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Savannah Trade Center business challenges records

With just a month left in fiscal 2017, Savannah’s International Trade & Convention Center is performing at its highest level ever, with hotel-room nights in the city’s convention district approaching the record set in 2004 when the G-8 Summit was in town.

That meeting of world leaders in Savannah and on Sea Island 13 years ago pushed local room nights to 82,636 for the year.

The projected number of room nights for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which ends June 30, currently stands at 97,381, but that includes 21,350 absorbed by last November’s Rock ‘n Roll Marathon.

Discounting the marathon numbers, the trade center is expected to fall just short of toppling the G-8’s record year when the final numbers are in.

Trade center general manager Sherrie Spinks said the staff pulls out the marathon numbers to get a more accurate comparison, as that event didn’t begin coming to Savannah until 2011.

“The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon brings an estimated 21,000 room nights every year, which is significant,” Spinks said. “So, to compare apples to apples, we exclude those numbers when we compare years.”

Record or not, Georgia International & Maritime Trade Center Authority Chairman Mark Smith was excited about the numbers.

“This is definitely the best year we’ve had since the G-8,” Smith told the authority board last week, adding that it’s especially significant in that 2016-17 was an off-year for one of the facility’s largest conventions, which meets every other year.

“The bottom-line takeaway is this facility is performing at its highest level ever; with the standard being the huge anomaly that was the G-8,” he said.

Finishing strong

For the month of May, the trade center posted a profit of $116,000 compared to a budgeted loss of $40,000, trade center finance director Stephen Hall told board.

“This puts the trade center building on track to end the year $346,000 favorable to budget, primarily due to increased food and beverage revenues and several unbudgeted events,” Hall said.

“Favorable to budget” is not an indication that the trade center is in the black, but rather that it beat budgeted projections. Convention centers rarely make money, but rather support those lucrative industries — such as trade and tourism — that contribute to a community’s economic wellbeing.

Overall, the authority is expected to end the year $1.3 million favorable to budget, due to better-than-expected operating results from the building, decreased costs of water ferry operations and higher hotel/motel tax revenues, he said, adding that $1 million of that will roll over into the next year’s capital budget.

Year-end water ferry operations are predicted to be some $70,000 favorable to budget, while hotel/motel tax revenues for the year-to-date were $322,309 favorable to budget –despite the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Matthew.

“All in all, we have a great year shaping up with less than a month to go,” Hall said.

A need to grow

It didn’t take this year’s good numbers to convince the authority board that the 17-year-old convention center needs to grow.

For several years, Smith has had staff keep a running list of larger groups that indicated they would come to Savannah if the facility had more meeting and exhibit space and their participants could be housed in fewer hotel rooms.

He also has a list of groups that already come to Savannah and would like to continue, but are outgrowing the trade center.

It’s a conundrum that Smith and the board have discussed at length.

“As your reputation for hosting a great convention grows, so does the number of people who want to come to the next convention.

“We have to be ready to accommodate those groups that want to grow with us.”

‘Going in right direction’

The proliferation of new hotels coming up within the convention district – including a 300-room Omni on Hutchinson Island — is encouraging, Smith said, adding that an expansion of the trade center building will help the authority compete for more convention business to fill those rooms.

To that end, the authority brought in Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates of Atlanta and Hansen Architects of Savannah -- the team that designed the original trade center building some 20 years ago -- to meet with Atlanta-based hotel developer Songy Highroads, which will build and operate the new Omni, to begin preliminary design work on the expansion.

Smith’s request of Gov. Nathan Deal for $3 million to complete design work was approved and included in the governor’s recently released supplemental budget under the auspices of the OneGeorgia Authority.

“We expect to be meeting with the OneGeorgia Authority in the next few weeks to establish criteria for moving forward,” he said. “We do know they are going to want some significant economic modeling. They will want to know things like how many jobs will be created by the expansion, how many additional hotel rooms the expansion should generate, how much sales tax will be generated.

“So, once we meet with OneGeorgia and get our instructions and criteria, we‘ll work on getting that information back to them so we can proceed.”

Officers remain same

The trade center board also voted last week to continue the current slate of officer for the upcoming year.

In addition to Smith, they are Benjamin Polote Jr., vice chairman; Dennis Baxter, treasurer; and Trey Cook, secretary.

THE LATEST NUMBERS

In May, the trade center hosted 32 conventions, trade shows or meetings with more than 4,700 in attendance, accounting for 9,354 total room nights. Direct attendee spending was $3.3 million, with an overall economic impact of $6.2 million.

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THE LATEST NUMBERS

In May, the trade center hosted 32 conventions, trade shows or meetings with more than 4,700 in attendance, accounting for 9,354 total room nights. Direct attendee spending was $3.3 million, with an overall economic impact of $6.2 million.

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