Feeling the pressure of economic changes in consumer patterns and budget cuts that have pinched Fort Benning’s graduation numbers, the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau is awaiting a study that it hopes will show the type of traveler the city can attract often over the coming years.
“We started talking about this back when whitewater came on line as we were looking for ways to bring in a new audience to leverage whitewater and all of the outside activities that came along with whitewater,” said Peter Bowden, the CVB’s president and chief executive officer. “Then the recession and sequestration began to chip away at the leisure market that comes to Fort Benning for graduations, and contractors and what not. So we changed our focus a little bit, but the intent was still to find new markets.”
About 1.8 million people visited Columbus in fiscal year 2016, which ended last June 30, generating a collective economic impact of $340 million. That came in the form of general spending on hotels and restaurants and at stores, as well as jobs directly and indirectly created from the leisure and hospitality sector.
Bowden, whose task it is to keep travel numbers as high as possible, said visitation in the current year could be flat, if not down a bit. That’s one of the reasons that the bureau has commissioned Nashville, Tenn.-based Gray Research Solutions to survey potential visitors in various markets. Some of the cities targeted in the survey include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Fla., and closer to home, Tallahassee, Fla., and Athens, Ga.
“(Gray Research) picked some specific markets, not so much that we could lure that person from Chicago in, but because they have the criteria we’re looking for as far as the generational make-up, age, incomes, and that sort of thing,” the CVB chief said.
Nearly 23 percent of leisure market travelers who come to Columbus are connected to Fort Benning, he said. With there no guarantees that the U.S. military is going to expand nationally, much less locally, there is a need to determine what other types of visitors — aside from families here for military graduations — would be a good fit for the Columbus area.
“Some of the things (Gray Research) has teased us with is it could be medical- or health-related travel,” Bowden said. “It could be food, which obviously is a big thing right now. It could be different elements connected to the outdoors.”
There’s also a burgeoning trend for grandparents planning vacations with their grown children and grandchildren. It is a market being referred to as “multi-generational travel.” There could be adventure travelers, as well as history- and arts-oriented people who might want to visit the city, but just don’t know it yet.
Even with a shift of some sort in its leisure-travel approach, Bowden said the CVB will continue to target traditional convention and meeting planners, education groups, associations and those seeking a place to stage a memorable family or military reunion.
The hope is to come up with a strategy to fill the more than 4,000 hotel rooms in the city. That typically is not being done, with the Columbus hotel occupancy rate just below 60 percent and the average daily rate at just over $72 per room.
The city also needs to see additional visitors at its various physical attractions, which include the National Infantry Museum, the National Civil War Naval Museum, Columbus Museum, Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center, Coca-Cola Space Science Center and others. The historic village known as Westville also should be up and operating in late 2018.
“We’re excited about the possibility that this new study will give us a direction that we have been talking about internally for the past two years,” Bowden said. “We think it won’t be an overnight success, because it takes time to build momentum. But we feel like this will help us craft a strategy to replace business that has gone away.”