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FEATURE: VisitSavannah’s Marinelli provides Council with ‘Savannah Tourism Update’ on trends and 2018 projections

Category: Hospitality & Tourism

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

February 1, 2018 – VisitSavannah president Joe Marinelli (pictured below) updated the Savannah City Council today on the city’s latest tourism data, and 2018 plans. As always, the organization remains focused on attracting business year-around, and into slower days and months.  Doing that stabilizes employment for those in the tourism industry, he explained.   

Marinelli’s presentation began with a review of the benchmarks VisitSavannah tracks to judge performance, including comparisons to the six cities that Savannah primarily competes with for both a tourist and business traveler, and “a snapshot of what we can expect in 2018.”

Some of the tourism-related projects going on in the market place, such as new hotels coming online in 2018 and 2019, affect VisitSavannah’s business planning. 

A key performance indicator is hotel/motel tax collections. A four-year progression through November 2017 shows that collections were up 7% in the first eleven months of 2017, ahead of what had been a record year in 2016.  Chatham County collections were up 3%, but Tybee Island was about 5% behind 2016, hurt by hurricanes’ impact on vacation rentals, he stated.

And, 2016 was 5% ahead of 2015.  He is projecting the county will realize $21 million in overall tax collections for 2018, he stated.

Regarding how Savannah is fairing regarding to hotel occupancy percentages, and average daily rates, two other key data points in the tourism industry, Georgia’s hotels saw a 65% occupancy rate in the 2017 data available for so, with hotels in the Savannah city limits enjoying a 72% rate; the Historic District hotels were at 78% (see chart.)  

The Average daily rate paid per night in 2017 was $116.00 in Savannah, and $172.00  in the Historic District, the highest seen in any year in the past, he added.

There was only a slight increase in the number of rooms available in the Historic District in all of 2017;  the only new hotel that opened was the Fairfield Inn on MLK Jr. Blvd, with 145 rooms.  

Savannah compares itself to Jacksonville, Charlotte, Charleston, Hilton Head, St. Augustine and Charleston in tracking all benchmarks, Marinelli explained, for conventions, and business or casual travelers. Savannah has the highest occupancy rates of all of those cities, at 74% in 2017, which was up 1% over 2016 for Savannah.

It’s an industry that is always changing.  In 2018, baby boomers and millennials are projected to be traveling more, but they will be traveling ‘differently,’ according to VisitSavannah data.  Business travel is expected to be remain strong. 

And for vacationers, there is “pent-up demand in the Northeast and Midwest,” due to their harsh 2017-2018 winter so far, “Savannah has not had the weather yet, either,” he said, with a record cold January here.  “But, they will come,” he said.  

International visitation is down about 5%, nationally, and Savannah is seeing the same.

According to Marinelli, all of the efforts by VisitSavannah and other tourism efforts have had a positive impact in stabilizing the flow of tourists. “June and July are now two of the city’s busiest months. Ten years ago, when I first came to Savannah to work  with VisitSavannah, they were the slowest. Everyone said, ‘It’s too hot.’”

“The change is how the city is being marketed, and the product we have that attracts people to Savannah.  Ten years ago, we were laying people off in the summer, and laying people off at the holidays,” he explained.  “But, that has all changed.”  

“We expect the economy to stay strong in 2018, and we’re focused on the 4th quarter right now,” he explained, because the city had several large conventions in Dec. 2017, business that is not yet booked in the 4th Qtr. of 2018.  Marinelli also sits on the board of the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, which works in conjunction with VisitSavannah and the Atlanta convention center to pursue regional and national convention business.

He also reviewed the current contract with the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon that ends in 2018.  Meetings are set for next week to negotiate 2019 through 2021.  “That event has continued to work very well for us, driving people to our city and increasing a desired demographic, the type of visitors we want. It’s really bringing the ideal kind of female traveler, 25 to 55 years of age, a visitor looking at coming back here throughout the year for a girls’ getaway weekend, a romantic weekend.  This continues to be a very important event, sort of Savannah’s SuperBowl, if you will,” he said.

Marinelli also urged the Council to visit the new Savannah Prohibition Museum.  And, he said that a lot of new restaurants opened in 2017.  Also, the Westin, Marriot, Hyatt and Hilton – the city’s four largest hotels - have all made significant investments in updating their facilities, helping to bring citywide conventions.

The Perry Lane is set to open in April, the city’s first entre’ into the 5-star category, and a new hotel is nearing completion by the Chatham Area Transit station off MLK Jr. Blvd. 

New Airline Service and Goals

Air service has continued to grow in Savannah, as well.  In 2017, Air Canada added non-stop service from Toronto, as a test, with flights operating from May 1 through October.  “They were so pleased, they are starting March 1 this year,” he said.  And, thanks to Jet Blue, there are now additional non-stop flights from Boston and other major cities.  

The newest addition is new non-stop service to Miami, by American Airlines; that carrier has also added non-stop flights to and from Chicago, “very important markets for us to market to,” said Marinelli.   

Regarding other improvements to the area’s tourism product, the Broughton Streetscaping project is also part of the city’s overall tourism, he added, and the new JW Marriott will have 420 rooms, as the city works on citywide convention bookings for slower days and months, to stabilize employment.

 A new 4.0 version of VisitSavannah.com, and a new digital advertising campaign, are also planned by the organization.

VisitSavannah has also revised all of its tourist guides to include other areas of the city, not just the Historic District, where there are new stores and coffee shops. “We’re shining a light on those neighborhoods.  If we can get a visitor to stay longer to explore those neighborhoods, it’s self-serving.   Think about when you go to Starland, Victorian, Midtown and Southside,” he said. “It’s no longer just River Street, Broughton Street and City Market.” 

“Well, businesses don’t have that perception,” said Alderman Tony Thomas.  “If they’re truly going to market other area, there’s a lot of things to draw people to.” 

“That’s really happening, highlighted in the 500,000 visitor guides printed a year,” responded Marinelli.  

“We need to focus on our air travel going west.  Delta is killing us,” stated Alderman Van Johnson. 

“We understand,” responded Marinelli, adding, “Certainly the increase in television and movie business adds.  I can assure that that has now become job 1, as it relates to air service … We don’t have the business travel component that other cities do, which has hurt Savannah is landing Southwest,”

The downtown resident will be enthusiastic about hearing that VisitSavannah is seeking to spread out a tourist visitor across the city, not just in the Historic District, added Alderman Bill Durrence.  

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