What was the most surprising finding in your African-American tourism research?
I was surprised and disappointed at the level of fear of racial discrimination. I wasn’t expecting that [since] the removal of the flag. I have been here seven years now, and I’m always saying to people outside the state, ‘It’s not as bad as you think.’ We don’t have the best image in South Carolina. But perception is reality, so some people don’t come here. I kind of assumed that with the flag coming down, surely African-Americans would perceive it as a safe place to travel. And yet 50 percent of those who haven’t been here said that they would fear racial discrimination — even 40 percent of those who’ve already been here felt that way.
Still, your study did find that South Carolina gets a larger number of African-American tourists than many states, correct?
I was surprised at the numbers of African-Americans that we do get traveling to South Carolina. It’s a lot higher than people thought. For most states, it’s about 5 percent of their tourism arrivals and for us it’s 12 percent. But it could be a lot higher, given that 50 percent of African-Americans have their roots in South Carolina.
So does the state have the product to draw African-American visitors?
We were looking at two things in this study: African-American tourists themselves and African-American tourism, which we considered as the array of African-American cultural sites and attractions in South Carolina. And that second part could be for people of any race. And it’s not just African-Americans who are interested in that type of product. But what we found is despite South Carolina’s very unique, very rich history and culture, there is very low awareness of our cultural attractions.
Also we’ve done a very poor job of displaying our heritage. Most of the sites that we went to and visited were rundown and poorly funded with very little interpretation. But there’s a lot of opportunity and the African-American museum in Charleston will be open in 2019, which will give us something to focus on.
Let’s talk a little bit about the retiree study. It seems the state has had sort of a love-hate relationship with retirees; it wants their money but not their illnesses. What do you see is the biggest stumbling block to getting retirees here?
I think it’s changing the mindset of decision-makers and policy-makers because one thing we know from research over the last decade or so is today’s retirees are very different from retirees of the past. Today’s retirees are active. Today’s retirees want to continue their education. They want to volunteer. They want to put back into the community. They want to start businesses. They want to be switched on. They’re connected; they’re on Facebook every day. They’ve got healthy lifestyles. They are bringing money when they come in. In fact, I don’t think we should even use the word ‘retiree’ these days. It’s a new stage of life. These people are not just looking to put their feet up, and they’re not going to be a drain on resources.
So what does South Carolina have to sell to retirees?
What I am seeing is a move toward place branding to attract all segments – workers, tourists and retirees. Taking a place and saying, ‘Well let’s promote ourselves as a place to work, live and play.’ A few years ago our center was asked to do the research behind a new brand for Bluffton, just outside Hilton Head. They didn’t want a tourism brand, they didn’t want a retiree brand, they didn’t want an economic development brand, they said, ‘We want a brand for our town that will attract everybody.’ You’re promoting a lifestyle, and so I think there’s an opportunity for us in South Carolina to promote the state to everybody — including more retirees.
So who is South Carolina likely to attract as a retiree?
Retirees are going to move for a certain lifestyle. We found that people who had been on holiday here were significantly more likely to retire to South Carolina. The more they come here as a tourist, the more likely they are to retire here. So we could spend more effort and resources converting tourists into retirees.
What kind of role does the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management play in creating the entrepreneurs who will create new products?
I was brought in to make a difference. The SmartState centers were formed to build a knowledge-based economy. It was a very smart move to create these research centers not just to conduct research but also to help our economy. So in addition to the research, we also fund three businesses in the USC incubator under the tourism-hospitality umbrella, and we’ve had a lot of success. In the future, I would love to set up an incubator for African-American entrepreneurs to start businesses catering to tourists desiring the African-American cultural experience. In terms of our students, we are finding an increasing number of them staying in South Carolina because it’s a great place to live and work and the cost of living is favorable. Hopefully, some of them will start new businesses and create new product for the tourism industry.