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Visit Savannah outlines what's 'trending' in local tourism

Savannah’s hoteliers threw Visit Savannah’s Jeff Hewitt a convention curveball late last year.

Find us small groups that book on short notice to “fill in the gaps” between the large meetings the local convention and visitors bureau is so adept at attracting, they told Hewitt, the vice president of business development and destination services.

The charge came at the right time. Savannah is hot with the state and regional associations that book such meetings and has already reached 91 percent of the projected goal.

“And that represents a doubling of the business booked in the same segment last year,” Hewitt said.

An uptick in small convention business was one of several “trending” tourism topics in Savannah outlined Thursday during the Savannah Area Tourism Leadership Council’s monthly luncheon. Several members of the Visit Savannah staff, including the group’s president, Joe Marinelli, briefed local tourism leaders during the event held at the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort.

Bed tax collections are up better than four percent through July’s end compared to the same period a year ago, indicative of an industry doing “very, very well,” Marinelli said.

“We’re expecting a busy fall and anticipate 2014 showing similar growth,” Marinelli said.

Savannah’s group tour business remains strong, even as motorcoach interest trends downward. A shift in attitude is on among Savannah’s middle-aged and elderly visitors. They want more “experiential tourism” and less “looking-out-the-window tourism.”

The change should help Savannah attract repeat visitors provided the local tourism industry can create “new experiences with what we have to work with,” said Mindy Shea, Visit Savannah’s director of tour, travel and incentive sales.

The Visit Savannah crew encouraged TLC members to embrace digital marketing and social media channels. A quarter of discretionary spending in the United States is transacted on mobile platforms, and businesses would do well to adopt a “mobile-first strategy.”

“Screens are everywhere: desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets,” said Jeremy Harvey, Visit Savannah’s vice president of communications and marketing. “And the consumer expects to find your business on all of their screens.”

As for conventions, Savannah’s growing success with small groups has not come at the expense of the large meetings. Those big groups, whose demands fill rooms in multiple hotels, book several years in advance. The current focus is on 2016 to 2018 events.

Visit Savannah is behind its goals but ahead of historical averages.

“We’ve made incredible leaps in the last two years in the large group bookings and to sustain that level is a bit of a challenge,” Hewitt said. “That said, we do expect those bookings to pick up.”

The small group success is “filling in the gaps” as requested. Those meetings typically book 12 to 18 months in advance, giving Visit Savannah and hoteliers greater flexibility.

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