Visit Savannah exceeds 2014 goals, looks to sustain tourism gains, names Sarah Lamar as board chair

January 26, 2015

By Julia Ritchey, as published in Savannah Morning News

By most meaningful metrics, it was a pretty good year to not just visit Savannah but for Visit Savannah, the destination marketing organization charged with promoting the Hostess City to travelers.

At Visit Savannah’s first board meeting of the year, president Joseph Marinelli listed the organization’s accomplishments and introduced its 2015 business plan as it looks to continue its momentum bolstering one of Savannah’s largest economic sectors.

“The easiest way for me to summarize our year last year was that the team at Visit Savannah certainly built on the momentum that this community has going for it right now,” he said.

Among the highlights Marinelli and his staff discussed:

  • Hotel-motel bed tax revenue collected by the city, part of which funds Visit Savannah, increased 19 percent over the year in November, at $435,415. For every preceding month, tax collections also exceeded 2013 totals.
  • Sister organization Visit Tybee also logged a 19 percent increase in hotel-motel tax through November, in addition to launching a new logo and marketing campaign earlier in the year.
  • Overall occupancy rates in Savannah increased from 66.8 percent in 2013 to 69.7 percent in 2014, outpacing all of Georgia. Average daily rates also increased 6.8 percent to $101 per night. In just the Historic District, rates rose 8 percent to $156.55.
  • Future convention bookings are the strongest on record, at 202,780 total hotel rooms, an 18 percent increase over the year.
  • Ramped up content marketing with 60 new videos attracted more than 77,000 views. There were more than 25 accolades in various media outlets, from travel and leisure magazines to news websites.
  • A 15 percent increase in tourist traffic at Visitor Information Centers on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, River Street and Ellis Square.

Visit Savannah is helping design display exhibits for the new Georgia Department of Transportation Welcome Center on Interstate 95, scheduled to begin construction later this year.

Marinelli noted that in addition to an enhanced welcome center, Gov. Nathan Deal boosted tourism spending by $1 million for the first time in his annual budget after strong lobbying from organizations such as Visit Savannah.

“With the ongoing success story that is the ports and the local manufacturing scene, Savannah’s tourism story also continues to get stronger and stronger,” he said.

He said the impact on the wider community has resulted in a host of new retail, hotel and restaurant offerings.

Visit Savannah is in the midst of a tourism futures study conducted by consulting firms MMGY Global and Ernst & Young, to be presented later this spring.

The study, Marinelli said, will help track emerging trends in travel, food and technology and overlay that with what’s happening locally.

“This will help us identify a course for our organization and where we take our marketing,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, outgoing board chairman Jack Bussert, general manager of River Street Inn, handed the gavel to Sarah Lamar of law firm HunterMaclean. The board also welcomed new directors Matt Graham, Karen Guinn and Dave Legasse.

Before adjourning, however, board member Mark Dana said he was concerned about the state of the police merger agreement between the city and county and what he described as the “profound impact” a breakup would have on the tourism industry.

Bill Hubbard, president of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce and Visit Savannah board member, said he remained hopeful an agreement would emerge.

“The prevailing comments from our membership are that they ought to be able to work through this,” he said.

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