In response to COVID-19 and the devastating effect it had on travel and tourism, Gov. Brian Kemp announced a series of moves designed to promote tourism in Georgia and maximize travel to the state’s beaches, mountains, small towns and major cities.
Managing this effort is Mark Jaronski, Deputy Commissioner for Explore Georgia, the tourism division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. For context on the state’s destination marketing, we turned to him for insight.
How did COVID-19 impact tourism in Georgia?
MARK JARONSKI: It was devastating. Not since September 11, 2001, has an external force affected the worldwide tourism industry so deeply. In 2020 alone, Georgia lost $12 billion in visitor spending and over 96,000 jobs in travel-supported jobs. This was down from a record high of 454,000 travel-related jobs and $39 billion in tourism spending in Georgia in 2019.
Has tourism in Georgia fully recovered from the pandemic?
JARONSKI: While we did better than most, we have a way to go. Recovery has been both uneven and inconsistent across the state, around the nation and across the globe.
Travelers could not fly across the ocean to visit the U.S., even Canadians could not cross the border. The cruise industry was essentially shut down. Beginning last summer, travelers began to show a bias toward outdoor locations in rural settings — mountains, coasts, small towns. And many of the destinations in those areas did very well. In other cases, like conventions and large group meetings, however, the business has been slower to recover. In short, leisure travel came back first. Business travel is lagging. Domestic — and even regional — travel is a lot stronger.
“We increased market share for overnight stays in a worldwide pandemic, going from No. 7 in the U.S. to No. 5.”
— Mark Jaronski, Deputy Commissioner, Explore Georgia
As of this interview, international travel to the U.S. is still greatly inhibited. It’s expected to open up in November 2021 but will take a while to return to pre-pandemic levels
How will Georgia’s tourism promotion affect travel and spending in the state?
JARONSKI: In spring 2021, we launched a new marketing campaign called “Ready. Set. Georgia.” It is driven entirely by traveler sentiment. By marrying an insights-driven strategy with a direct call-to-action to travelers, I believe that “Ready. Set. Georgia” captured the consumer mindset and met this unique moment in time as well as any consumer brand in the nation.
Where are you promoting Georgia the most (states, countries, etc.)?
JARONSKI: For the majority of the first 12 to 18 months of the pandemic, we focused on marketing travel to and within Georgia to residents of Metro Atlanta and the Southeast. We saw an opportunity to defend our market share as those comfortable with traveling limited their consideration set to coastal and mountain destinations from the Carolinas to Florida.
When the opportunity arose, we opened up our marketing to key DMAs in our border states. We leaned heavily into Florida in the fall and winter seasons to leverage the unique seasonality and events and activities that Georgia has in comparison to what is offered in Florida. With the impact that vaccines have had on consumer confidence to travel, we plan to strengthen our marketing in the months and years ahead to focus on opportunity markets in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada, as well as the UK, Germany and France.
What are Georgia’s most visited locations?
JARONSKI: By volume, they are Atlanta, Savannah, the coast and the mountains. A characteristic that became very evident during the pandemic is that we have great diversity of destinations across the state — both in terms of experience and seasonality. Like a well-balanced investment portfolio, having assets that appeal to varying consumer interests at different times of the year is an advantage that we leverage in our marketing strategy.
What are your top priorities for the coming year?
JARONSKI: We have three focused strategies. One is to open new markets and segments to travel to and within Georgia. The second is to elevate the Explore Georgia brand, and the third is to make additional investments in Georgia’s tourism industry. Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Kemp and keeping our state open, we were able to compete better than most in 2020. We increased market share for overnight stays in a worldwide pandemic, going from No. 7 in the U.S. to No. 5. Tourism marketing will be as competitive as ever before. To maintain the market share that we gained last year, we will have to set our sights on competing among an elite group of destinations widely considered to be the top places to visit in the United States.
How have the travel habits of tourists changed?
JARONSKI: People are taking more driving trips. People are doing more regional travel and more domestic travel. Air traffic has picked up a lot since 2020. However, we believe that road travel will have staying power as they won’t soon forget the importance they placed on health, safety and control over their travel during the pandemic.