For some, turning 40 is met with a feeling of dread, but for Visit Savannah and the men who helped get the organization — known in its early days as the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau — started in 1976, this milestone marks a huge reason to celebrate all things Savannah.
Recently, the Savannah Morning News sat down with those men — David Young, Dick Estus, Ted Kleisner, Ansley Williams and current Visit Savannah president Joe Marinelli — to talk about the growth of tourism in the Hostess City during the past four decades.
Estus, a native New Yorker, moved to Savannah in 1971, joining the Savannah Chamber of Commerce and bringing with him some inspiration for Savannah’s first visitors’ center and essentially laying the groundwork for tourism in the city.
“I went to (Colonial Williamsburg’s) visitors’ center and they did a great job with it and when we were coming down to Savannah, I told my wife, Williamsburg is a re-creation and Savannah is not, Savannah is the real thing,” Estus said recalling the inspiration for the tourism bureau.
At the time of Estus’ arrival, Interstate 95 was incomplete and traffic had to enter the city through the Talmadge Bridge and onto West Boundary Street. Estus took his idea to keep those passing visitors for a couple of nights to Chamber leaders, who were hesitant, but he remained persistent.
“They’d never heard of such an idea, and they wanted to put it on the back burner and get a committee to study it, and I told them they didn’t need to do that,” he said. “I was kind of brave back in those days. I’d just moved here, so I didn’t know any better.”
Soon after pitching his idea Estus found a forgotten study in the Chamber’s library that had been complied by a consultant with help from a curator from Williamsburg, who had recommended that Savannah’s Visitor’s Center be put near the end of Interstate 16.
“That kind of stopped their conversation of putting a committee together to study it because they’d already spent a lot of money on a consultant. They were doing that back in those days, too,” Estus remembers.
The first Savannah Visitors’ Center opened its doors in 1975, and the formation of the Visitors Council followed in 1976 before changing into the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau that same year, which also saw David Young installed as Chamber president.
“I look at the era as a tipping point in tourism,” said Kleisner, former general manager of the Hilton Savannah DeSoto who served as chairman of the bureau following Estus from 1976 to 1980.
The men worked together to bring Young to Savannah to lead the Chamber. And after the opening of I-95 and the boom of motels along the corridor, the tourism and visitors scene in Savannah quickly grew.
“... All of a sudden people were not in Savannah in the same way... We needed the organization and David to head that up and he headed it up in a remarkable fashion. And exponentially, every year the increases were astonishing.”
Young, who remained president for 14 years, recalled an interview in which the local media believed I-95 would see the demise of visitors in Savannah since it allowed them to bypass the city.
“I said it’s not going to dry up, we’ll have a larger number of people on the interstate and we’ll get a smaller percentage, but it’ll be larger number of people than we’ve had and it’ll be ever larger as we start more aggressively marketing to them,” Young said.
Much of that marketing in the late 1970s included billboards erected along I-95 by Pirates’ House owner Herb Traub promoting the restaurant and city. Another included a billboard placed across from the Charleston, S.C., Visitors’ Center telling travelers, ‘If you enjoy Charleston, South Carolina, you’ll Love Savannah.’
Williams, who also opened Spanky’s restaurant on River Street in 1976, began volunteering for the CVB and went on to serve as president of the Savannah Waterfront Association and chairman of First Saturday event. The creation of the bureau was a bright light for the waterfront as they worked to build momentum on River Street in the 1970s, he said.
“These guys were brilliant. I’d just sit around and through osmosis I’d learn so much,” Williams said.
“I was definitely a follower, I was 25 years old and trying to figure out what was going on, but we were fortunate to be associated with such incredible leaders. They set a great path for the city.”
The following years were full of memorable events, including the founding of Savannah on Stage, now the Savannah Music Festival, 1996 summer Olympics, filming of The Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the opening of the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center in 2000.
Records show just over 1.3 million people came to the city in 1977. For the most part, the number of visitors has grown each year since, surpassing 5 million in 1989 and 11 million in 2009. About 13.4 million visitors came through in 2014, numbers for 2015 aren’t available yet, but Marinelli expects to see a new record.
“When you think about the context of what they started 40 years ago, 13 million visitors later and we’ve even got an office in London, so we’ve come a long way,” said Marinelli, who is also celebrating his 10th year with the organization, which formally changed its name to Visit Savannah in 2010.
“It’s hugely gratifying,” Kleisner said of the tourism numbers.
An authentic experience
While tourism was once a seasonal operation, due to ongoing festivals and events like the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, Savannah Music Festival and the Savannah Food and Wine Festival it’s become an almost year-round industry.
Young also credits a lot of the success to historic preservation.
“The ability to attract visitors to Savannah is one of the things that really cemented the notion that we have a gem here that needs to be preserved, improved and enhanced and not something that is of limited value,” Young said.
“We have to stay anchored to that foundation of cobblestones and Live Oaks and Spanish Moss, yet still convey a vibrancy that makes it a place that will attract international visitors, millennials and the next generation of visitors,” Marinelli adds.
The men all agreed that Savannah’s beauty, architecture, overall rich culture and welcoming atmosphere keep visitors coming back year after year.
“The ocean, barrier islands and the Spanish Moss, it all just captures you,” Williams said.
With all of the different elements also comes different types of visitors, some for history and architecture others for film or southern cuisine and expanding air travel options have made it easier than ever for people to get to the city.
“We’ve broadened our market to where it’s a snapshot of the world in Savannah, but the style of Savannah has never changed,” Kleisner said.
“It’s the most welcoming place... The style of Savannah and the graciousness of its people is the element that people love.”
Savannah’s squares and ports are a few of the things that still resonate with the group, who all continue their efforts to be ambassadors, often stopping to help tourists and volunteering for various community organizations, including the Chamber and Tourism Leadership Council.
“It still gets my attention, and I pause to look at it 40 years later,” Williams said of passing cargo ships.
Being able to look back and see the positive changes and growth in Savannah’s tourism market from River Street to the southside is something each member of the group is thankful for.
“I look back on it and things are so much stronger and better. It’s been wonderful to look back and see continuing improvement and growth over the years. Not everybody who leaves a job can look back over 26 years and see that,” Young said. “It’s very gratifying.”
Going forward, the men hope to see a continued balance between tourism and residents.
While it’s great to have boutique hotels and new restaurants, Marinelli said, the organization stays mindful that Savannah is a residential community and strives to collaborate with residents and local government to make Savannah the best it can be.
“Challenges come along with it, but with the solid leadership, which we have, you deal with those problems and address them and I think it’s a manageable challenge,” Williams added
“It’s something that will be dealt with in a positive way, and I’m extremely proud of Savannah and what we’ve done here and the opportunity going forward... The CVB/Visit Savannah have the roots of a Live Oak tree, they’re solid.”
Savannah tourism by the numbers
Hotel rooms visitors direct spending
1977 2,700 1.352.144 $60.8M
1980 3,330 1,528,073 $91.M
1985 5,521 4,041,000 $189.1M
1990 6,875 1,762,000 $546.4M
1995 7,372 5,348,000 $673.4M
2000 9,819 5,700,000 $1.4B
2005 11,721 6,350,000 $1.4B
2010 14,893 11,400,000 $1.7B
2014 14,983 13,400,000 $2.5B
2015 15,009 N/A N/A