Chuck Williams: First run at whitewater has drawn 7,500 rafters

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 22, 2013 

Quick, take a guess.

How many folks have gone whitewater rafting in Columbus this summer? Quick, now.

The new Chattahooche River course that runs into downtown Columbus has been open for eight weeks and Decatur, Ga.-based Whitewater Express has been running high- and low-flow guided tours during that time.

Time’s up.

More than 7,500 people have taken excursions on what is billed as the world’s longest urban whitewater course, paying $32.50 for low-flow runs and $48.50 for high flow.

Let’s assume that Whitewater Express is getting an average of $30 per person because there are a number of first-year discounts out there to help get people on the river. That’s $225,000. And that’s before they sell the first T-shirt or sticker in the Phenix City and Columbus stores.

Not bad. Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert said it has exceeded his expectations when the course opened Memorial Day weekend. And if the four-day Fourth of July weekend had not been a washout because of all of the rain and high flows that caused Chattahoochee River Park manager Uptown Columbus Inc. to close the course, the number would be knocking on 10,000, Gilbert said.

“That should have been our biggest weekend,” he said Monday.

Still Gilbert is pleased.

“We are way ahead of where we thought we would be,” he said.

Gilbert’s company runs rafting operations on the Ocoee River in Tennessee and the Natahala River in North Carolina. Based on what he has seen, he is predicting a sharp increase in business over the next two years.

“I think we will do 25,000 to 40,000 next summer and will be flirting with 100,000 the summer after that,” he said.

A hundred thousand rafters in the river in 2015?

Gilbert is certainly an optimist. But he says he is basing his projections on customer satisfaction of guests coming off the river.

And they are starting to come in larger numbers from an hour or more outside of Columbus. Uptown Inc. President Richard Bishop said Whitewater Express customers provide their addresses with zip codes. About 30 percent of the rafters are coming from an hour or more outside of Columbus.

Gilbert said that was obvious this weekend when about 400 got on the river Saturday. He makes a habit of asking people where they are from. “They are coming from Montgomery, Dothan and Atlanta,” he said.

Uptown Inc., is running a television advertising campaign in the Atlanta market between now and Labor Day. The other boost in the first year came via social media. The infamous Cut Bait YouTube video where a dozen or more rafts stacked up in the rapid opening weekend did not hurt business.

The new course would not have been front-page news in Atlanta, had it not been for the video, which has nearly a 132,000 views in two months.

If the weather holds out, and the creek literally does not rise, Whitewater Express could realistically put close to 15,000 people on the Chattahoochee this summer.

That has Dan Gilbert smiling.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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