Hicks: Bringing some diversity to the nation’s hottest travel market | Comment

Breyonna Ravenel explains how she sees Charleston and her future differently after these past 10 weeks.

A rising junior at Claflin University, the West Ashley native spent the summer at Wild Dunes as part of a management internship program created by Explore Charleston.

He has staffed the Isle of Palms resort’s front gate and front desk, helping people who come to town for an annual or once-in-a-lifetime visit to the nation’s most popular tourist destination.

“I’m experiencing it through the eyes of a tourist and it’s so different,” he says over dinner. “I’m professional, but now I’m interested in hospitality management.”

And that’s the idea.

Ravenel is among 14 people who will graduate Tuesday from Explore Charleston’s Intern Cultural Enrichment Program — created by the Convention and Visitors Bureau to diversify the city’s tourism and hospitality businesses from top down.

This is her second class, each containing more than a dozen students.

“We need more diversity in our industry leadership,” says Laurie Lynn Smith, vice president of operations at Explore Charleston.

Diversity has become a recurring theme for the city’s visitor bureau. For years, people there have worked to ensure that Charleston tourism reflects the Lowcountry’s rich African American and civil rights history, as well as our important colonial and antebellum history.

That’s smart, that’s good… and it’s also the right thing to do. And so it was. CEO Helen Hill and her staff launched the internship program with a pandemic delay last year, recruiting students mostly from historically black colleges and universities across the country.

This year’s class includes people from Georgia to California and from Chicago to the Bahamas. Ravenel is the only native.

The staff convinced a number of area businesses — including Charleston Place, Hotel Bennett, Kiawah Island — to provide paid internships that were more than just work. Some of the places have let students try their hand at accounting.

I had dinner with Ravenel and her colleagues at a regular practice gathering on Tuesday. Explore Charleston not only provides them with free housing (which is the biggest barrier to attracting out-of-town interns), but brings them together every week to socialize, network, and hear from professionals both inside and outside the industry.

Honestly, it would be hard to find a more impressive team. Hill staff say some of them have blossomed amazingly over the summer, honing their professional — and humanitarian — skills. They can even humor the middle-aged columnists with their impressions of our amazing humidity.

“It’s like an oven here — roasting you,” jokes Prince Harry II, who hails from the much more temperate California Bay Area.

A hospitality student at Virginia State University, Harris spent the summer learning what it takes to run a hotel at the Meeting Street Embassy Suites. She worked at the front desk, the office and the restaurant. The other day, he had to fix a broken ceiling tile in a room.

You know, all those things that a hotel manager has to do.

“You basically have to learn every part of the operation,” says Harris. “They don’t treat us like students. This is direct work experience.”

Trenay Hayes (left) and Kelly Nixon listen to a speaker at their weekly meeting as part of Explore Charleston’s Cultural Enrichment internship program on Aug. 2. and hospitality businesses, primarily recruiting students from historically black colleges and universities. Brian Hicks/staff

Kelly Nixon, a rising senior at Benedict College, worked all summer in marketing at the Hilton Garden Inn Waterfront. She raves about the friendliness of the locals and says Charleston reminds her of home in the Bahamas — both the architecture and the baskets of sweet greens.

But the real draw is the work.

“Some of my classmates couldn’t get an internship, much less an internship,” says Nixon. “It gave me a chance to meet people and connect.”

That’s exactly what Chicagoan Trenay Hayes of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has to say about working at Charleston Place. Hayes already had a degree in hospitality management, but, like many students, wasn’t sure it was really what she wanted to do – until she actually did.

Now, after 10 weeks of meeting tourists and all those locals who frequent the Thoroughbred Club, she’s sure this is the field for her.

That’s the value of what Explore Charleston does. Ten weeks can change a person’s perspective, maybe even set them on a new path. Already, one of last year’s interns has returned to Charleston for a full-time job.

And that, after all, is the idea. There is a lot of untapped talent out there and Charleston needs to attract more of these people. It’s good for business, it’s good for our city’s biggest industry.

And this is a good place for young talent to land. Humidity and all.

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