Jennifer Stilwell is quick to point out to those who are mistaken that #yeahTHATgreenville is more than just a creative hashtag used on social media.
Stilwell, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for VisitGreenvilleSC, came to Greenville at a time when #yeahTHATgreenville wasn’t even a forethought among the travel and tourism industry in South Carolina, or even in Greenville itself.
During the five years since its inception, the brand #yeahTHATgreenville has grown. It generated more than 295.7 million shared media impressions in 2016 alone. On top of that, with more than 500,000 posts on Instagram, #yeahTHATgreenville is the most used hashtag in Greenville.
But Stilwell said it’s not just a hashtag and it not just a campaign that will run its course — it is a brand. And, she said it’s not just a brand for out-of-towners to use when they visit, it’s a community brand.
“It’s going to live in perpetuity,” Stilwell said. “It is being included in the conversation everywhere.”
Five years ago, Greenville was not at the top of anyone’s list of places to visit. Especially when you are competing with a nearby mountain resort in Asheville, N.C. and the coastal beauty that is Charleston. But, the transformation of Greenville into a tourist destination only started recently when VisitGreenvilleSC was created out of the traditional convention and visitors bureau.
Getting the leisure traffic
Stilwell said it was 2012-2013 when VisitGreenvilleSC started to switch gears only slightly and start marketing to a leisure clientele whereas before the city relied heavily on group sales, or conventions and large meetings, to drive visitor revenue.
What has happened as a result can only be described as awestriking.
In 2016, Greenville experienced its highest hotel occupancy rate ever at 73%. To put that in perspective, the average in the state was 64% and in the Southeast it was 65%. Going a step farther, in 2011 the weekday — mostly from conventions and large meetings — occupancy rate for hotels in Greenville was 61% but, in 2016, that rate was 73%.
Weekend hotel occupancy was at around 59% in 2011, meaning even fewer leisure travelers were staying in Greenville at the time. In just five years, that transformed to 74% occupancy.
“When you look at the traveling population in the U.S., 76% is in the leisure market and we wanted to make sure we got our fair share of that market,” Stilwell said. “When we started, hoteliers told us they desperately needed weekend business and that business is usually leisure business.”
Of course, more visitors to Greenville means more green for hotels, local and state governments and VisitGreenvilleSC. By adding in the leisure visitor, the city and state picked up $67.7 million in state and local taxes as visitors generated nearly $1.14 billion in direct spending in 2016.
Greenville’s hotel revenue per available room shot up 71% in 2016 — well over the state (46%), regional (20%) and national (33%) averages. The $72 revpar, or revenue per available room, was lower than Asheville or Charleston but at or above that of Atlanta, Columbia, Louisville, Myrtle Beach and Raleigh-Durham.
“It’s crazy because we aren’t a beach product, a mountain product or even a golf product,” Stilwell said.
She said a lot of that success can be traced back to #yeahTHATgreenville.
Since the inception of the brand, accommodation tax revenue has grown from $3.26 million in 2011 to $5.15 million in 2015, a 58% increase. Greenville’s hospitality tax revenue has jumped from $6.66 million in 2011 to $9.26 million in 2015, a 39% increase.
“It’s really simple, if we are not in the consideration set, people are not coming to Greenville,” Stilwell said.
The sports factor
Even with the jump in leisure traffic, the foot has not been taken off the gas in the convention and meeting business. In fact, fresh off of hosting the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Championship and the first and second rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Greenville was recently selected to host a regional for the 2020 Division I women’s tournament and be one of the sites for the first and second rounds of the Division I men’s tournament in 2022.
“We are super excited,” said Robin Wright, senior sales manager for VisitGreenvilleSC. “We just hosted in 2017 and we are hosting again and we got a women’s tournament … this is great news.
“It shows coming off 2017 and the hard work that went into that … why not Greenville right?”
Following the NCAA’s decision to pull seven 2016 and 2017 championships out of North Carolina after that state’s General Assembly enacted legislation the NCAA said violated its “values of inclusion and gender equity,” Greenville was awarded the 2017 first and second rounds of the men’s tournament that were initially scheduled for Greensboro.
VisitGreenvilleSC officials said the tournament — which was hosted on the heels of Greenville hosting the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament in March — was a resounding success. Wright said the tournament yielded $3.75 million in direct spending, 6,300 room-nights and was the first site to sell out of tickets (42,000).
Wright said initial projections for the 2020 women’s regional is for 16,000 tickets sold over two sessions, 4,100 room-nights and $2.2 million in estimated direct spending.
The next steps
While the success is well-noted, VisitGreenvilleSC campaigns to visitors from afar with a limited media budget. It’s paid media budget of just over $2 million per year pales in comparison to Asheville’s $9 million.
Stilwell said it’s not about getting more money, it’s about being smart with where to spend the money they have.
“We have to know where to get the message out and we have to select the right media in the right markets to get that message out,” Stilwell said.
And because ad buys in markets like Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. are a bit out of reach for VisitGreenvilleSC, the #yeahTHATgreenville brand has become more essential as a marketing tool.
“The game has changed,” Stilwell said. “Now you have the whole world at your fingertips. We aren’t just interested in spending as much as our competition but, it does come down to share of voice.”
With a growing supply of hotel rooms — a 49% increase in just downtown hotel rooms from 2015 to 2016 and a projected 145% increase in rooms by 2019 — Stilwell said they can ill-afford to just sit on the laurels of recent success.
“I believe, and I see what we have done, that we can keep growing our resources,” Stilwell said. “We have to look at everything we can do to drive demand.
“It’s a constant quest. A constant goal to do better.”