Editor’s Note: Hotel-motel taxes are a popular way local governments raise money for their general budgets, self-promotion and tourist-related projects such as stadiums, trails and performing arts centers. However, experts say that the money does not come with any strings requiring proof that the promotional efforts are effective, and the assumption that visitors can be taxed without negative impact on the hotel business may be faulty. For an introduction to that discussion, see the Reporter’s story here

Signs on I-285 lure drivers to stop at a Sandy Springs “Welcome Center” run by the city’s tourism agency. But Visit Sandy Springs, as the agency is known, had relatively few visitors itself and recently closed the center with an eye to reopening in a possible new building with better exposure.

Meanwhile, the agency continues its work of promoting local businesses and the restaurant scene.

The former “Welcome Center” offered brochures and doubled as Visit Sandy Springs’ offices at 5920 Roswell Road. (Evelyn Andrews)

“I think that a Welcome Center in the right location can be a great asset in promoting the parks, venues, restaurants and attractions in the city,” said Jennifer Cruce, the agency’s executive director. “Our former location was not highly sought after, so it wasn’t as effective as it could be.”

The Welcome Center, which doubled as the Visit Sandy Springs office and opened in 2009, was located in the Parkside Shopping Center at 5920 Roswell Road, below the state’s Anne Frank Holocaust exhibit.

“We are here to answer any questions about not only what you want to do in Sandy Springs, but the whole state,” Cruce said during a tour of the center when it was still open in August.

The tourism agency’s office is now located in the Northside Tower at 6065 Roswell Road, but there is no Welcome Center there, though it remains advertised on signs along state roadways. The Anne Frank exhibit remains in the shopping center

The city has proposed a new building, called a “cultural center,” that would better highlight the Welcome Center and house other local groups. The proposal is in the early stages and a building opening date has not been set.

“Our lease was scheduled to end in December, so we decided to go ahead and move and see what happens when and if we have a timeline on that new center,” Cruce said.

Visit Sandy Springs, whose formal name is Sandy Springs Hospitality & Tourism, was one the few metro Atlanta suburban cities with a visitor’s center, according to the state tourism website. Roswell and Alpharetta are among others that operate one.

The Welcome Center received around 1,000 visitors per year, and many of them were searching for the Anne Frank exhibit upstairs, Cruce said. Others were locals, including some regulars who came in to get the newspaper, she said.

There are not many reliable metrics to measure the success of an agency like Visit Sandy Springs, Cruce said. Other than digital media views, such as videos or the agency’s website, there are few numbers to review.

“It’s hard to claim a direct tie between what we do and the number of people who actually book a Sandy Springs hotel room, because it’s the hotels who actually close the deal,” she said.

Some of the hundreds of brochures that were on display at the former Sandy Springs Welcome Center. (Evelyn Andrews)

The agency is funded through the hotel-motel tax, and is given $1.6 million out of the around $5 million the city collects each year. Visit Sandy Springs spends about a quarter of its funding on salaries and benefits, according to its budget.

The agency’s staff includes Cruce, two advertising salespeople, a marketing manager and an information specialist.

The agency supports Sandy Springs promotional events, such as Sparkle Sandy Springs, a holiday-themed display of lit and decorated miniature houses, Fourth of July fireworks and Spooky Springs, a children’s Halloween event.

“The city pays for the events and we help with them because they help promote the city as a destination,” she said.

Visit Sandy Springs also organizes an annual lantern parade at Morgan Falls Overlook Park.

“It gives the community something to do, and it reminds people we are here and we like to have fun,” Cruce said.

Promoting Sandy Springs is geared around marketing it as a destination and a place to stay, not only for business, but on the weekends as well, Cruce said. City Springs, the city’s civic center and theater complex, help with that.

“This gives us an opportunity to have something new to promote and its helps develop the city’s identity,” she said. “I think it’s going to transform the city.”

The agency promotes some local businesses directly, featuring them in materials such as its visitor’s guide and video series. Those have included High Country Outfitters, which has sponsored the city’s Lantern Parade; the gaming bar Battle and Brew; and local restaurants, she said.

For more information, see visitsandysprings.org.

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