Downtown Developments: Promoting Downtowns as a Visitor Attraction

June 4, 2021

By Cheryl Hargrove, Cultural Heritage Tourism Specialist Based on St. Simons Island

COVID-19 knocked our economy to its knees last year, as businesses shuttered and tourism screeched to a halt.

To help navigate COVID’s negative impacts and keep our communities—and particularly small businesses downtown—operating during the pandemic, some tourism bureaus shifted their focus from external marketing to promote hyperlocal activities to regional residents. When Georgia College in Milledgeville went to remote learning last fall, downtown merchants and businesses were particularly devastated by the absence of students. To help stimulate patronage and sales for the holiday season, the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) launched a special sweepstakes for shoppers. Customers were encouraged to bring in their receipt from one of the downtown businesses to the visitor center during the period of Small Business Saturday (right after Thanksgiving) until Christmas Eve. The incentive? Automatic registration for a drawing of several merchant prizes— from coffee every month to a Traeger Grill—all valued at $150 or more. The sweepstakes tracked more than $14,000 in spending at downtown venues and garnered a great deal of awareness for local businesses.

As visitors get vaccinated and restrictions drop on gatherings, tourism bureaus seek to attract more day and overnight travelers, particularly from nearby drive markets, to stimulate local economies. Promotions often showcase the unique attributes of downtowns to enhance the destination’s brand. For instance, the Milledgeville CVB website features 10 women-owned businesses (eight of whom are downtown) and six Black-owned businesses. Two of the Black-owned businesses are downtown; the others are located around the county—a great opportunity for getting visitors to linger longer in the area. The Thomasville Visitor Center pre-packages special itineraries focusing on themes including historic sites, a Taste of Thomasville Food Tour, a spa and wine experience and golf. Each Getaway Package includes $20 in “Downtown Dollars” to spend like cash on shopping and dining in Thomasville’s award-winning downtown. On its website, Visit Beaufort (SC) offers downloadable coupons for discounts at downtown merchants and attractions. Not only do these promotions encourage patronage at downtown businesses, they are also measurable.

Outdoor activities now rank high on traveler’s list of preferences, so many tourism bureaus throughout Georgia and the U.S. promote their natural assets in tandem with downtown experiences. The Woodstock Visitor Center describes “a place to escape, gather and refresh with colors, sounds and tastes vibrant and diverse” with the energy and spirit of a community revitalized. The CVB markets its retail district with recreational activities accessible from downtown—such as the Noonday Creek Trail. The Holland (Michigan) Area Visitors Bureau has seen an uptick in self-guided walking tours. As tourism director Linda Hart said, “(Visitors) want to explore downtown and the historic district. They’re asking about the banner exhibit downtown. It’s almost as if people are realizing that our downtown area is a canvas for public art.” From murals to sculpture, public art is the centerpiece of many downtown promotions—combining walking tours, shopping and culture. The Downtown Frederick Public Art Trail is promoted by Visit Frederick (Maryland) as an “outdoor gallery” with 20 sites interspersed among shops, historic sites and parks.

With CVBs shifting marketing to out-of-town audiences, the local perspective is still valued. In Arkansas, the “Little Rock Like a Local” campaign encourages visitors to discover downtown and its unique neighborhoods to fully appreciate the city’s heartbeat. The CVB offers downloadable maps and information to encourage exploration. Other destinations use local “insider information” to build apps linking history, culture, nature and commerce. The Amelia Island Tourist Development Council (FL) includes a digital travel guide for Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach on its website. Then, visitors are encouraged to download the free DISTRI app for the latest downtown offers and promotions, parking information, list of businesses and upcoming events. #LoveAmelia also offers $100 “Island Perks” incentive cards for visitors to spend around town—all designed to help support local small businesses and the community.

As we enter a post-pandemic “reopening” phase, visitors still want many of the same experiences as pre-COVID: to feel welcomed and safe and experience unique shops and activities they cannot find at home. Our downtowns provide many of these desired destination attractions. Ensuring visitors are aware of how to explore downtown and support local businesses through tourism spending is now a great opportunity for destination marketers.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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