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Savannah tourism leaders talk crime, hospitality at annual luncheon

  • Michael Owens, president/CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council

The Savannah hospitality industry employs more than 27,000 people who work year round to serve millions of visitors and residents. On Thursday, some of those industry leaders had the chance to voice their comments and concerns on a wide range of topics, including hotel development, health of the industry, parking and crime, during the Tourism Leadership Council’s annual State of Tourism Conversation luncheon.

“From the advocacy side of the TLC, that’s a great way to recognize what our members are concerned about,” said TLC CEO and President Michael Owens, who fielded questions from the audience alongside Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli.

“… It tells us what’s on people’s minds. What are they afraid of? What are they excited about? We call it the State of Tourism Conversation because that’s exactly what it is.”

A few ways for businesses and citizens to get involved, he said, are by participating in mentorship, reading or neighborhood watch programs.

“It’s not all up to the police and judges; it’s up to us, too. It’s not one party’s responsibility, so we’ve all got to make sure we’re playing our part,” he said.

Owens, who also is chairman of the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Foundation, said the TLC continuously tries to engage its members with police officials through meetings, and the perception that action will only be taken when it begins to affect tourism, which is widely discussed on social media, is simply not true.

“We’ve been talking about crime and the perception of crime as (tourism) business has continued to increase. That’s an important note,” he said.

“For those who think that we’re just reacting now either have not been paying attention or don’t know necessarily know what the reality is. The other thing to remember is that we’re all Savannahians. It’s our neighbors who are hurt and it’s our neighbors who become victims and that’s real for us. This is our home.”

Owens, who encouraged industry leaders at Thursday’s meeting to train valet and other highly visible staff to speak up when they notice unusual behavior, said that everyone has to step up and do their part.

“We have an obligation. Every citizen in this town has an obligation to help our law enforcement community and that’s not just police,” he said.

“We try to connect those things all the time.”

Tourism industry stats

A record-breaking 13.9 million people visited Savannah in 2016 and, according to recent statistics provided by Visit Savannah, hotel occupancy is on still on the rise.

Last month, the city’s overall occupancy rate was 77 percent and the Historic District was 86 percent occupied. The city’s overall average from January to June was 74 percent.

“The current state of tourism in our community is incredibly strong,” said Marinelli.

“Those are really strong numbers for year-to-date, and average rates are the highest that they’ve ever been.”

About 27,000 people across Chatham County depend on the hospitality industry for jobs, and Owens said the industry has never been stronger.

“We’re employing more people than we ever have and that means we’re offering more career opportunities than we ever have, and we remember that this is an industry unlike any other. You can start as a housekeeper and end up as a general manager, and that’s not the exception, that’s the rule,” Owens said.

“When we talk about jobs, it’s not just a number. It’s not just 27,000 people, it’s 27,000 lives with children, commitments, with educational aspirations, and this industry makes that possible.”

“We don’t call it an address. We call it a conversation. Our membership is pretty in the know as to what’s going on. They read the paper and watch the news, but this is an opportunity to ask all the questions they want.”

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