Last year, the Hostess City welcomed more visitors than ever and those guests spent more money while they were here.
According to the annual Visit Savannah Visitor Study compiled by Longwoods International, total visitor spending surged to $2.8 billion in 2016, a 4.5 percent increase over 2015, which brought in $2.67 billion.
The overall number of visitors also increased from 13.7 million in 2015 to 13.9 million last year, or about a 1.4 percent increase. Overnight visitors accounted for 7.9 million people, and 6 million people made day trips
Given the less-than-desirable impact of Tropical Storm Hermine over Labor Day weekend and the destruction from Hurricane Matthew in October, Visit Savannah president Joseph Marinelli was happy to see the increases in visitors and spending.
“For us to see the kinds of numbers we’ve seen, and have one busy weekend and then October wrecked, is great,” Marinelli said.
Overnight visitors spent the bulk of their cash on accommodations, contributing $962 million to lodging, followed by food and beverages with $509 million and $314 million in the retail sector. Day-trippers contributed $212 million to food and beverages; $164 million to retail and $96 million to both transportation and recreation.
Shopping remains the most popular experience among travelers, with 45 percent of visitors reporting that they fill up shopping bags during their trip.
“When you look at the blend of national brands and local makers living together, that’s what makes a destination a great place to visit,” Marinelli said of Broughton Street.
“… When you travel there’s comfort in looking up and seeing that brands that you recognize and then there’s curiosity in the local markers, but you want that mix. Broughton Street is just the anchor of an exploding retail and restaurant experience, and I think visitors and locals are both benefiting from it.”
Fine dining and landmark and historic site visits came in as the second and third most popular activities. While both activities have consistently ranked in the top three, they traded places in 2016 as the second and third most popular activities.
“Dining is second now, and I have to attribute that to the shift in culinary experiences here with The Grey, Collins Quarter, the Vault and all the new places coming in,” he said.
Feeder markets diversify
Atlanta, as it has for many years, continues to be the main feeder market for overnight visitors, but for the first time Los Angeles has made an appearance on the list, coming in at No. 8 on the top 10 list of origin markets, which is something Marinelli attributes to the growing number of television and film productions the area has seen in the past couple of years.
“The answer has to be television and movie making. With more productions coming to town, that certainly influenced visitation last year,” he said.
“We don’t have nonstop (flights) to the West Coast right now, so we certainly haven’t made it easier for them to get here, so it has to be the productions.”
Florida cities, including Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, also continue to send in visitors. Marinelli said his team focused more marketing efforts on Florida at the request of festival organizers.
“When the numbers came out, five of the top 10 markets were all from Florida, so we saw the shift in our efforts reflected,” he said.
While most visitors stay in hotels or with friends and family, the ever-growing share economy-based accommodations like Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner are climbing higher on the list every year.
In 2016 Airbnb ranked Savannah as the top “wish listed” domestic destination on its website. Last year, 14 percent of visitors stayed in a rented home, condo, apartment or cottage, which is 7 percent higher than the national average for overnight visitors.
“Two years ago, we weren’t having this conversation, so for overnight travelers we see the impact,” Marinelli said.
Looking toward the future
New projects like the Plant Riverside District — hotelier Richard Kessler’s $270 million hotel and entertainment development, which will include a 419-room JW Marriott on the west end of River Street — are already making an impact.
“We’ve already got our first signed convention contract for the JW Marriott, so that’s a big deal,” Marinelli said, adding that the transformation of River Street is a major positive, but the impact of adding a third Marriott property to Savannah is likely to have a big economic impact on the city.
“Marriott is the largest hotel company in the world, so the impact of Marriott sales and marketing power in the industry goes far beyond Marriott Honored Guest travelers; there are many convention groups that only stay at Marriott properties, because they have very good hotels, so we’re going to benefit from that,” he said.
Balancing tourists, residents
With more visitors likely in the next few years, Visit Savannah, along with the City of Savannah, Tourism Leadership Council, Historic Savannah Foundation, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, are funding a tourism management study in an effort to find a plan that strikes a positive balance between tourism and residential quality of life.
The study — conducted by The Experience Institute — is in the second of three phases and includes an online survey and face-to-face strategy sessions. The final plan, expected to serve as a guide for the city for three to five years, is slated to be presented in August.
“I feel like their work is about setting the framework for the future, not creating the management plan… We’re the ones that have to make it happen,” Marinelli said.
Marinelli said he was pleased with the study thus far and encouraged residents to voice their opinions by taking the survey.
“We’re all in this together. Tourism has no desire to alienate our residential neighbors, and so the tourism management plan will help us by setting the course for the future,” he said.
“It’s important for us to protect what we have here.”
By the Numbers
Total visitor spending
2012 $2.07 B
2013 $2.29 B
2014 $2.50 B
2015 $2.76 B
2016 $2.80 B
2012 12.4 M
2013 13 M
2014 13.4 M
2015 13.7 M
2016 13.9 M