When considering Savannah’s defining characteristics as a city and tourism destination, what’s the takeaway — are we a haunted city, a historical city, the most romantic city or simply a good place to get buzzed while staggering around River Street?
A new tourism study says Savannah is all that and more but would benefit from fine tuning its message to bring it more in line with its closest competitors such as Charleston and Orlando.
This and many more findings were part of the Savannah Tourism Futures Study, presented Friday at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center.
The comprehensive report was conducted by consulting firms Ernst & Young and MMGY Global at the behest of Visit Savannah, the destination marketing arm of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.
The study looked at about 10 emerging travel trends and seeing where Savannah ranks in comparison to those metrics, using grades low, moderate or high. The study also incorporated findings from a survey of 1,200 people, half of whom had visited the city in the last two years.
Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, said the idea started in January 2014 with discussions among his organization’s board members on ways to make the city competitive in the future.
“This whole notion of really starting to put a fine point on Savannah’s brand going forward will have tremendous value for us,” Marinelli said. “We tend to try to be all things to all people, and that’s a dangerous slope.”
Marinelli said this doesn’t just mean having a pithy logo or tag line but doing a better job of confidently delivering an experience based on the city’s best landmarks and attractions.
“What I got from today is there is so much more that we can be doing,” he said. “This will help us develop our next plan and a plan that we can manage over the next three to five years.”
Other areas researchers said could use some attention included integration of technology, embracing the shared economy through services such as Uber and Airbnb and beefing up Savannah’s culinary tourism, all crucial to attracting younger and more multi-generational travelers.
“How do we take this jewel we have and reactivate it?” asked Mike Magrans, research associate with Ernst & Young.
Although restaurants such as The Grey, The Florence and The Collins Quarters have created buzz, he said, Savannah still lacks quality and diversity in its culinary options compared to key competitors such as Charleston and Atlanta.
Researchers said planners should consider enhancing its food and wine festival to include more global and celebrity chefs as well as making it worthwhile for local producers to boost local farmers’ markets.
Technology was another big area where Savannah lagged, with limited Wi-Fi in the Historic District and many cultural attractions not engaging travelers using mobile or social platforms.
Bridget Lidy, the city’s director of tourism and management, said she thought the presentation was fantastic. She was one of a number of organizational leaders in the audience on Friday taking notes on the findings.
“From my vantage point, it confirms a lot of thoughts I’ve had on needing to have management in place to address tourism growth,” she said.
Lidy said it is especially important for residents and industry professionals to continue coming together to find solutions to some of these key issues.
“Instead of rolling the dice and doing the same thing, we’re in a position to determine how we can capitalize on what we have and create value for our visitors,” she said.
Summarizing the major points of improvement, the study suggested diversifying lodging, expanding air access, enriching visitor experiences to increase length of stay and using technology to facilitate so-called “destination discovery.”
“Savannah is well positioned for continued tourism growth in the near term, but the product must evolve to ensure sustained growth,” said Steven Cohen, a director of research with MMGY.
The six-month study cost about $135,000 and was funded jointly by Visit Savannah and the Savannah Economic Development Authority. Marinelli said management of tourism is the underlying goal of these types of expenditures.
“You didn’t hear one time today about more, more, more visitors — it’s really about quality and management,” he said.