This year’s national celebration theme was “The Future of Travel.”
The event was presented by My Forsyth Magazine and held at the Sawnee Mountain Visitors Center. Julie Brennan, the publisher of My Forsyth Magazine, moderated the panel.
The following community and business leaders made up the panel:
- Alfred John: Forsyth County Board Chairman
- Troy Brumbalow: Mayor of the City of Cumming
- Jay Markwalter: Executive Director of the GA Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus
- Alissa Tanner-Wall: Co-owner of Cherry Street Brewing
- David Silver: Senior General Manager of Halcyon
- Amanda Anderson: General Manager of Holiday Inn Express in Cumming
Over the course of an hour, the panel went into detail about how their businesses survived the pandemic, gave ideas on how to engage the community in tourism and their thoughts on the future of tourism in Forsyth County.
How did the pandemic change your business and how did you adapt to these changes?
Many businesses were forced to lay off some of their employees during the pandemic, and Forsyth County businesses were no exception.
Both Anderson and Tanner-Wall said they immediately had to let go of some of their staff when the pandemic hit full force.
Being the general manager of a hotel, Anderson offered overnight stays to essential workers.
“We had a place to stay for traveling nurses who were still traveling, or just tired nurses, tired people, anybody that was in the medical field or local law enforcement,” Anderson said. “We had a relationship with them if they needed anything.”
Tanner-Wall said that every day was a new challenge for Cherry Street Brewing, having had to cut down to about 10 staff members. She had just opened the Halcyon location six months before the pandemic.
“We were essential,” Tanner-Wall said. “You know, people wanted food and they wanted beer. And so we had to get as creative as possible.”
Thinking outside the box, she made several family packs for holidays like Mother’s Day and Easter to drive up sales. She also worked out a delivery system to neighborhoods to sell food and to-go beer.
But the business owner also made sure her staff members went home with some food and helped provide toilet paper to anyone who needed it during the shortage.
Meanwhile, Silver said Halcyon partnered up with business owners during the changes, and was amazed at how fast they were able to pivot to meet the new challenges the pandemic brought to them. Boutiques opened up virtual shopping, events were made “Covid-19 friendly” so that everyone would feel welcome and they saw a huge influx in residents using the Big Creek Greenway.
“It was really our investment in the community I think just really paid off,” Silver said. “And I think that's really when you see the success of investing in your communities during tough times…We saw record sales, believe it or not, with some of our tenants during that time. We welcomed in new tenants during that time, so we were very thankful.”
On the local government side, John said the County knew people were wanting to be outside during the lockdown and worked to make sure all of the County’s parks and trails were open for use.
Brumbalow said that the city had to cancel the Cumming Country Fair & Festival for the very first time, but that the following year’s fair broke every record since the fair debuted in 1995.
How did Forsyth County tourism compare to other Georgia counties during the pandemic?
While everyone struggled during the unexpected changes the pandemic brought, some of the results from those changes were positive.
“We've seen crisis that has impacted the whole state,” Markwalter said. “But we had never seen a situation where certain regions were…having record tourism, sales and impact, with more of the metro areas and folks reliant on business travel in very bad shape. So we have not seen anything like that before.”
- Forsyth County ranked second in food and beverage spending (out of the 17 counties that make up Northeastern Georgia)
- Forsyth County ranked second in recreation at $21.9 million with no county in a close third place
- Forsyth County ranked third overall in visitor spending at $139.7 million in the middle of the pandemic in 2020
- Forsyth County was only down 10 percent in growth from 2019 to 2020 while many other counties were down 25 to 46 percent in growth.
John also threw in some County numbers, saying they employed about 1,400 people in the tourism industry during Covid while most other places were shutting down. They also earned over $9 million in state and local tax revenues which helped keep the parks and recreational facilities open.
“We were actually saying ‘Hey, we're open for business!’” John said. “So you can see that when many other places were pulling back, we were opening up.”
What does your business look like today?
Matching the positive statistics brought by Markwalter, local governments and businesses report seeing growth in their industries.
John said all the County parks are booked to capacity for the sports fields. He has even received emails from residents complaining about the lack of space.
Brumbalow said the Cumming City Center is already 93.6 percent booked by business owners, with only two spaces left. Two people are currently inquiring about those vacant spaces.
Over at Halcyon, Silver said some business owners are reporting record numbers in growth, especially the restaurants. Two of the newest buildings are already 100 percent leased.
Supply issues have been a problem for Anderson at the hotel, but customer rates are climbing back to normal.
“It's definitely coming back,” Anderson said. “We'd obviously like to see higher rates again, 2019 rates, but occupancy-wise we're right back where we were. We stay full weekdays, weekends, have tournaments left and right. There's not a slow period for us that we even see in the future right now. So it's been really great. We're very fortunate.”
Meanwhile, the two Cherry Street Brewing locations have become popular stops for guests both from inside and outside of the County.
“Well, being a brewery and a brewpub, we really have become a destination,” Tanner-Wall said. “We've hosted plenty of events in the County, our annual spring Beer Fest, and it's amazing to see how many people are traveling from out of state to come into our County.”
What does the future of tourism look like for Forsyth County?
Toward the end of the panel, John announced that, although not yet official, he is currently working on bringing a sports arena to Forsyth County.
“We will not be a pass-through,” John said. “We will be the destination and it starts by doing these little things.”
The mayor talked about his anticipation for the opening of the Cumming City Center this summer, which he says stands out from other city centers because of its dedication to nature. The City Center will have a 25-acre park with boardwalks and trails, an amphitheater and a miniature golf course.
According to Silver, Halcyon might be adding a hotel to its development. He has also noticed that they’re attracting visitors from outside of Forsyth County.
“We're attracting people from the City of Atlanta and they're passing Buckhead, passing Avalon, and they're coming to Forsyth County to spend their day, spend their time, spend their money,” Silver said. “Halcyon is in this County, and we just love that we are a destination.”
If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Justine Lookenott at email@example.com.