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Staff //April 6, 2020//


Staff //April 6, 2020//

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Bulldog Tours has been unable to offer in-person tours of Charleston over the last few weeks, so tour guides have transitioned to offering online video tours of Lowcountry sites. (Photo/Provided)

John LaVerne was about a week away from starting Bulldog Tours when terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Against advice that tourism would be a defunct industry for the foreseeable future, LaVerne forged ahead and started his company anyway, adapting and growing Bulldog Tours over the past two decades.

LaVerne says he sees similarities between the aftermath of 9/11, the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic, and he’s sure that Bulldog — and the larger Charleston tourism economy — can pull through.

“We just focus on giving quality tours and, you know, Charleston has done an incredible job of getting great accolades from media from all over the world,” he said. “And I think Charleston’s in the sight of a much larger audience now than ever before.”

While people have been stuck indoors, unable to travel to Charleston and gather in groups, tour guides from Bulldog have volunteered to provide video tours of different parts of Charleston.

Every day, a tour guide records a live video on Bulldog’s Facebook page highlighting a different area of the Lowcountry.

LaVerne said the majority of the company’s 55 tour guides volunteered.

“The tour guides love having something to share,” he said. “This is what we do professionally is showcase Charleston. So now that we can’t do it because of the virus in our typical format, they still love sharing the stories. It’s just a different medium.”

LaVerne said the virtual tours have also been a success with the local and global community. The videos have received over 50,000 views over the past two weeks.

The tour guides have been selective about the sites they’re showcasing in order to avoid being in crowds, which LaVerne said has led to telling stories about locations that may be off the beaten path.

“We’re being able to share some stories in some places that the typical visitor may not have time to see when they’re in Charleston,” he said, such as Hampton Park, Fort Lamar on James Island and pirate stories from Sullivan’s Island.

“Just things like that, that aren’t typical of perhaps an average walking tour, bus tour, carriage tour, whatever,” Laverne said. “We’re going to some unique locations because we all want to be safe and make sure that we’re not around a bunch of people.”

Social distancing has been the primary preventive measure that tour guides have been implementing when they’re out shooting videos.

“That’s all we can do,” LaVerne said. “Keep your hands clean, don’t touch your face, keep lots of distance between each other.”

LaVerne said he knows April will be “a complete wash” in terms of tourism in the Holy City, but he sees May as a potential turning point.

“Whether it’s early May, mid-May or late May, I guess only time will tell,” he said. “But there will be a point … where we cross the danger line and kind of flatten the curve enough that eventually people are going to have confidence in traveling.”

LaVerne said tourism will probably look a little different initially, with people erring on the side of caution and opting for private or smaller tour groups.

“I can’t envision people willing to be in a cramped situation where there’s, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of people all together, shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “I think people are going to be initially wanting to maintain some space to protect themselves and their family.”

Eventually, though, LaVerne said consumer confidence will return and “rebound travel numbers are going to be incredible.”

“I think everybody will have cabin fever and want to go see someplace different and get away from home,” he said.

LaVerne said he expects Charleston will also benefit from so many visitors being able to come by car.

“The air service is great, certainly, to have people flying to Charleston, but there’s a lot of people just a few hours away that want to come to Charleston for a weekend getaway or a family vacation at the beach, things like that,” he said. “And we’ve very fortunate for that. And that I think will be our bread and butter once tourism does resume after the virus.”