CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Charleston is a hot-spot for tourism, and as the weather heats up, hotels fill up. But how closely do you – or your friends and family visiting– look at hotel bills when you travel?
Have you ever noticed a charge for a "destination fee?"
A tourist complained to Live 5 about being charged per night for a fee he says was hidden among tax charges.
"The bill has the guest room fee, state tax and city tax, and I thought okay, those are legitimate fees. An accommodation tax, that's real common. Then I saw this CACVB fee and thought, what is that?" questioned Louis Wilen, who is from
Maryland. He and his wife were visiting Charleston on a road trip in March.
They were charged $2.16 for each night of his hotel stay for a Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau fee.
"If a hotel wants to charge a fee, they need to be upfront about it. And they need to be upfront about what it's for," Wilen said.
DESTINATION FEES IN S.C.
Destination fee programs in South Carolina collect money for tourism-related marketing.
For every two dollars of private money a visitor's bureau raises, they can get a dollar of state money through the Destination-Specific Tourism Marketing gr ant. https://www.script.com/tourism/grants/destination-specific-tourism-marketing-grant
The money is used for things such as advertising and promotions to attract more tourists to destination cities in the state.
In Charleston, the CACVB raises money partly through the "dollar per room" program in partner hotels that choose to participate.
But Louis' bill clearly showed he was charged two dollars per night plus tax for the destination fee.
In an email, CACVB Deputy Director Perrin Lawson said they are in the process of increasing the Charleston destination fee from $1 to $2.
We called around to local hotels. Some hotels are already charging more; others are not. They all said the charge shows up automatically on every guest's bill.
"If choose to participate in the Charleston Visitor's bureau marketing program, that funding is something that needs to come from the hotel's revenue, not from guests," Wilen said.
TAX VS. FEE
Charleston Attorney John Harrell double checked our state's Innkeepers and Hotel law.
We also spoke to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and Charleston County.
They confirmed there's nothing in the law that says hotels can pass fees on to guests. But there's also nothing that says they can't.
"They certainly can tell them," Harrell said. "And it's only a dollar per night, and they should tell them. But they don't have to tell them. They're not breaking the law by not telling them."
Harrell says the key word is "fee."
Taxes can only be levied by the government and used by the government. A fee is different. Harrell says it's an agreement between two private parties. "In this case, hotels and the visitor's bureau… It's the free market system."
"Hotels can charge almost anything that they want to. They can charge a fee for having a television in your room. They can charge a fee for the use of towels. Our laws are silent on that, which means they can be silent, too," Harrell said.
Interestingly, we found out you don't have to pay some hotel fees, including the destination fee.
The CACVB said the fee is not mandatory. "All a guest has to say is that he or she does not want to pay it, and it will be removed," Lawson said.
Wilen doesn't believe that's enough transparency to guests. He says there was no signage at the hotel or any indication on the bill that the fee was optional. "Whoever heard of a fee that is put on but you don't have to pay it?" he questioned.
Wilen repeatedly said his complaint had nothing to do with the amount of money but rather his concern that most guests would overlook the fee. He stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites in West Ashely. He submitted his concerns to management.
In an email, a hotel employee told him they stood by the charge being correct but wanted him to be a happy customer and offered a full refund for his stay.
Wilen said he has no problem with the hotel itself. He would like to see a change in state law requiring hotels to explain these fees to guests before they book a room.
The General Manager of the hotel told Live 5 they didn't feel the need to comment on the situation beyond what information the CACVB provided.
MORE ABOUT THE STATE GRANT
Lawson said destination fees are popular. Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville have similar programs in South Carolina. He said the difference is that Columbia and Greenville charge 2% of the room rate rather than a flat
dollar amount like they do in Charleston.
The fees are also common across the country in Dallas, Portland, San Diego, New Orleans, Vail, San Francisco, Memphis, Nashville, Orlando and New York, said Lawson.
"Maybe that's a bit of taxes we don't have to pay," said Harrell. "This marketing effort brings more tourists to our town which brings more dollars to our town."
Charleston's destination fee program has been around since 2007. About 70 hotels currently participate. In exchange, they received exposure such as through the CACVB website and at the Santee Welcome Center.
The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism provided a breakdown of allocation of the destination-specific gr ants since 2012. The gr ant allocation was $12,000,000 per year from 2012 to 2015. The last two gr ant allocations were
$14,000,000 per year, which means the awarded groups raised $24,000,000 in private funds.
SCPRT Director Duane Parrish explained that he decides on gr ant allocation partially based on how much accommodation tax each applicant brings into the state. Not every city's marketing group gets the same amount. The Myrtle Beach Chamber
of Commerce is consistently at the top of gr ant recipients, Charleston's CACVB is second, followed by Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville's respective organizations.
Parrish emphasized that the groups are required to outline how they'll use the money and must raise private funds to get the match gr ant of $.50 on the dollar. He said the groups are not required to use hotel fees but many have created
He said the process prevents city residents from having to pay even more for tourism-related marketing.
Wilen's complaint is similar to objections some consumer groups have made for years about resort fees.
In some cases, hotels advertise a low room price, only for guests to find out once they check in that they owe a per-day resort fee to use any or some amenities at the hotel.
While destination fees are different, and generally much smaller, Lauren Wolfe, creator of Kill Resort Fees, said "it is yet another fee tourists should have included in the price of a hotel."
Her website reports that the average resort fee in 2015 was $24.93 according to a study by Travelers United.
"The entire price of the hotel including fees should be included in the advertised price of the hotel. It's as simple as that!" Wolfe said.
She worries about guests and hotel employees fully understanding fees, especially if they aren't mandatory. "We have many reports of hotel clerks telling guests resort fees are a tax when they absolutely are not. The problem with all of
these additional hotel fees is that tourists feel cheated after staying in these hotels. If the hotels would simply advertise their real rate, everyone would feel good about the situation."
Wolfe suggests refusing to pay the fees or disputing the charge to your credit card company.
"Hotels charge these 'buried' fees and that they'll continue to charge them unless consumers question them and fight back," said Wilen.