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MandirInside the Mandir in Lilburn. The Mandir is the most-visited tourist site in Gwinnett

Explore Gwinnett rolls out the red carpet 
By Carole Townsend 
Staff Correspondent

Lisa Anders is filled with energy and excitement about Gwinnett County, so it’s no wonder that she heads up the Explore Gwinnett organization as its Executive Director. The non-profit 501(c)(6), formerly named the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau (“That’s a mouthful of government words,” Anders quipped), Explore Gwinnett has one job, and that’s to attract conventions, groups and families to the county. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast. The job may be fun and exciting, but it’s far from simple.

“We work with all the cities in Gwinnett (with the exception of one – Snellville opted out to throw its support behind their own tourism and trade board) and 103 Gwinnett hotels as Gwinnett County’s destination management organization. That means we work with sports teams, faith-based and motivational groups, social and international groups to get them to see what we see – that Gwinnett County is Atlanta’s playground,” Anders said. It’s no small feat. There is a lot of competition for these groups to come to Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb and other counties. In fact, Gwinnett competes with Chattanooga, Nashville, Savannah and other regional cities for the same conventions and tourism. The economic impact is vast; hotels, restaurants and shops all reap the benefits of tourism. Lisa Anders

In fact in 2016, Gwinnett received $1.22 billion in visitor expenditures. That’s about $90 million in state and federal taxes. “Without that revenue, Gwinnett residents and businesses would pay an additional $340 per year in taxes,” Anders said. ‘And it’s not enough to have beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities, such as arenas and convention centers. Let’s face it, every city with which we compete has those. No, we have to show people that Gwinnett has so much more to offer than that.”

Pictured: Executive Director Lisa Anders is excited about all that Gwinnett has to offer tourists.

Anders strongly believes that what Gwinnett offers is its people, its colorfully diverse population, and the living breathing art and food scene that tourists want when they come to town. Visitors want to enjoy an exciting night life. They want entertainment choices. And Gwinnett is answering that desire by attracting the best chefs who open their own unique eateries. “Our downtowns, each with its own distinct character, are an enticing attraction to visitors,’’ Anders added. “Our entertainment scene enriches the nightlife in Gwinnett; Eddie Owen Presents in Duluth and Aurora Theater come to mind right away, but there are more. We have to be sure that there are restaurants that remain open later, so that patrons can enjoy a meal and drinks after a show.”

food & coffeeWalkability in town centers, combined with visitors’ ability to enjoy alcoholic beverages within those areas, encourages events such as Suwanee’s SculpTour. Locals and tourists alike can enjoy world-class sculptures placed throughout the town center area, relaxing and discussing the art. “We have to remember that we must attract locals as well as tourists; if we can’t get local residents interested in what we offer in Gwinnett, we sure aren’t going to get tourists interested,” Anders added. The Infinite Energy Center, which is man-aged by Explore Gwinnett, is in for a makeover, as well. “We plan to use 45-60 acres of the parking lot – some of the most expensive real estate in the county – for shops, retail, office space and restaurants,” Anders said. “We still need those parking spaces, so a structured parking deck is also in the works.” Anders hopes to see Phase I of this planned project complete in a couple of years.

Anders is also keenly aware that food, breweries and distilleries are very much a part of the social scene in a dynamic city. Recently, Slow Pour Brewery, owned by two brothers-in-law, announced that it’s coming to down-town Lawrenceville, near the old train depot. Repurposing an old, abandoned building, the two owners will give the place a makeover, complete with exposed brick, a tasting room, a bar and courtyard. “It’s going to be very cool,” Anders said. Owners of a unique distillery have also made their intentions known to call Gwinnett “home.”

Explore Gwinnett has designed and follows a smart model for reaching out-of-towners and connecting them with Gwinnett’s rich entertainment and attractions. “We put a lot of effort into educating hotel personnel about what’s going on in the county at all times,” Anders said. “When you’re in an unfamiliar area, staying in a hotel, who are you most likely to ask about what there is to do? The people working the front desk.” Therefore, the staff at Explore Gwinnett (about 15 each with unique responsibilities), put a lot of effort into compiling calendars of all of the events going on in Gwinnett, three months at a time. That is a monumental undertaking, especially during the event-heavy weekends during spring and fall, when there are often several concerts, movies, festivals and exhibits happening on the same days. Those calendars are neatly rolled and given to every one of the 103 hotels with which Explore Gwinnett works.

The organization also publishes an attractive, top-quality magazine that’s distributed through hotels, restaurants, city halls and other places handy that visitors are likely to check. “There’s so much going on here that it was hard to pick just one cover for this last issue, so we produced four covers!” Anders laughed. “Each of them showcases something unique and fun about Gwinnett.”

Spitfire ProductionIn Gwinnett, a crew films a scene for THE CIRCLE, from Spitfire Production.

Anders is also the “camera-ready rep” for Gwinnett County. Georgia is number 3 (soon to be number 2) in film production in the country. “I’m the point person for producers calling or coming to town. They might say, ‘We need a high school,’ or ‘We need a country road,’ and I keep a working list of all locations like that we have to offer. Last year alone, we had 175 such requests,” Anders said. Currently, there are 10 shows being filmed in Gwinnett County. There are always several movies being filmed here, in Eagle Rock studios or one of the other film studios in the county. “Of course, the stars stay in luxury hotels in Atlanta, but the crews - and there are about 100 members in every production crew – stay in hotels here in Gwinnett. That means they also eat and shop here while they’re in town.” According to Anders, Gwinnett has aggressively pursued the film industry, making the permitting and other necessary processes as streamlined and headache-free as possible.

MandirWhat is the most-visited attraction in Gwinnett? “Oh without a doubt, the Hindu mandir in Lilburn. While it’s primarily a revered place of worship, the people there – and they’re all volunteers – conduct such a fascinating tour. They’re so open and welcoming, and the temple is just breathtaking,” said Anders.

What’s Gwinnett’s best-kept tourism secret? “Well, after we did an extensive study during our rebranding effort three years ago, we learned that people know Gwinnett for its outdoor activities, and that’s due in no small part to the top-notch parks and recreation. So now, we market outdoor recreation heavily, and people love it. However, if we ever get all the beautiful trail systems in this county connected, then get them connected with others outside the county, the sky’s the limit. Transportation here, as is true of all metro Atlanta, is a daunting problem. If people truly can walk or bike to work or other destinations, there’ll be no stopping us.”
diwaliExplore Gwinnett is funded by its 2 percent share of the 7 percent hotel/motel tax collected from all hotels within the county. For more information about Explore Gwinnett and what’s going on in the county, visit www.exploregwinnett.org, or find the organization on Facebook.

 (Published May 2017)