A changing leisure market has prompted the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau to take a hard look at what types of travelers it will seek to attract in the future, and how it will go about doing it.
The reassessment is partly the nature of the world, with tourism dynamics changing from generation to generation, while some destinations simply become hot and others cool off over time.
Locally, there’s also the fact that Fort Benning has reduced its training load due to federal budget constraints. That has meant fewer families visiting Columbus to watch their beloved soldiers graduate from infantry and armor training.
“We realized that our leisure market was changing dramatically because of things that were happening at Fort Benning with that leisure market, with smaller graduation classes and that sort of thing due to sequestration. We knew we needed to be as proactive as possible for that,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Earlier this year, the bureau commissioned Nashville, Tenn.-based Gray Research Solutions to study the trends and recommend what type of traveler the city should go after with its marketing dollars. There were a couple of major conclusions. First, millennials should be a target market, particularly those traveling with multiple generations, such as families that include grandparents with their children and grandchildren.
Secondly, while the Adrenalin rush that adventure trips such as whitewater rafting and zip lines offer is unique, there also needs to be an additional focus on “softer” things to do. That can be simply floating peacefully in a raft down the river or hanging out on a paddleboard in a local lake or on calmer areas of the Chattahoochee River.
“My takeaway on that is the river is our biggest attractor, so we don’t need to lose that message,” Bowden said. “What we need to do is you’ve got Whitewater Express, you’ve got Uptown, you’ve got other entities that promote whitewater, high adventure, zip line and so forth. So that message needs to stay in place.”
The research found during surveys that when softer and less aggressive types of activities were mentioned, the interest from respondents “went way off the scale,” the CVB chief said. Thus, the likely need to “tweak” marketing and advertising information toward those things to do in the future.
“As a CVB, we really want to stay focused on this new leisure audience and keep the Fort Benning business that may or may not come back as gravy,” said Shannon Gray, founder and CEO of Gray Research Solutions. “What we’re doing moving forward is looking at this particular type of visitor that the CVB is going to target.”
Part of the strategy is making certain all the visitation stakeholders are on the same page. That includes tourism destinations such as the local museums and performance venues, as well as restaurants where people grab breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the hotels in which visitors will lay their heads at night after a day of taking in the city’s sights, food and culture.
“Tourism is a community effort,” said Gray, noting that the effort should include not only Columbus, but neighbors across the river in Phenix City. There simply needs to be a heightened level of excitement as well, she noted.
The stakes are high for Columbus-area residents, Bowden said, with tourism an economic development engine all its own, generating an overall impact approaching $350 million each year. That includes money spent at local businesses, jobs created because of the infusion of travelers, and sales tax revenue generated for city coffers.
“It is truly an economic driver for the community,” Bowden said. “The stronger the hospitality industry is and visitation is to Columbus, the better our community is overall. In essence, what’s happening is we’re lifting up our quality of life assets and promoting that to a wider audience. Again that encourages reinvestment in those types of things — public art, performances at our arts and entertainment venues — those are the things that make Columbus a great place not just to live, but consequently to visit.”
The marketing introspection by the CVB will continue this fall, with a Collaborate Summit scheduled for Oct. 12 at the Cunningham Conference Center at Columbus State University.
Here are some of the basic findings in the study and surveys conducted by Gray Research Solutions. It includes responses from potential visitors in Chicago, Tampa, Fla., Athens, Ga., Tallahassee, Fla., and the Texas cities of Dallas and Houston. They also must have visited Georgia or Alabama in the past year:
▪ Three-quarters of travelers would be likely to visit Columbus.
▪ Millennials are by far the strongest generational target visitor. They are more than twice as likely to visit as any other age group.
▪ Target visitors are likely to have heard of Columbus, but may not know much about it. Thus the need for more targeted marketing toward them to raise awareness of Columbus in hopes they will visit here.
▪ More than half of target visitors have been on a multigenerational trip with their families in the past year.
▪ Mutigenerational travelers are typically parents or extended family members of children ages 0 through 3 or ages 5 through 12.
▪ Target visitors are female, with 67 percent of those likely to visit Columbus having annual household incomes ranging from $25,000 to $100,000.
▪ Travelers are typically employed and Caucasian. About 61 percent are employed, with 15 percent retired. About 73 percent are white or Caucasian, with 11 percent black or African-American, 7 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 5 percent Hispanic or Latino.
▪ Target visitors are more likely to have been on a vacation or getaway with family on their last leisure trip. Another 16 percent visit family, friends and relatives, while 13 percent are spouses or partners on vacation.
▪ Target visitors stay in hotels and motels for two to three days at a time when traveling for leisure. About 74 percent of them do that, with 10 percent staying with family or friends.
▪ Travel parties typically have two adults, with 40 percent of target visitors having one or two children in their parties.
▪ When it comes to outdoor recreation, everyone likes walking trails, but target visitors are more likely to be interested in flat water activities, bicycling and whitewater.
▪ In terms of motivation, all travelers are looking to get away from their busy lives and relax, with target visitors also wanting to reconnect and have a family adventure.
▪ Desired activities for target visitors are more likely to be relaxing river fun, watching river adventurers, zip lining and fun kids activities.
▪ As for the awareness of Columbus, the overall perception of the city is positive, if vague. Nine out of 10 have heard of it, but only five in 10 know anything about the city.
▪ Target visitors are more likely to associate Columbus with a restaurant scene, outdoor adventure, whitewater rafting, shopping and the arts.
▪ The best target segments are young families, multigenerational travelers and millennials with no children.
▪ Millennial travelers with no kids are more interested in activities that include the arts, whitewater, renting bikes and zip lining.