Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
In August 2012, the Georgia Department of Economic Development released a 2011 study of travel economic impact on Georgia's states, counties and regions that revealed that tourism is the second leading industry in the state accounting for $22.7 billion in expenditures.
"It's something the state puts together every year," said the general manager of the James H. Rainwater Conference Center Tim Riddle.
Out of 159 counties, Lowndes County ranked 21st in terms of population and yet managed to rank 13th in travel expenditures statewide.
"We're doing better than we should based on size alone," said Riddle.
So what lies behind Lowndes County's appeal? According to Riddle, several things.
"Here in Valdosta we have a two pronged approach," said Riddle.
On one hand, you have the Valdosta-Lowndes County Tourism Authority that actively works to keep tourism in the area thriving.
On the other hand, that authority has an intertwined and working relationship with the conference center that plays a large role in bringing business to the area.
While the economic downfall largely affected the tourism business and depleted the customer base that could not afford frivolous vacations and getaways, it worked as somewhat of an advantage for the conference center in Valdosta who reaped the benefits of the small market, perfect for social and business functions who are looking to downsize and save money.
"When tourism is slow, that's when you hope to bring in people with places like [the conference center]," said Riddle.
Riddle would never say that Valdosta is "cheap", but he does play on the city's good value.
"Our facility is going to be a little less expensive and more cost effective in comparison to bigger markets," said Riddle. "Small can be better."
The James H. Rainwater Conference Center offers all the modern amenities — such as wi-fi and sound systems — of larger markets such as Atlanta, with all of the small-town convenience and personal attention gained from downsizing.
"Here, personal service is what we can sell," said Riddle. "We think we are an attractive alternative to the big markets."
Now that the conference center has found an experienced and successful leader in Riddle, they are now steadily building a team around them that will help drive the conference center and tourism to the next level.
"We've been staffing up," said Riddle.
A new director of sales and a conference services manager have just been hired to help structure what Riddle calls the center’s "game plan".
With a new staff and a new direction, collateral materials are being developed to help sell Lowndes County and the conference center.
On paper, Valdosta and Lowndes County are an easy sell. A state of the art conference center surrounded by lodging that is on average $20 to $30 cheaper per night in comparison to bigger markets, a mall, numerous restaurants, newly opened Gander Mountain and Academy Sports, a great downtown area, an art center, Valdosta State University and of course, Wild Adventures. According to Riddle, Valdosta is a place not just for business, but for fun.
It is all that and so much more that contributed to Lowndes County's $234.8 million in travel expenditures, $6.8 million in local tax revenue and contributed $53 million to payroll expenditures to more than 2,400 people employed in tourism related businesses last year alone.
Lowndes County may not be the biggest county in the state, but its progress in the tourism industry has proven that the best gifts truly come in the smallest packages.
Lowndes County tourism at a glimpse:
• Expenditures- Brought in $234.83 million (1.14 percent distribution).
• Payroll- Brought in $53.58 million (0.81 percent distribution).
• Employment- 2,043 (1.13 percent distribution).
• State Tax- Brought in $9.13 million (0.99 percent distribution).
• Local Tax- $6.87 million (1.18 percent distribution).
Georgia tourism at a glimpse:
• Total domestic and international traveler expenditures in the state totaled $22.7 billion (in current dollars) in 2011, representing an increase of 8 percent from 2010.
• In 2011, total spending generated by domestic travelers in Georgia rose 8.6 percent to $20.5 billion, while international traveler spending increased 2.7 percent to $2.2 billion.
• Domestic and international travelers' spending in Georgia directly supported 238,400 jobs for the Georgia travel industry, rising 1.4 percent compared to 2010.
• On average, every $93,350 spent in Georgia by domestic and international travelers generated one job in 2011.
• In 2011, wages and salaries paid to employees in the Georgia travel industry was up 5.6 percent from 2010 to $7.3 billion.
• Domestic and international traveler expenditures in Georgia generated $1.7 billion in tax revenue for state and local governments in 2011, up 5.1 percent from 2010.
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