Local visitation market feels absence of Jehovah’s Witnesses

A hole in the Columbus visitation market will be felt this summer. That’s because Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken a detour elsewhere.

The religious group, which has been flocking to the city each July, instead this year is taking part in an International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in downtown Atlanta. They met last weekend at the Georgia Dome and are scheduled to be there again July 18-20.

“One of things we are missing this year is going to be the Jehovah’s convention,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s a pretty significant piece of business for Columbus ... We’re all working to try to recover from that so the hospitality sector doesn’t feel the hit when we go to look at our demand and occupancy.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been coming to the area for years, filling up hotel rooms, eating and shopping locally, and tanking up vehicles while holding their convention over two weekends at the Columbus Civic Center.

“That’s why they like Columbus because the Civic Center is a perfect fit for them,” Bowden said.

A year ago, the group was here the weekend after the Fourth of July and the weekend after that. A CVB booking report estimated attendance at about 7,500 for each visit, with a local economic impact of just over $1.3 million per weekend.

Attempts to reach various Jehovah’s Witnesses halls in the Columbus area were unsuccessful. But Bowden said he expects the convention group to return in 2015.

“They reassured us they would be back,” he said. “We feel confident that they enjoy being in Columbus, so we look forward to getting them back next year.”

In fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have already booked space at the Columbus Civic Center over two weekends in early July, said Ross Horner, director of the South Commons facility. There also are two smaller gatherings between now and then — Oct. 25 this year and May 16 next year — that could bring up to 3,000 or so attendees.

“They’ve been great partners,” said Horner, who has dealt with the group in other cities. “The relationship that we have with the Jehovah’s Witnesses here is the best that I’ve seen.”

Unlike the city as a whole, Horner said the loss isn’t a major one financially for the center since the concession stands aren’t operating during the conventions. Typically, most of the facility’s profit comes from sales of beer, soft drinks, hotdogs, pizza and other food and refreshments.

Still, the center won’t receive the “cleansing” it typically receives each summer as the Jehovah’s Witnesses arrive for their meetings.

“I’ve never seen a group do it as intensely as they do here,” Horner said. “They’ll come in the day before they move in and bring 100-plus people and they will clean this building. They even scrub the outside bricks. Our guys love it.”

The absence of Jehovah’s Witnesses does come with the overall Columbus hotel occupancy level at nearly 66 percent, said Bowden, up slightly from this time a year ago. The average daily rate is $72.99, about 1 percent higher, thus far this year, he said, while total revenue from booked hotels in the city is approaching $25 million, up nearly 4 percent from a year ago.

Citing data from Smith Travel Research, the CVB chief said Columbus is being outperformed in hotel occupancy statewide only by Savannah, Augusta and the counties of DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett.

“We’re holding our own (and are) right there where we normally are this time of year with most of these other destinations,” he said, ticking off the Georgia cities of Athens, Brunswick, Macon and Albany, as well as Auburn and Russell County in Alabama.

Still, Bowden said, Columbus seems to be recovering slowly from the Great Recession on the travel and tourism front.

“Last year we started to see some of the effects ... when most cities were really hurting in 2009, Columbus was doing better, and now we’re starting to see that drag,” he said.

He attributed some of the slowing to Fort Benning and its travel impact on the area. The Maneuver Center of Excellence has been cutting back on training as the U.S. winds down from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduces its overall troop strength.

That’s what Matt Patel believes has put a dent in occupancy levels of RAM Hotels’ properties in Columbus and Phenix City. He estimates his company’s occupancy is down about 15 percent locally this year.

Patel, RAM’s vice president of operations, said government spending is off at his hotels, while there also are fewer Infantry and Armor School graduations at Fort Benning. Those events draw civilian family members and friends from all over the nation to witness the big moment in their soldiers’ lives.

“Anything we do in Columbus will be under the microscope for the next two years because — it’s pretty simple — we’re saturated and supply is more than demand in this market,” Patel said.

Columbus-based RAM Hotels’ owned or managed properties in Columbus and Phenix City include Hampton Inn & Suites, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Country Inn & Suites, Days Inn, Wyndham Garden Inn and Microtel Inn & Suites.

The company also is now constructing a 99-room Courtyard Marriott in downtown Phenix City for $12 million, with the hotel expected to open within two months.

“Our project was an obligation we had five years ago. It was needed in Phenix City,” Patel said. “It wasn’t something that we did for the heck of it.”

But until demand in the local market bounces back, he said, area room prices will trail other major cities, including Birmingham, Ala., and Savannah, Ga.

Bowden said his office is working to fill the gap left by the loss this year of the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention and the declining visitation numbers connected to Fort Benning.

He is hopeful that the Chattahoochee River whitewater rafting and kayaking business, now in its second season, will help in that regard. The outfitter for the river tourism, Whitewater Express, and Uptown Columbus have been marketing the recreational draw heavily, he noted.

“We think if they exceed their number like they did last year, that we’ll probably see 25,000-plus trips,” Bowden said. “That’s a totally new potential market segment that Columbus hasn’t been able to benefit from.”