|By LaTina Emerson, The Augusta Chronicle,
Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 25, 2011--While many sectors struggled throughout the economic downturn, Augusta's tourism industry was booming.
Last year, visitors to Augusta spent more than $407 million, up 8.1 percent from visitor spending in 2009, according to data released by the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Equaling nearly $12.3 million in local tax collections, visitor expenditures include spending on transportation, food and beverage, lodging, retail trade and entertainment.
Augusta's tourism industry has grown over the last 10 years, with Richmond County now ranking third in the state behind metro Atlanta and Savannah, said Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Visitor spending brought in $296 million in 2002 and the figures increased until the decline from 2008 to 2009, during the recession, White said.
"We have not seen the declines that many places have seen. We've been very fortunate," he said.
Augusta is on track to do as well, if not better, in 2011, said Peggy Seigler, the vice president of sales and marketing for the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Our indicators are the hotel/motel tax collections. Those are up at this point this year over this point last year," Seigler said.
During the recession, many cities experienced declines in tourism, including significant drops in hotel revenue and occupancy as consumers cut back on business and leisure travel, White said. Augusta's tourism industry remained steady because of the city's stable, local economy. Business travel associated with the medical, military and nuclear industries has been strong.
Several new hotels, built since 2002, have contributed to the growth of tourism in Augusta. The city has been successful in attracting guests to stay in these hotels, White said.
"Also, we are a heavy drive-in market, and we're an affordable second tier city in the Southeast, which from a business and convention meetings aspect makes us attractive," White said.
An affordable, leisure destination, Augusta's sports and hobby events, such as the Ironman ESi and Boshears Skyfest, are big draws as people keep these activities in their budgets. Augusta also has a strong family reunion business, White said.
In neighboring Columbia County, tourism has grown steadily over the past decade, said Beda Johnson, the executive director of the Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2010, Columbia County brought in $124.13 million in visitor spending, a 9.6 percent increase over last year.
ALSO, COLUMBIA COUNTY moved up from 25th to 24th place in a statewide ranking of visitor spending by county, Johnson said.
"We're very excited about our percentage of increase this year. That was very good news for us," Johnson said.
She said that Columbia County has been successful "because the market is not destination specific."
"Savannah and Atlanta both had difficulty when people stopped spending their discretionary income on travel because so much of their hotel and hospitality industry is dependent on the leisure traveler and people making decisions to go on group tours," Johnson said. "Whereas, the folks here in Augusta and Richmond County depend a little bit more on the independent business traveler and also sports and groups."
In addition, Columbia County has a variety of midscale, economy hotels to offer, as opposed to higher end hotels, which are popular with independent business travelers and passer-by travelers that are looking for a place to spend the night, Johnson said.
"I think people choose to stay here because it's convenient and there's less traffic than maybe some of the larger metropolitan areas. It's cheaper to stay here, have meetings here and to do business here than it is in other parts of the state," she said.
Tourism in other Georgia cities, such as Macon and Columbus, had similar trends as Augusta, growing until 2009, according to data from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
REGIONALLY TOO, OTHER CITIES had positive results during the recession and the following years. Knoxville, Tenn., fared well, mostly because of its ability to maintain a solid booking pace during that time, said Kim Bumpas, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp.
"We are currently seeing double percent increases over the last six months in occupancy and when you add that with our ability to maintain a balanced booking schedule, the tourism industry in Knoxville will continue in a position of strength," Bumpas said.
A major tourist destination, Savannah had its best year on record in 2010, based on hotel and motel tax collections, said Joseph Marinelli, the president of the Savannah Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Savannah's visitor spending reached $1.7 billion, he said.
"In 2011, we are on pace to set a new, all-time record for the city," Marinelli said. "The sluggish economy has made drive-market travel, or what we call rubber-tire tourists, more popular than ever before. People prefer to drive to their destination, versus fly."
He also attributes the city's success to the "explosion of online marketing," which has helped to shorten people's decision time for planning travels and allows them to make more spur-of-the-moment decisions.
In the city of Columbia and Richland and Lexington counties, tourism is a $1 billion industry. Roughly three million tourists visit Columbia and surrounding areas every year, and the industry directly employs 65,000 people, said Ric Luber, the president and CEO of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.
Tourism is the largest industry in South Carolina, and Luber said he expects to see higher visitor spending figures when 2011 data are released.
"Our goal is to reach $1.25 billion in visitor spending in fiscal year 2011 to 2012. Just like everybody in the last couple years, we've been impacted by the economy to a certain extent, but we weren't impacted like a lot of destinations, especially the resort destinations," Luber said.
The tourism industry in Columbia produced slightly over $1 billion in visitor spending in fiscal year 2007 to 2008. The recession caused visitor spending numbers to dip to approximately $980 million. Last year, the area saw the number rise to the $1 billion mark again.
The area has regular visitors from Augusta, Aiken, Charlotte, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., Luber said. As a state capital, Columbia has amenities that attract visitors such as a children's museum and Riverbanks Zoo.
In addition, the area attracts visitors with its convention center for major conferences and several colleges and universities that draw parents and international visitors. Another sign of growth is that Columbia's hotel accommodations taxes are up by 7 percent. Over the last three years, the number of hotel rooms has increased from 9,500 to 12,000, and the number of guests has steadily grown to fill them, Luber said.
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