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Official: Columbus tourism rises due to Fort Benning, marketing push

A human surge related to Fort Benning’s expansion and military graduations, combined with a push toward more social media marketing, helped drive Columbus visitation higher in fiscal year 2011, the city’s chief tourism official said Thursday.

Columbus welcomed 1.4 million visitors in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, according to data compiled by Columbus State University’s Abbott-Turner College of Business. That was up from 1.2 million visitors in FY 2010, but still off the 1.5 million total in FY 2009.

“Despite the economy, despite all of the other things that were creating problems with other destinations, Columbus really held its own,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“BRAC was a part of it, and the Fort Benning graduations, obviously,” he said. “But I think it’s because we’ve been able to bundle these things together so that we’re not just a one-show kind of thing.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on new strategies and new technologies so that we can talk to the market regardless of what they’re accustomed to looking at. If they’re looking at print, they can find us there. If they’re on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet, whatever it is, we’re pushing messages out.”

The effort added up to more people visiting Columbus, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, shopping in stores and purchasing gasoline for their journeys.

That paid off with the economic impact of those 1.4 million visitors reaching $418 million, up from $378 million in the year prior, according to the CSU data. That contributed to 7,547 hospitality jobs. Again, that’s higher than the 7,200 people working in the sector in 2010.

Bowden was speaking from St. Simons, Ga., where he was attending the winter meeting of the Georgia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureau. The mood there heading into a possible summer of higher gas prices with the economy still healing was “positive,” he said, with plenty of events lined up this year statewide to generate tourism.

“We’ve looked at a lot of research, and even talking to some of our peers in Georgia, they feel pretty confident that people still are going to travel, unless something just really goes crazy,” Bowden said. “If there’s a world disaster or event that creates a negative ripple effect in the industry, that’s where we might see something happen. But all of the consultants that we talk to say that people are going to travel regardless. They’ll just change their pattern of how they travel or how much they spend when they do travel.”

It doesn’t hurt that Bowden has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a $23 million urban whitewater rafting and kayaking course now being constructed along 2½ miles of the Chattahoochee River in the downtown area.

Sure, the course currently is not scheduled for completion until late 2013 or early 2014. But it already is generating significant buzz in tourism circles, Bowden said, with the CVB pitching it to convention and meeting prospects.

“We’re looking at a 500-mile radius and we’ll go and talk to anyone,” he said. “We’re looking at anyone that has or produces (aquatic) equipment we’d like to lure those trade shows to Columbus because they can literally step out the back door of the Trade Center and be in the river testing their materials for their customers.”

Whitewater organizers tout a CSU study that indicates the annual economic impact of such a recreational attraction on the city could hit $42 million, create up to 700 jobs and draw 188,000 visitors, about 144,000 of them from out of town.

Reynolds Bickerstaff, a local real estate broker and chairman of Uptown Columbus, a downtown advocacy organization, said he envisions the whitewater project rippling benefits throughout the community. He even thinks it can have a greater impact than the Base Realignment and Closure process that expanded Fort Benning.

“If we get more tourists coming to Columbus who want to come spend a week to go watch their family member graduate at Fort Benning, spend a couple of days downtown, maybe spend a day or two rafting, that will open up some job opportunities,” he said. “People will start investing in themselves and in their families and creating their own jobs.”

Bickerstaff realizes there will be skeptics. And he concedes it could take three or four years for the results of the whitewater tourism to convert dollars back into the community, but he believes it will work.

“I don’t necessarily want to compare it to the RiverWalk,” he said. “But if you ask anybody, they’ll say, ‘I thought that was the greatest idea. It’s incredible.’ But when it was first being brought to the taxpayers, not that many people were optimistic about the impact it would have.”

Even if the whitewater project is a solid tourism magnet, Bowden thinks it will take creative marketing in an evolving high-tech world to maximize its potential.

The latest step in that direction is an application program called “foursquare.” It’s free and allows businesses and organizations to connect with customers with their smartphones or other computerized devices by simply “checking in” and seeing what establishments and other attractions are around them. It also lets users know if they have any friends nearby who also have checked in.

“We wanted to drive traffic to our partners. So it was a way for us to engage these folks that are social media savvy,” said Bowden, noting the Columbus Civic Center and the Columbus Convention & Trade Center are showing very high numbers of people checking in with foursquare.

As for the CVB’s specific operations, its budget for fiscal year 2012 is $1.6 million, Bowden said. That’s up nearly 5 percent year to date from original projections. The organization receives its funding from the city’s hotel tax, receiving 4 percent of the 8 percent charged per night.