Whitewater and zombies featured on Georgia's official travel guide

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 10, 2013 

Most people probably wouldn't envision "The Walking Dead" when they think of the whitewater course on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus.

But those two are intertwined on Georgia's official travel guide for 2013, with AMC's hit zombie horror series gracing its front cover and the local whitewater adventure still very prominent on the back cover.

In fact, Columbus gets exposure to another group of pop-culture fans as well, with country music performer Zac Brown also appearing on the guide's front as a part of a split-cover strategy this year. It promotes his restaurant and store, Southern Ground Social Club.

"The Walking Dead" version, which features lead actor Andrew Lincoln with gruesome zombies behind him, leads up to the Oct. 13 debut of the show's highly anticipated fourth season.

Filming for the zombie thriller and Brown's eatery and store both are located in the small town of Senoia, 70 miles north of Columbus and 25 miles south of Atlanta.

"We're hearing all the time that people are coming this way and they want to go to zombie land up in Senoia and see where it's all filmed. It's a big deal," said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Bowden, whose office spent $26,000 of its $400,000 annual marketing budget on the guide, doesn't necessarily mind using the star attractions from Senoia to get the word out about the local whitewater course.

"We look at the number of (reader) impressions, which is over 800,000. It is the state's fulfillment piece, so anyone that inquires about the state of Georgia gets this magazine," said the CVB chief, pointing out that the full-color glossy source for everything tourism in the state is translated into several languages. It also is given out at both U.S. and overseas travel shows, including in the United Kingdom and Germany.

And the kicker with the back-cover placement is that it, too, has been designed to look like a cover, with "Columbus, Georgia" emblazoned atop a close-up shot of people rafting through river rapids.

The phrase, "The Longest Urban Whitewater Rush in the World" is used, with more wording inviting people to visit the city and its "world-class museums, rich military heritage, exciting arts and culture, vibrant entertainment district and fine dining -- topped with Southern hospitality."

A year ago, after the 2012 travel guide was unveiled at the Georgia Capitol, Bowden said his staff noticed that when people were glancing at it or when copies of the publication were tucked under their arms, the Columbus back cover could be easily seen. Columbus also was on the 2012 cover, with a picture of the river and the cityscape in the background.

"If you measure it on the number of leads we're getting, we feel like it is working for us," he said, explaining the guide's publisher sends names and addresses of those who ask for the publication to the CVB, with the bureau following up with its own brochures and other literature, be it in print or via the Internet.

"It's simply not just placing an ad and hoping for the best. We can actually do some analysis on it," said Bowden, whose staff is working on a study to determine how many traveler inquiries lead to actual visits. Overall, Columbus had 1.3 million visitors in fiscal year 2012.

Peggy Rogers, an information specialist at the Georgia Welcome Center off Williams Road in north Columbus, didn't have any firm numbers. But on Friday she said the guide and its covers -- front and back -- are drawing interest from travelers.

"Since the whitewater opened, we always bring that to their attention. A lot of people, especially if they're not from this immediate area, are a little surprised that we have that," said Rogers, who has had some people mistake the Columbus back cover for the front of the guide.

Zac or zombies or not, the marketing campaign comes with the whitewater course steadily drawing rafters to the Chattahoochee downtown. Whitewater Express President Dan Gilbert said Friday his outfitting company was on pace to reach 10,000 customers this weekend, with nearly 500 people booked Saturday. That's "much faster" than he had expected after the Memorial Day weekend opening in late May.

"The reason for that is everybody is having so much fun on the river. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be growing so fast," he said, explaining that about 70 percent of the river-goers have come from out of town.

They've visited from Florida and from as far as West Virginia, he said, with the company placing an emphasis on landing groups, such as church youth excursions. Locally, Columbus State University also is using the experience to help incoming students bond and become acquainted.

Gilbert said the plan is to keep floating the rafts until the water and air temperatures turn too cold. Whitewater operators in north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina typically wind down in October as the brisk Canadian air begins to push southward.

Uptown Columbus President Richard Bishop conceded there will be some local whitewater headwinds ahead with schools going back into session and college football season siphoning away people's attention.

"Those are some obstacles. But there's opportunities there, too," he said. "Auburn students get back and they've got football on Saturdays where there's 80,000 people standing around with nothing to do. They can come over here and be in the river for four hours and be back over there by game time for late nights. I think right off the bat they've got a couple of night games."

For Bowden, he will continue to see how the 2013 Georgia travel guide performs for the city.

But he's already thinking ahead to 2014 and its front cover, something that hasn't happened since the CVB chief has been in the business.

"We actually have thrown our hat in the ring and asked to be considered seriously for it. They won't tell anybody anything until the absolute last minute," he said, explaining it likely will be the fall before he has to make a decision to go for the back cover again. There's no charge for the front cover.

Aside from the guide, Bowden said marketing money is spent on other print items such as brochures and advertising, with more funds being earmarked for the Internet, including development of a new application that travelers can download.

"Almost all of our specific messaging for whitewater was online," he said. "That's because we found out through research that's how those folks talk to each other and plan and make those decisions about what to do."

The CVB's total annual budget is about $1.5 million, with all of that money coming from the city's hotel-motel tax. Of the 8 percent tax, the bureau receives half of that, with one-fourth of the CVB's cut going to the Columbus Sports Council.

The $24 million whitewater course was funded through federal, city and private money. The project included blowing up two dams in the downtown area, clearing rocks in some areas to create channels for larger rapids and installing a man-made wave shaper. The course's signature rapid, "Cut Bait," has drawn some recognition for its fierceness on high-flow rides.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service