San Francisco bay area residents Bill and Mady Cloud rolled into Savannah late Thursday and will continue their summer vacation when they head out for Charleston later today.
The couple spent a few minutes Friday afternoon sitting on an Ellis Square bench, plotting a return trip — a longer one.
“We want to rent a place at the beach or here in the historic district next time,” Mady Cloud said. “We didn’t do much research before we came and didn’t know there was this much to do.”
The Clouds’ future plans reflect a shift in Savannah tourism not apparent in the visitor volume and spending study released last week. The city has gone from an Interstate 95 roadside attraction to a place to stop for a night to a getaway spot over the last decade and a half.
Now local tourism leaders see hints that Savannah is on the cusp of becoming a full-blown vacation destination. They cite new attractions, such as the SCAD Museum of Art and the Savannah Children’s Museum, an emerging foodie culture and expanding hotel offerings as evidence of the city’s potential.
“We’re seeing the beginning of the evolution of our hospitality industry,” said Joe Marinelli with Visit Savannah, the local convention and visitors bureau. “The more reasons visitors have to stay in town, the longer they’ll stay. Over time, that will come.”
Like most evolutionary processes, the shift will happen slowly. While the visitor volume and spending study, compiled by independent tourism research firm Longwoods International, showed an increase in overnight visitors and spending in 2012, the average length of stay contracted for the first time in years.
The average fell from 2.5 nights per stay to 2.3 nights. Savannah’s high volume of day-trippers — 4.7 million — impacted that number. So did the city’s growing number of weekend events such as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon and Visit Savannah’s marketing push in “drive markets” like Atlanta.
But Marinelli and his peers are hearing from more and more visitors a desire to stay longer on return trips — a message that will spread by word of mouth when those tourists tell friends who have never visited Savannah about the experience.
They point to an uptick of interest in Savannah’s emerging tourism niches, such as shopping and culinary experiences, for proof.
Among overnight visitors in 2012, 43 percent cited shopping as an activity, up 6 percent from 2011. Culinary experiences gained popularity with those same visitors: 21 percent listed food among their special interests, up from 18 percent last year.
“The quality of our product is on the rise, and that covers everything from attractions to restaurants to shopping to our hotels,” said Michael Owens, CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council, an advocacy group for the local hospitality industry. “And the wonderful thing about the way tourism is growing locally right now is that what our visitors will enjoy, such as new restaurants and museums, our residents will as well.”
Sustainable growth trends
Tourism growth can be fragile, particularly for small destinations like Savannah.
Too much, too fast can harm the experience for visitors, not to mention alienate residents. Too little, too slow and new investment passes a city by.
Hence the excitement about Savannah’s future.
New attractions, such as the Pin Point Heritage Museum, are opening every few months, but some, like the double-decker bus tours, are blocked.
The growing foodie culture is attracting talented chefs to town. From Roberto Leoci at Leoci’s Trattoria and John Roelle at Brasserie 529 to Brandy Williamson at Local 11 Ten and Lauren Teague at the Andaz hotel’s 22 Square, Savannah is increasingly recognized as a culinary destination.
Festivals and other special events are bringing visitors to the city during traditionally slow weeks. The music, book, film and craft beer fests gain popularity every year, and expectations are high for this fall’s debut of the Savannah Food & Wine Festival.
The expanding number of boutique hotels appeals to more upscale travelers. The success of the Mansion on Forsyth Park, the Bohemian, the Westin and the Andaz over the last decade has more elite properties in the works.
Luxury hotel operator Kimpton will renovate the Mulberry Inn later this year. The Cotton Sail Hotel, to be located in the Ryan building next to the Bohemian, is under construction. Both North Point Hospitality and Richard Kessler, creator of the Mansion and the Bohemian, have hotels planned for River Street.
“We are always going to have a large number of visitors who come to town to eat at Paula Deen’s and take a ‘Midnight’ book tour,” Marinelli said. “But the real opportunity is in the visitors who want more than that. And we continually get more and more to offer them.”
‘Recovering, not recovered’
Savannah’s tourism leaders can’t claim boomtown status yet.
Average daily hotel rates are rising again after they cratered during the recession and the early stages of the economic recovery. The rate was up 2.7 percent in 2012 versus 2011 and climbed another $4, to $96.45 per night, in 2013’s first quarter.
Hotels have yet to command pre-recession rates again, however. The growth in supply has held those rates in check, with eight new properties opening in the historic district alone since 2007.
“What I’ve been saying for the last few years is ‘We’re recovering, not recovered,'” the TLC’s Owens said. “We’re well on our way to full recovery now. And we’re making headway faster than almost every destination in the United States.”
Owens’ confidence is growing even with more hotel inventory on the way. Another half-dozen downtown hotels are either under construction or in the planning stages.
He looks at the $2 billion in visitor spending last year and the strong private investment interest reflected in new hotels, retail and attractions and sees continued growth ahead.
“When I see visitors in our streets, I make it a personal mission to thank them for being here,” Owens said. “Most of them talk about how they can’t wait to come back.”
Count the Clouds, the visiting couple from Northern California, among them.
“It’s a historic city with so much to do where you can walk everywhere,” Bill Cloud said. “Too bad they can’t do anything about getting the beach and the historic part closer together.”
|Overnight visitors||6.3 million||6.8 million||7 million|
|Day-trippers||5.1 million||5.3 million||5.4 million|
|Total visitors||11.4 million||12.1 million||12.4 million|
|Overnight visitors||$1.3 billion||$1.5 billion||$1.6 billion|
|Day-trippers||$4 million||$4.44 million||$4.71 billion|
|Total spending||$1.7 billion||$1.95 billion||$2.07 billion|
Source: Longwoods International, TravelUSA study
(c)2013 the Savannah Morning News (Savannah, Ga.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.