Tourism strategic plan implemented to manage more Georgetown visitors

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Georgetown’s hotel occupancy tax revenue has increased 111% since 2014, so one year ago convention and visitors bureau staff decided they needed an official plan to best handle the increasing funds.

The bureau contracted with a consulting firm, and the tourism strategic plan was built from April-September and presented to City Council in October.

“Having a new plan will ensure the [bureau] staff and board focuses our energy, resources and time in the proper direction,” Tourism Manager Cari Miller said at the Oct. 8 meeting.

According to John Whisenant, senior consultant with North Star Destination Strategies—the firm the bureau Hired—a strategic plan asks three questions regarding a city and its tourism: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?

The intent of Georgetown’s plan is to take tourism to the next level, Whisenant said, adding the plan was developed to be concise with six strategic principles to follow:

Have a clearly defined and broadly accepted vision for both Georgetown and the bureau; enhance the quality of visitors’ experience by ensuring easy access to helpful resources and easy travel throughout Georgetown; expand marketing and advertising programs to increase the awareness of Georgetown as a travel destination to consumers in the city’s primary feeder markets; increase the economic impact of travel in Georgetown through targeted sales activities; increase Georgetown’s visibility and attractiveness as a travel destination to consumers through public relations activities and media on all platforms; and staff the bureau in a manner that allows it to effectively and efficiently accomplish its program of work.

The plan includes goals, objectives, and action steps for achieving each of the strategies.

The bureau delved into the plan with three first steps.

The first step was to develop the official vision statement for Georgetown and another for the bureau. The bureau's board was tasked with creating the destination vision for the city and plans to complete it in February. The bureau's staff will create their internal vision statement together, also in February.

The second step was to fully implement a hospitality training program, with the first sessions launching in February.

The training empowers employees of hospitality partners—hotels, attractions and restaurants—to talk about what else there is to do in Georgetown.

“We want people in those places to be able to list restaurants, festivals, what else there is downtown and in the entire city, and we want to ensure they have the right information to share,” Miller said.

The third step was to investigate a public or private partnership to build a new visitors center on I-35 in addition to the center on the Square.

Miller said right now her consensus is that this needs to be a long-term goal.

“Unless you get off the interstate, you can’t tell how beautiful Georgetown is,” Miller said. “If we had a visitors center out there, people could stop to use the restroom, and then we could tell them to visit our downtown. You really have to come down here to experience it; we need to let people know what we have.”

She said often people will tell her they have been driving From San Antonio to Dallas and back for years, for example, and only just discovered downtown Georgetown.

“A visitors center on the interstate would work well, but we’re nowhere near ready,” she said. We need a lot more hotels to generate more revenue for us to have the funding for it.”

Regarding encouraging more hotels to come to Georgetown, Director of Economic Development Michaela Dollar said target industries are based on a study completed in 2017.

“We target professional services, advanced manufacturing and life sciences,” Dollar said. “Not specifically hotels right now. We do work with any project that comes to us, though, and occasionally that is a hotel.”

She said usually it would be a component of a larger development, such as Wolf Crossing, and staff may not work directly with the hotels but rather the master developer.

The addition of the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in July 2016 brought 222 rooms and 26,672 square feet of meeting space to the city and has contributed to the increase in hotel taxes.

The hotel has seen a steady increase each year in bookings from leisure guests and conferences, General Manager Rita Healy said, adding some of the increase is attributable to sales, marketing and public relations efforts from the hotel team.

“Those efforts have increased awareness of the hotel and of Georgetown,” she said. “Georgetown has continued to grow as a destination for weddings with a lot of unique venues as well as attractions and activities for our out-of-town guests to enjoy.”

Front desk associates are trained to provide information to guests about things to do and places to eat in the city, and links to popular area attractions are posted on the hotel's website.

The Sheraton hosts large corporate meetings from the insurance and technology industries, associations and social organizations from all over the state, government meetings, high school sports teams, weddings, military balls and more, Healy said of the groups the hotel is drawing to town.

Some business owners, such as Karen Soeffker of All Things Kids, hang customized signs in their shop windows to welcome particular out-of-town groups.

All Things Kids sees plenty of regulars during the week, but the weekends are all about the tourists, Soeffker said.

The toy store opened in April 2011, and in the time since Soeffker said she has witnessed the Square transform from empty to packed.

“The first two years we were here, hardly anybody came downtown,” she said. “There wasn’t much to offer, especially on the weekend. Sunday was dead.”

Now when Soeffker pulls into the square and sees there is nowhere to park, she celebrates the crowds and what it means for local businesses, she said.

About three years ago All Things Kids converted the back of its shop into an ice cream parlor. Soeffker said the addition was a game-changer.

“Traffic went through the roof,” she said of patrons. “We kept reading the studies about what downtown Georgetown needs, and ice cream kept coming up.”

The ice cream brand, Scoops, expanded last year to include a catering service and ice cream truck, and ice cream is sold at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. Patrons are always encouraged to come visit the location on the Square.

Soeffker referred to All Things Kids as “experience retail.” Visitors may purchase a product while in the store, but often, the experience is what they originally came for.

“We do so many things online now, but you can’t eat ice cream online; you can’t have that experience online” Soeffker said. “It’s the same thing that Mesquite Creek Outfitters does: you go there to hang out with your friends, but you can also buy something.”

She said the model encourages people to spend time on the Square.

Resident Tom Sourbeer said he loves seeing more tourists and visitors in Georgetown.

“I figure every one of them who comes here drops money supporting local business, and that helps my neighbors,” he said. “It also provides employment for folks in town. We should, of course, make it easy for them to get here and spend money, but more importantly, leave after a wonderful time here.”

Resident Sonia Gangotena compared Georgetown to Bryan-College Station. She said the cities’ increase in tourism due to the George H. Bush Library helped the economy: new jobs came with new businesses, young people had work for after school and summer, money came in for more city infrastructure and more.

She said apart from different main-age populations, she sees similarities between the growth in Bryan-College Station and Georgetown.

“The downtown is a great tourism focus, as is the playhouse,” she said. “Having Sun City and other neighborhoods and golf courses and activities is also a great advantage.”

According to both Soeffker and Miller, planning and strategizing for the new tourism boom in Georgetown is the key to sustainable growth. Healy agreed.
“We should embrace tourism and continue to find ways to respond to what visitors tell us they would enjoy,” she said. “Growing tourism and expanding our offerings can be done responsibly.”


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