It looks to be a spring and summer filled with sports events, military and family reunions, and meetings by various groups and organizations.
Those all will be contributing to the tourism base anchored by Columbus attractions that include the National Infantry Museum, the National Civil War Naval Museum and the whitewater and zip-line adventure courses on the Chattahoochee River.
“Our season has started earlier than usual, which is fantastic,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. He was referring to the Georgia Thespians and Mardi Gras Cheerleading gatherings in February, which drew a combined 8,000 attendees with an estimated economic impact of $2 million.
A Columbus Youth Soccer tournament and a group called Georgia Organics also have contributed 4,000 or so participants thus far this year for a total impact of $700,000 to the city. That’s cash that is spread around to hotels, restaurants, retail stores, entertainment-oriented venues and attractions such as the museums. The city’s sales tax coffers also benefit from the money spent by visitors.
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“As we get into April we’ll see it escalate even further,” Bowden said. “Then when whitewater officially opens in May, our season will be booming. We’ve already got family reunions, weddings, military reunions, all of that is lined up and ready to roll out.”
Columbus topped 1.8 million visitors in fiscal year 2015, which ended last June, according to the CVB, creating an economic impact of $340 million and contributing to about 4,500 jobs.
The whitewater and zip-line courses on the river are literally a drop in the bucket of that visitation total, but they are a very visible and growing part of the mix. River outfitter Dan Gilbert and his company, Whitewater Express, served about 30,000 river rafters last year, along with 15,000 thrill-seekers on the Blue Heron Adventure zip-line course. Gilbert said that latter number is remarkable for such an attraction in its first year.
“May is when it gets really crazy and fun,” Gilbert said of the time when his year-round business begins to heat up. “Riverfest is the official weekend that’s kind of the kickoff of summer for us. That’s the time that tells everybody to come back to the river.”
Whitewater Express is shooting to serve more than 35,000 paying river rafters this year, while holding to the 15,000 zip-line customers it had a year ago. It is already booking groups, while families and individuals typically reserve trips a week or so out.
Those coming to Columbus will find a city that has transformed its downtown with investment in infrastructure, new businesses, residential offerings and office space. Beda Johnson, division director of tourism outreach at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, remembers the downtown of about a decade ago and what it has become today.
“There’s all of the construction and the beautification of downtown, all of the wonderful restaurants and shops,” she said. “Also, of course, the whitewater experience and the zip line, that’s a tremendous impact thing. We also love to go to the Infantry Museum in town and, of course, the Civil War Naval Museum is another favorite stop.”
Johnson, in Columbus for a recent meeting of the Georgia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, said all of the investment the city and its people have made play into what she calls a “tourism product” that ultimately pays off.
“Whenever a community invests in that kind of thing, it’s like they’re seeing their community through a visitor’s eyes and having more opportunities for people to come to visit — friends and relatives, or loved ones stationed out at Fort Benning,” she said. “When they come here, there are wonderful things for them to do and great places to spend money and that’s what it’s all about in tourism. We want them to come and unload as much cash as they can before they go home.”
There are numerous events and meetings on the Columbus CVB’s schedule this spring and summer that will be major draws. A sampling includes:
▪ Odyssey of the Mind state tournament, April 8-9: 2,500 attendees, $553,000 estimated impact
▪ Spartan Race, April 15-16: 10,000 attendees, $653,000 impact
▪ Black Softball Circuit tournament, April 22-24: 2,500 attendees, $667,000 impact
▪ Georgia State Soccer tournament, May 27-30: 4,500 attendees, $1.4 million impact
▪ USTA Georgia Adult 40 & Over League State Championship (tennis):June 2-6, 1,400 attendees, $710,000 impact
▪ U.S. Fastpitch Association softball tournament, June 10-12 and June 17-19, 2,175 attendees each weekend, $548,000 impact each weekend
▪ International Double Reed Society annual conference, June 26-30, 1,000 attendees, $502,000 impact
▪ Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention, July 1-3 and July 8-10, 7,500 attendees each weekend, $2.2 million impact each weekend
▪ Archery Shooters Association competition, Aug. 4-7, 4,400 attendees, $1.2 million impact
▪ Black Softball Circuit tournament, Sept. 2-5, 6,000 attendees, $1.5 million impact