ALBANY — Driving by the white brick building on Front Street, it may not be evident at a glance that the people in that building handle a whirlwind of activity with more than 100 people stopping by daily, Monday through Friday.
But the former bridge toll house, now the Albany Welcome Center, handles more than 40,000 people stopping in each year while they spend time in Albany and Dougherty County.
With 43,407 visitors so far in 2019, the center, operated by the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau, has distributed 33,400 visitors guides and handed out a number of relocation packets.
The numbers represent both the quality attractions in the area and the tendency of some travelers driving north and south — whether from Canada or, comparatively speaking, just up the road in Atlanta — to get off the interstate highways and take routes that are less hectic and more scenic, CVB Executive Director Rashelle Beasley said.
“We get visitors who are directed here on a regular basis, especially people from the Florida area or who are traveling to the Florida area,” Beasley said. “We are a good tourist destination for people who are coming to see Mickey (Disney World) from Atlanta. A lot of people are getting off (Interstate 75) in Atlanta and getting on (U.S. Highway) 19.
“You have a lot of people who are just retired and they are doing their around-the-country drive, so they are not in a hurry. They like being off the beaten path.”
Those travelers making their way to and through Albany are not the only ones on the road.
The CVB staff makes trips throughout the year to shows and meetings and to visit convention planners and group tour operators to get the word out about facilities and things to see and do in Albany. They also place ads touting those facilities and attractions, from Radium Springs to Chehaw Park.
For most of its existence, the CVB was part of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce. But for the past year, it has been a separate entity.
That change reflects the reality that the missions of the two are somewhat different and the growth that hospitality and tourism have experienced since the organization formed in the roughly 40 years it has been in existence, Beasley said.
As the CVB was launched, it required a sponsoring 501-C organization. But now it stands on its own.
“Chambers thrive on their membership, and that is who they work toward and work for,” Beasley said. “(We’re) like a chamber; we’re just working toward a more focused group. We help facilitate economic growth and development through hotels and visitors.”
The CVB is funded through hotel and motel taxes, and those revenues have grown from about $1.2 million in the 1990s to about $2.8 million annually. The 10-member organization has four full-time and six part-time employees and an annual budget of $800,000.
“It had grown into an organization that would be its own standalone, (so) it could have its own board,” Beasley said. “We encourage those people to be a part of our chamber and take advantage of the benefits.
“We promote anyone within the guidelines of tourism: restaurants, hotels, our sports locations, event facilities, nightclubs. Things that visitors look for when they come.”
Albany is blessed with attractions and conference facilities, she said. Those include the Albany Civil Rights Institute, Thronateeska Heritage Center, Flint RiverQuarium, Albany Museum of Art in the city and Radium Springs and Chehaw park in unincorporated Dougherty County.
Basically, the CVB’s role is to “put heads in beds,” Beasley said. And that seems to be going well, as 2019 occupancy rates at hotels and motels is at 72 percent, an increase of 13 percent over 2018.
In addition to those travelers stopping in Albany on the way to other destinations, a large number of those visitors are coming for annual events like the Albany State University homecoming or Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in Moultrie, both of which fill up rooms.
“During the summer, family reunions are a huge draw for us here,” Beasley said. “We do have international visitors. This year we have had 102 international visitors.”
The developing trail system that will link downtown Albany to Sasser is expected to be a huge draw in the future.
“That’s a huge deal for us,” Beasley said. “Once we get that up and running we’ll be able to pitch that. There is a huge group that just travels around and rides different trails.”