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Speaker: Richmond Hill can benefit from Savannahs tourism
VisitSavannah Rep
Visit Savannah President Joseph Marinelli speaks to the Rotary Club of Richmond Hill on Feb. 18 at the City Center. - photo by Photo by Brent Zell

Savannah’s tourism industry is recording huge numbers, and Richmond Hill can capitalize on that trend.

That was the message that Visit Savannah President Joseph Marinelli told members of the Rotary Club of Richmond Hill during the group’s weekly meeting Feb. 18 at the City Center.

Marinelli told club members that in 2014, the most recent year statistics are available, Savannah had 13.5 million visitors.

Those visitors spent an estimated $2.5 billion in the Savannah market, and helped the market achieve 74 percent hotel occupancy, up from 63 percent in 2012. Marinelli expects those categories to have even higher numbers when the 2015 data are available.

A deeper dig into the numbers showed how Richmond Hill can benefit from that.

Marinelli displayed a chart showing what activities visitors to the Savannah area do on overnight trips. About 28 percent come there to see historic sites, while the average rate of travelers throughout the country is 13 percent of tourists. And when it comes to activities of special interest, 50 percent of overnight travelers to Savannah take in historic places, compared to a 26 percent rate nationally.

“With what you have here in Richmond Hill, there are opportunities to maximize that,” Marinelli said.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the Richmond Hill Historical Society had formed a partnership with the Henry Ford Heritage Association in Michigan. The partnership puts Richmond Hill — which has numerous Ford-related sites — in a group with several other cities nationwide that have historically significant connections to the famed automobile manufacturer.

When Marinelli interviewed for his current position, he asked what the tourism season is like in the region. He was told that things don’t get going until St. Patrick’s Day and tend to peter out by midsummer because of the intense climate. Then, tourism picks up in fall, but is done by Halloween.

However, the numbers he presented told a different story. About 24 percent of overnight travelers come to Savannah in the January-March period, 27 percent come in April-June, 25 percent come in July-September, and 24 percent come in October-December. Marinelli said Savannah’s tourism season now typically begins in February, June and July have become good months, and other events help the season stay strong through the end of October.

“Now, (the St. Patrick’s Day celebration) is just another busy weekend for us. It’s a terrific weekend and I don’t mean to minimize it, but almost every weekend is very busy for us,” Marinelli said.

He also described hotel construction underway or recently completed in Savannah, with much of it coming in the form of boutique and specialty hotels. Boutique hotels, he said, typically have about 100 rooms and cater more to international visitors and millennials, or people born in the 1980s or 1990s. And the city’s retail scene is getting stronger, with Broughton Street having nine new, mostly upscale stores preparing to open.

Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is also adding more cities and flights through airlines such as Allegiant and JetBlue.

The burgeoning Savannah market mirrors what’s going on in the southeastern United States. Marinelli said that during a recent meeting he had in New York with editors with Travel + Leisure magazine, he was told that the Southeast is what the magazine’s readers want to read about.

The under-construction welcome center on Interstate 95 at the South Carolina border also will be a key to helping this region, Marinelli said. The building will have an “elaborate interactive experience” to immerse people in the coastal Georgia atmosphere and convince them to spend the night in the area.

Attractive tax incentives for film and TV production have made Georgia one of the top states in that industry — No. 3, in fact, behind only California and New York, Marinelli said. The Savannah Economic Development Authority gives additional incentives as well, which has increased production in coastal Georgia. Marinelli said the film version of the hit TV show “Baywatch” was going to be shot in South Florida, but moved production to Tybee Island to take advantage of the incentives.

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