Experience Columbus celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2016 on the heels of a record-breaking 2015. The previous year saw 37.9 million annual visitors – 300,000 more than 2014. City of Columbus bed tax generated a record $42.6 million, over $4 million more than 2014’s total. Overall, the visitor industry in Columbus has blossomed into a $8.7 billion pipeline that supports 71,000 jobs in Columbus and Franklin county.
Columbus only has itself to thank for the results.
“We’re very fortunate that our organization has been able to grow in the last 10-15 years particularly because our community has really developed itself,” says Experience Columbus President & CEO Brian Ross.
A refocus on the urban core, growing suburbs and the rebirth of Downtown living have all contributed to the city’s energy – an energy Experience Columbus has the job of marketing.
“Our organization, being the marketing/sales arm in the community, has had success because our community has built success,” Ross says. “None of this happens without the overall community support and collaboration.”
He fires off examples of the city’s success – a growing culinary scene, the rise of microbreweries, a top fashion mecca, Short North’s growth. Ross wants to continue the collaboration that has fueled these efforts and given Columbus a name as a smart and open city.
“Our success is dictated by the collaborative nature of our community,” Ross says.
As an organization, Experience Columbus wants to spread the word nationally and internationally about all the great things that are happening in the city. Last year alone 91 travel writers published over 1,000 pieces with ties to Columbus. Ross expresses the importance of bringing these influencers to the city to experience Columbus first-hand versus just pushing out information.
“As soon as they come to Columbus it’s like you see the lightbulb go on,” says Megumi Robinson, associate director of public relations at Experience Columbus.
Visitors like these and their spending power pump $5.7 billion dollars into Columbus’ economy. Retail, food & beverage, transportation, entertainment and lodging see the biggest spends. In those segments are many small businesses that give Columbus its uniqueness.
Experience Columbus helps give a voice to its small business members. While organizations like the Columbus Chamber of Commerce are paramount for the day-to-day operational pieces like business plans and expansions, Experience Columbus helps market a business, telling its story and directly bringing visitors (and residents) into establishments.
Two projects in particular have accounted for thousands of customers and transactions at local small businesses. Launched in September of 2014, nearly 2,000 individuals have completed the Columbus Coffee Trail.
The idea was inspired by widely known-travel adventures like Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.
“What do we do great?” Ross asks. “What are we known for locally that people may not know?”
The answer was coffee.
“Coffee is something that is really distinct in Columbus,” Robinson says. “We also have a really collaborative coffee community.”
Trail-goers must purchase drinks at least four different coffee shops to complete the excursion. Ross points out that equates to 8,000 transactions spread across a number of small businesses. While plenty of Columbus residents are on the trail, Robinson is excited by the number of out-of-towners that are turning in completed passports.
“Visitors are coming here and they want to do that Coffee Trail experience,” she says.
Launched in May of 2015, the Ale Trail followed a similar suite responding to the dozen or so breweries that have opened in the last five years alone. In less than a year, the Ale Trail has amassed nearly 1,000 completions, equating to at least another 4,000 transaction at small businesses.
Experience Columbus has its sights set on keeping a steady flow of visitors coming to Columbus over the next five years, aiming for an additional 2.5 million that will ideally increase annual direct visitor spending by $1.6 billion. That increase has the potential to add another 6,500 tourism-related jobs.
“We’ve set aggressive five-year goals focused on growing the tourism economy and increasing awareness of our city’s pulse to shine a spotlight on what is distinctly and authentically Columbus,” Ross says. “To attain these goals, we will rally community support and prioritize high-yield business segments such as medical, engineering, scientific and corporate.”
As Columbus becomes more well-known as a convention destination, Experience Columbus hopes to be able to bring more conventions and meetings from these industries. These groups tend to spend more money, staying for longer periods of time and doing more entertaining in the area.
For more information, visit ExperienceColumbus.com.