Maybe it’s an understatement to say the past five years have been eventful for Hall County’s tourism industry.
First, there was a name change for the area’s main marketing group. Then came the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, one that battered tourism and other economic sectors.
Finally, in 2009, Gainesville withdrew funding from Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau to form its own agency, Gainesville Tourism & Trade.
“Sometimes, you go through some hard times and come out better on the other side, and I think that’s where we are,” said Stan Brown, Oakwood’s city manager and former chairman of the Lake Lanier CVB’s board of directors.
Tourism has long been big business in the Hall area, with huge draws such as Lake Lanier Islands, Road Atlanta and Chateau Elan, and just serving as the gateway to the North Georgia mountains.
But five years ago, the 16-year-old Gainesville-Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau felt like it needed to rebrand itself.
“With the name change, the idea was to have a name that matched up with the location,” said Brown, the CVB executive committee’s senior adviser. “When you say Gainesville-Hall, unless you’re from this area, you wouldn’t really know a whole lot about what that means.
“Lake Lanier is a very recognizable destination.”
The lake draws 7 million visitors per year and features Lake Lanier Islands Resort, which has spent millions on upgrades, including a major face-lift of its signature hotel, Legacy Lodge.
The Gainesville-Hall CVB became the Lake Lanier CVB in April 2008.
“The main attractor is the lake,” Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier CVB, said at the time. “That will get people to click and, from there, will teach them about Gainesville, Oakwood and Flowery Branch.”
But by then, the economy was starting to slip. To make financial matters worse, in September 2009, Gainesville City Council voted to pull out of the CVB, city officials saying they sensed the bureau was not as focused on bringing tourism to Gainesville as it was other areas of the county.
“The board is quite concerned about how we’ll go forward and what changes will have to be made because of the decrease in funding,” Betsy Adams, Lake Lanier CVB chairwoman, said at the time.
In 2010, the CVB closed its welcome center off Interstate 985 between Oakwood and Flowery Branch, citing high overhead costs and low traffic.
By July 2010, the CVB was working to come out of its doldrums, setting “Fantastic Five” goals to meet between 2011 and 2015: working toward a new visitor information center off I-985; developing a multifaceted public relations and marketing strategy; developing and promoting tourist destinations; finding new and different revenue sources; and developing and nurturing partnerships, such as with Gainesville.
“By scaling back and reprioritizing our goals, it’s made it where we can have achievable objectives where we can see results in the things we’re doing,” Dickson said.
In looking back over the past few years, Brown said last week, “We kind of had to readjust with our budget and ... we’ve been sort of like nomads. We’ve had some transition of office space.”
The office is now based at the Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville.
“There have been growing pains and all the things that go along with starting something new, but we’ve weathered all that pretty well,” Dickson said.
“The feedback that we’ve gotten from visitors and our peers, in the form of awards that we’ve won for some of the marketing efforts we’ve done, really has put wind in our sails.”
Brown said even though the CVB has focused its “efforts toward the attractions here, outside of Gainesville, we still try to work with Gainesville as much as possible and support each other.”
“Anything that’s good in Gainesville is good for the community at large, and the same thing with anything good that happens with Lake Lanier and the Hall County area is good for Gainesville.”
Deb Gregson, tourism manager for Gainesville, said that having separate entities has enabled the Gainesville Tourism and Trade Office to “concentrate on promoting attractions, meeting/sporting facilities and events, and taking care of the needs of travelers on a daily basis in Gainesville.”
However, “when needed, to make us a more attractive and stronger competitor in the market, Lake Lanier CVB and our office will work together to provide for the needs of the tournament or group that would like to bring their event to our area.”
Gregson cited as examples the groups meeting with a large organization wanting to use the Lanier Point Softball Complex in Gainesville and other area fields or a “state conference looking to hold its conference at Lake Lanier Islands but enjoy our vibrant downtown as part of their entertainment.”
Dickson said Gainesville “is still the hub for lodging and travel at Lake Lanier,” as the greatest concentration of lodging, dining and other facilities are within the city limits.
“We have seen the need to partner with the city for large events — especially in the sports market — in order to be competitive with our peers in other areas,” she said.
Hotels in both tourism areas add up to about 1,000 rooms, and that’s “not enough to attract a lot of new business,” especially when competing metro Atlanta counties, including Gwinnett, have several thousand hotel rooms each “and are adding inventory regularly.”
Coming out of the Great Recession, “inquiries are definitely up,” Dickson said.
“We have seen a rather large jump in our website hits and social media likes since the first of the year,” she said, adding that “more inquiries and online page views usually equate to higher conversion to visitation.”
For her part, Gregson is optimistic about Gainesville’s tourism future.
“I think it’s only going to get better,” she said. “Despite the downturn in the economy, there has been an increase in the hotel/motel tax for the past four years. I believe it’s because we have a beautiful product to sell.
“We are a community rich in history, arts, leisure activities, sporting facilities, parks and, above all, great people.”