Athens’ tourism weathers chilly economic climatePosted: March 22, 2009
A Valdosta, Ga., travel agent spends her lunch break browsing hotels in Athens, Ga. They are all booked solid, but she checks dutifully in hopes of a cancellation.
Families of university students graduating this spring are hard-pressed to find a place to stay for the commencement weekend. May 8-9 will bring thousands of visitors to Athens, so many visitors that there is not a single hotel room available in the city limits.
This scene is contrary to the notion that Americans are not traveling in order to pinch pennies.
The recession nay-sayers have all but changed their tunes. It is universally agreed upon that the nation is in a bona fide recession. Consumer spending dropped by $102.4 billion in December, a month when many willingly sacrifice their paychecks to the retail powers that be.
It seems as though the national recession is hitting every industry hard. A 2001 Yahoo! Hot Jobs article listed education as a recession-busting industry. Schools are thought to be safe employers, yet Clayton County schools fired 200 teachers this month.
When such a compulsory institution as education suffers cutbacks, it spells trouble for other industries, especially the hospitality business.
“This is the business that is most affected,” former Athens mayor and Classic Center board of directors member Gwen O’Looney said of tourism said in an Athens Banner-Herald article entitled ‘Athens tourism hit, but not fatally.’ “The entertainment business, it’s a luxury business.”
Some say that Athens, Ga., is recession-proof. Tourism is Georgia’s second largest industry, and Athens is among the most attractive cities for visitors. Home of the Bulldogs, neighbor to Atlanta and Mecca of the music scene, there is plenty to see and do.
Tourism in Athens peaks in the fall when visitors from far and wide come to watch University of Georgia football. Hotels and restaurants are often filled to capacity on home game weekends. So is Athens really recession-proof?
Mark Adams, director of convention sales for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that he has seen a slight drop in leisure travel in 2009 compared to 2008.
There is one category of leisure travel that is booming, according to Adams. “Athens is doing incredible wedding business,” he said.
Business travel is going steady, Adams said.
“We are seeing a small drop off in meetings and conventions, not for long-term but short-term,” he said. Short-term bookings are those made six months or fewer in advance. Still, he said, “we are increasing in Georgia State Association businesses and meetings with the Department of Education.”
Long-term reservations are steady, indicating that many may feel as though the recession is a temporary kink that will work itself out by year’s end.
Athens’ close proximity to Atlanta may be its saving grace. Cutbacks in corporate spending on business travel allows many businesspeople to justify a trip to Athens, which is considered an educational destination, rather than places like Savannah, which is much further away and better known for entertainment, Adams said.
Adams said that in order to weather the chilly economic climate, the Visitors Bureau uses intensely targeted marketing to draw tourists to Athens.
“We know that 90 percent of our visitors, leisure or business, come from the Atlanta area. We are only advertising in that market,” he said.
Adams’ advice for other businesses suffering the economic downturn is to offer incentives to visitors. Freebies, discounts and packages are all factors that could sway tourists to choose Athens over places like Savannah.
Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer echoes many of Adams’ sentiments. He said in the Athens Banner-Herald article, which ran on Feb. 26, 2009, that he expects to finish the fiscal year with a profit, and that business should pick up next year.
Leisure travel benefits not only local businesses. The Hotel-Motel Excise Tax, an Athens-Clarke County ordinance that went into effect Jan. 1, 1998, places a tax of seven percent of the rent of hotel and motel rooms.
The revenue from the tax on hotel and motel rooms is split among the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Athens-Clarke Economic Development Foundation and the Classic Center, which brings in much of Athens’ tourism.
Community members have a vested interest in promoting tourism in Athens. According to the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau monthly newsletter from May 2008, revenue from travel generated 242,700 jobs in Georgia.
Taxes like the Hotel-Motel Excise Tax and sales tax also generated $1.5 billion in revenue for the state, which “fund vital quality of life improvements such as educational programs, roads, hospitals and social and community projects,” according to the newsletter.
The U.S. economy faces a long road ahead, and local businesses will undoubtedly experience some of the blow, but by all indications, The Classic City will come out in fair shape.