A revitalized downtown, more hotels, a growing brewery and restaurant scene, and yes, Tim Tebow have Columbia on a tourism roll.
The number of events held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center were up 23 percent in the first five months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016, according to the city’s tourism authority. And events booked by the authority during that period for future dates are up 14 percent.
Also, occupancy at downtown hotels rose to 77 percent, compared with 70 percent statewide, and downtown room rates rose to about $140 a night, according to the authority.
“We’ve been able to ramp up our marketing, both regionally and nationally,” said Jason Outman, executive director of the authority, which is now called Experience Columbia S.C.
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Tourism officials point to a number of factors that are driving visitor growth.
The former University of Florida Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, now left fielder for Columbia’s Class A professional baseball team, the Fireflies, has been packing Spirit Communications Park. Through 31 dates, attendance for the second-year team is up 23 percent over last year, averaging 5,261 fans a game.
Team officials can’t quantify how many people are coming to town to see Tebow specifically, but anecdotally they know fans are coming.
“We have had people from Indiana, Florida, Georgia who said they came to see him,” said team president John Katz. “One couple from outside of Rome, Ga., have come to six games and sat in the same seats.”
Also, Outman said Tebow has provided a load of free advertising for the capital city. Every time there is a national story about him, Columbia gets some attention, and it’s usually positive.
“If he hits a home run, ESPN is tweeting about it” and mentioning Columbia, he said. “You can’t buy marketing like that.”
While Five Points and the Vista have long been established as destinations for tourists, Main Street is emerging as a new draw.
Tourism officials also pointed to the growing number of drinking and dining options on the revitalized street, particularly Lula Drake’s wine bar, the Main Street Public House and Bourbon restaurants, among others as boosting visitor interest.
“And we can’t wait for the bowling alley,” Outman said.
A 1,300-square-foot bowling alley is planned for the 1600 block of Main Street.
Tourism officials noted that unlike some other cities, Columbia is easy to navigate, without high parking rates and prices.
“We’re still unmanageably urban,” authority communications director Andrea Mensink said. “Restaurants are affordable and you don’t need reservations.”
She added there is an “unexpectedness” that people, especially convention planners, have when they come here for the first time.
“The friendliness they experience is real,” Outman said. “We’re genuine.”
In the Vista, the emergence of the Aloft and Hyatt Place hotels are giving visitors more options. Aloft, described as a boutique hotel, opened in February with 107 rooms at the corner of Lady and Lincoln streets. The Hyatt Place on Gervais Street opened in 2015.
“Aloft hotels have a following,” Outman said. “When you’ve got an Aloft coming online, there’s a following for that.”
Hotelier Rick Patel is converting the old Clarion Hotel property on Gervais Street in the Vista into two side-by-hotels – a Hilton Garden Inn that’s being built from the ground up and a Homewood Suites 2 that will locate in the former Clarion building.
One thing that is missing, tourism officials say, is a full service convention center hotel, and an expanded convention center. While the numbers of people coming to and booking the center are rising, center managers are having to carefully stage and roll out each and every meeting.
“We have more and more people who want come,” Mensink said. “So we have to look at the building like a puzzle” in terms of booking conventions and meetings.
Ashleigh Pair Conner, the convention center’s director of events, added: “We’re always at capacity. We need more space. We’re maxed out.”
Hotel occupancy for downtown Columbia
- YTD: 77.0%
- 2016: 74.7%
- 2015: 72.0%
- 2014: 70.9%
- 2013: 68.4%
Average daily hotel rate for downtown Columbia
- YTD: $147.13
- 2016: $141.33
- 2015: $134.11
- 2014: $128.68
- 2013: $122.20
Events held at the Columbia convention center
- YTD: 241
- 2016: 532
- 2015: 556
- 2014: 511
- 2013: 497
- 2012: 493