Editor’s note: Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston, is responding to an opinion column published Friday.
While we appreciate the opinions you shared in today’s column in the City Paper, it is disheartening that we did not better inform you about the important work we are doing related to racial equality and telling our region’s authentic story. Right now more than ever it is critical that we listen, especially to the black members of our industry and community. It will only be through awareness, education, compassion and true empathy that we will move forward and make Charleston an even better place to live and work. In your opinion piece, you addressed three important issues. You can check items one and two off the list. And we can talk more on item three.
It matters to us that you have a better understanding of our efforts to fully and completely share the story of Charleston. Our commitment to doing the right thing is not something new, nor do we approach it reluctantly.
I’d like to provide a little more context and clarity around the issues you raised. As a destination marketing organization, the vast majority of our organizational efforts are outwardly focused. As a result, local residents seldom see or come across them. We are very aware of the importance of Charleston’s African American heritage and contributions, and how inextricably linked they are to our shared heritage. To address some of your specific points:
• We have 31 black-owned member businesses. These are businesses that depend either completely or to a great degree on tourism. Businesses that do not cater to visitors — regardless of ownership — would understandably have no reason to become members of Explore Charleston. These black-owned member businesses are included in all of our collateral material and on our website. They are also regularly included on-site visits by travel journalists (see Southern Living April issue and Town & Country December/January issue), and several of these business owners are featured on our Local Guides section of the Explore Charleston website.
• We operate an additional website entitled Voices: Stories of Change that is devoted exclusively to the African American experience in Charleston, dating from pre-Colonial times through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights to the present day. This site is hyperlinked to our main Explore Charleston website. It launched in June 2019, after an exhaustive 18-month development process and replaced an earlier and less robust site that had been in existence for 10+ years. While our Explore Charleston website is intentionally designed to encourage visitation and spending, the Voices website is meant to serve primarily as an educational tool — with the hope that opening people’s eyes and minds to the depth of our area’s African American legacy will encourage them to visit and experience it for themselves. We are continually adding new content to this site and actively encourage submissions from area residents.
• After extensive planning with a steering committee of thought leaders from a variety of industries, our Heart for Hospitality initiative formally kicked off in 2019. It is inspired by a commitment to build awareness and take action for racial equality, inclusion and engagement across the hospitality industry. The ultimate vision is to address both opportunity and income inequality and to become an industry that fully represents the community and serves as a model for others to follow. Most recently, we offered a training session on exploring the diversity of our emotions, revealing our blind spots, and determining priorities for change. The seminar is offered again to members on June 23.
There are numerous other ways we support and promote the African American experience and its importance to Charleston. You’ll be interested in the complete overhaul of the Charleston Visitor Center’s exhibits that we have overseen, especially the new virtual reality experience that brings to life the watershed 1952 civil rights decision in Briggs v. Elliott.
Our mission and ultimate responsibility are to bring visitors to Charleston as tourism is vital to the region’s economy. This means telling the entire story and sharing it with everyone.
Helen Hill is the CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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