

2009: 547 – 80,844 — $19.29 million

2010: 545 — 81,302 — $20.47 million

2011: 525 – 94,846 — $20.45 million

2012: 538 – 93,032 — $21.18 million

2013: 563 – 121,000 — $25.64 million

Convention center attendance – net sales

2009: 140,471 — $1.67 million

2010: 142,043 — $1.29 million

2011: 123,409 — $1.58 million

2012: 147,107 — $1.99 million

2013: 127,000 — $2.1 million

SOURCE: Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports and Tourism

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