Visit Savannah

Savannah: impulse-buy of the South

Hostess

Savannah's actual nickname is "The Hostess City of the South," but I'm thinking we need to change that. For one thing, I always get this picture in my head of one of those little Hostess snack cakes (the chocolate ones with the white squigglies on top) and the Talmadge Bridge in the background. For an another, it's completely inaccurate. Savannah rarely gets the chance to play hostess to anyone because no one ever takes the time to make plans before coming here. Despite the best efforts of the Tourism Leadership Council and Visit Savannah, this place is still not a primary vacation destination. It's an afterthought for most people or an impulsive last-minute decision at best. I'm not the only person to make this observation. I've been hitting up the downtown concierges a lot lately (trying to drum up some business) and many of them have been telling me the same thing. It really seems to be the case that people just sort of wake up in the morning and say, "I think I'll go to Savannah today." So, they drive down from Atlanta or up from Jacksonville or whatever, stagger into the hotel, set their luggage down, then stand around with no idea what to do. They confusedly gravitate toward the biggest, shiniest attraction they see, like bewildered, sunburned little moths. That's how everybody ends up on a 90-minute ride with Old Town Trolley and a brief sojourn on River Street, then drives back home Sunday morning thinking they've covered all the important stuff and have no need to return and continue exploring. It makes me sad. Most of the reservations I get are from people who are in town only for the day or only for the weekend, lots of last-minute gigs. The time I meet up with them is about the time they are just beginning to realize there is a lot more to do here than they thought and they should have planned ahead or should have planned to stay longer. Hardly anyone ever tells me they are staying for a week or two weeks or a month. I can probably count the number of such tourists I've met on one hand. I have met many people who tell me they have come to Savannah several times, but "Never made it up from River Street." Oh, that also makes me so, so sad.

What people also tell me is that they have been to Charleston several times or they've been coming to Hilton Head for years and finally decided to spend a day in Savannah. A lot of visitors only think to come here once they have exhausted all the good stuff in neighboring cities (or think they have, anyway). Savannah doesn't appear to be a first choice for much of the traveling public. It's the place you go to when Charleston, Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Jacksonville have all lost their appeal. I do find it encouraging that some of those same people also say, "There's so much to do here!" or "It's so beautiful- we should have come sooner!" But will it be in their budget to come back again any time soon or even in the next few years? I don' t know. I also meet a lot of tourists who are on their way to or from somewhere else. "Oh, we're going down to Miami and decided to spend a day in Savannah." "We're coming back up from Florida to Virginia and are stopping in historic cities along the way." Savannah tends to be part of a larger itinerary, not an attraction in and of itself. People don't come to coastal Georgia for the purpose of visiting Savannah. They visit Savannah because they happened to be in coastal Georgia.

So, there you have my little theory. Savannah is the vacation equivalent of an impulse-buy, an item you tack onto your list after you've already checked off the "important" stuff. Hm. In that way, I guess it is like one of those little snack cakes that grabs your attention as you're pushing your cart toward the cash register. Well, that does add a new layer of meaning to our title as Hostess City.

 

A Slow Ride for Slow Times

Well, 2012 was a dismal year and 2013 isn't shaping up to be any better so far. I simply cannot figure out what changed between December 2011 and January 2012 that would cause my business to collapse like the sunny side of an iceberg. The decline is especially galling in light of the fact that Visit Savannah keeps insisting tourism was up this year. It makes me wonder what their definition of "up" is. Or maybe they don't actually know what "tourism" means. My understanding is the only numbers they really have to work with are the hotel occupancy rates. More people coming to Savannah should mean more people doing tours and shopping and stuff, but that does not appear to be the case. I've heard from numerous other walking tour owners (with a few irritating exceptions) and other business owners that 2012 was a bad year. I don't know what conclusion to draw from this disparate data. How can tourism be up and down at the same time? It did occur to me that Savannah's participation in the Rock 'n Roll Marathon the last couple of years might be skewing the numbers. It brings 20,000 people to the city all at once, but they're here to run, not play. Most of them only stay overnight or for a day, then they're gone. So, there's that. Maybe the type of tourists that came to Savannah was different this year. Visit Savannah has the specifically stated goal of attracting high-caliber travelers, but perhaps their aim is off. They may have flung their nets wide and only drug in the beer-guzzling boors who stay overnight to party a bit, do a ghost tour, and leave the next afternoon. I don't know. I just don't know what happened. Desperate times call for desperate measures, though. Another tour guide acquaintance of mine let slip at the Crystal Beer Parlor one night that the Savannah Slow Ride was in desperate need of certified tour guides. I contacted one of the owners through Facebook to offer my services and Samantha was glad to accept my resume. I've ridden along on one of their daytime tours (conducted by my friend Lawrence) and one of their ghost tours (led by one of my other friends, Louis) to get the hang of things. Samantha still hasn't given me any paid work to do yet, which I hate because I need money and I needed it yesterday. Thing is, February is still the slow season even for a business that is doing better than mine. The timing is just awful. I have so many bills that come due in January and February and those are the months when I have the least money, even in a good year. I have to renew my business license, pay my car insurance, pay for my vehicle registration, pay for my website, and so on and so forth. Samantha told me they have a lot of tours on the books next weekend, but I won't be available for any nighttime work because I have a show to do at the Bay Street Theatre on the 15, 16, and 17, which I had already committed to before I ever contacted the Slow Ride. Why is all of the timing always bad?! Damn you, February! You will always be a 28-day, twisted dwarf of a month who drags his clubfoot across the calendar and makes everyone else uncomfortable! I hate you.

If  I can claw my way through the month, though, the money should be pretty good once the season hits high gear in the Spring. The Slow Ride is only entering its second year in business, but it has become very popular. The story I heard was that Samantha got the idea when she was in Milwaukee (beer, anyone?) and saw this giant bicycle thing being pedaled by all these people who were having a great time and drinking beer as they went. She got all fired up and her husband built what's called a quadricycle and they started this company. The quadricycle is like a giant table on wheels with a cover over it. There are seats along each side and the riders pedal to make the thing go. A driver at the front is in charge of steering and braking. This rattly contraption is designed to only go about 4mph at most, which I think is all wrong. The carriage horses pee on the street corners at a higher velocity. I would take off the controls so the speed of the Slow Ride was directly proportional to the number and speed of the pedalers. Then I would rename it the Savannah Thrill Ride, skip the Historic District entirely, and send the group flying down Highway 80 to the beach. Yeah.

Speed or no speed, beach or no beach, both groups I rode along with earlier this month had a really great time. I am entirely mystified, frankly. I mean, I can't figure out what makes the Slow Ride so much fun for people. As a tour, it's very, very history-lite and ghost story-lite. There's a lot of chit-chat and joking amongst the group, as well as plenty of drinks for the excursion. The tours take two hours, the guests make a few stops and get off the quadricycle at a couple of places to snack and refill their drinks. It strikes me as primarily self-generated fun. The people I rode with were already in a good mood before it began. Only the glummest of tour guides could have ruined their good time and I don't know that the chipperest of tour guides could perk up a group that was in a funk from the get-go. More than being informative, it is the guide's primary to responsibility to keep the laughs coming. It all looks deceptively easy, but there's a hidden aspect to the job: making sure the guests have a good time without getting too drunk or becoming too disruptive. That's especially hard on the ghost tours. People tend to get extra rowdy and be a little too liberal with their drinking when they're out after dark.

Whatever. I just need something to keep me afloat until I can figure out how to get my own business back on track. I have an appointment at the Small Business Resource Center tomorrow afternoon. Samantha told me they were very helpful to her. I wonder if they can tell me where all the classy people who want to do private tours have gone. Where did you go, romantic couples and well-heeled retirees? How do I find you?