Former S.C. tourism department director tapped as new president of state hospitality association

dbryant@thesunnews.comOctober 31, 2012 

The state hospitality association, aiming to recover from an embezzlement by its former accountant and the suicide of its longtime CEO, has overhauled its structure, changed its name and will announce Thursday a familiar face in South Carolina tourism circles as its new president.

John Durst, who served as director of the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism department from October 2000 to early 2003, will be announced Thursday as the new president and CEO of the hospitality group that now will be known as the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

He brings “stability, credibility and knowledge of the industry,” said David McMillan of Drunken Jack’s restaurant in Murrells Inlet, who will serve as the group’s new chairman of the board of directors. “He has a lot of experience and knows a lot about tourism in South Carolina.”

Durst said on Wednesday he would be at the news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in Columbia, but declined to comment about his new job.

The association, which has about 1,400 members, has revamped during the last eight months aiming to recover from scandal that rocked its core during the spring. The association’s former accountant, Rachel Duncan, admitted to stealing from the group beginning in 2006 and through early 2012, and was sentenced earlier this year to 30 months in prison. After learning in February that Duncan was being investigated for the stolen money – which added up to nearly $500,000 – the association’s longtime CEO, Tom Sponseller, shot and killed himself.

“The rebranding was necessary to happen,” said Suzanne Hinde, general manager of the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel who will serve as the group’s new treasurer. “We are starting new. There is going to be some new direction...We just needed to redefine ourselves. The association will emerge stronger.”

In addition to McMillan and Hinde, Bob Barenberg of Kingston Plantation in the Myrtle Beach area will serve as an executive committee member, as will former Myrtle Beach business leader Susan Cohen, who now works with Charlestowne Hotels in Charleston, which manages several properties along the Grand Strand including Springmaid Beach Resort, Litchfield Inn and Surfside Beach Resort. Several other Grand Strand leaders are serving on the board of directors.

The association’s leaders have tried to position the group to move forward, including “putting the proper controls in place,” McMillan said. The association has been the voice of the state’s hospitality industry for 16 years, formed when the S.C. Restaurant Association and the S.C. Hotel and Motel Association decided to join forces and incorporated the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.

Those two groups never officially merged, though, as was approved in October 2009, so the board recently voted to merge the restaurant and lodging associations into the revamped hospitality association now known as the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, according to the association’s October newsletter.

With the merger, the group will now have one set of financials instead of maintaining three separate sets of financials for the restaurant association, hotel and motel association and state hospitality association, according to the newsletter. It also will have one board of directors instead of one divided into the two segments. Stronger board supervision also is planned requiring a Financial Oversight Committee, Audit Committee and a more clearly defined executive committee, according to the newsletter.

“I feel really positive about it,” McMillan said. “Put the past behind us and move forward.”

The association will continue to serve as the voice of the state’s hospitality industry, lobby for the industry at the State House, provide training and educational programs and keep track of federal and state issues that might affect tourism. Tourism is a $15 billion industry in South Carolina, anchored by the Grand Strand and the coast.

“We always need an eye on stuff that we don’t see on the local level that they see brewing on the state level,” Hinde said. “It’s going to come out a bigger and better organization that is looking out for and promoting tourism.”

Durst will travel the state meeting with hospitality leaders, McMillan said, adding that a focus will be “letting our members know we are still here and going strong.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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