A tourism lobbying group whose former president committed suicide earlier this year is changing its name. The South Carolina Hospitality Association will now be known as the South Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association.
The group also named its new president Thursday: former SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism director John Durst. Durst led the agency under former Gov. Jim Hodges until 2002. He comes to SCRLA from his previous job as an executive with a public relations firm.
Durst replaces the Hospitality Association’s previous president Tom Sponseller, who Columbia Police say committed suicide shortly after learning that one of his employees had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the group. That employee, Rachel Duncan, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in August.
Sponseller was the first president of the Hospitality Association, which was created when the state’s restaurant and hotel trade groups combined in 1993.
“Coming in so far, there haven’t been any surprises,” Durst told South Carolina Radio Network, “In fact, if anything I’m more optimistic and encouraged about the future because of the commitment, excitement, energy, and dedication that not just the staff, but the entire board has.”
Durst said the name change reflects a reality that, while tourism is a priority, most of SCRLA’s businesses are restaurants and hotels. “We felt that was more reflective of the membership… It is restaurateurs and people in the lodging industry that make up this trade association.”
Durst was born in Georgia, but has lived in South Carolina for more than 50 years. He is a Furman University graduate. and has previously served as the Chairman of the Board for the Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports, and Tourism.