Post-pandemic, Dunwoody sets sights on becoming tourist destination

An aerial view of construction on a new hotel and a new office tower near Perimeter Mall in December. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
An aerial view of construction on a new hotel and a new office tower near Perimeter Mall in December. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Dunwoody’s economy was booming. Since it became a city over a decade ago, the northern metro community had etched a new kind of skyline over the Perimeter area, building a reputation as a metro business hub.

Business travel and stays at hotels generated millions for the city’s economy, but Dunwoody officials aspired to do more: They wanted to market the city as a tourist destination.

Then came the pandemic.

As coronavirus restrictions put normal daily life on hold, what would have been a tough feat became an even loftier goal.

"The COVID-19 crisis has devastated the tourism and hospitality industry and Dunwoody's hotels are directly feeling the impact," said Kimberly Franz, the marketing director for Discover Dunwoody, the city's convention and visitors bureau.

Dunwoody’s seven hotels, usually filled with business travelers, have predictably seen large drops in stays. The hotel industry as a whole has seen occupancy rates lower than 20%. That is forcing Discover Dunwoody to partially shift its approach to attract leisure visitors as soon as the pandemic is in the rear view mirror.

The Dunwoody MARTA station. (CASEY SYKES/AJC)
The Dunwoody MARTA station. (CASEY SYKES/AJC)

On March 5, when just two cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in Georgia, Discover Dunwoody held a breakfast event to tout its recent accomplishments based on data it collected for the first time last year. Of the roughly 553,000 visitors in 2019, 61% were business travelers, while just 13% were there for leisure, the research found. The remaining quarter were with a group or meeting.

In a part of metro Atlanta that is often choked by traffic near I-285 and known largely for Perimeter Mall and its office towers, Dunwoody sometimes struggles with a lack of name recognition. Just 40% of visitors last year knew they were in Dunwoody, according to the city’s research.

With the economy largely shut down due to the coronavirus, Discover Dunwoody is taking the time to grow awareness about the community, especially uplifting stories during the coronavirus. It still plans to attract leisure visitors, "as this market will likely be the first to start traveling again," Franz said, adding that the mission is "still alive and well, despite this bump in the road."

Michael Starling, the city’s economic development director, knows that leisure travel might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks about Dunwoody. But he thinks that could change.

Sadie Preis of Dunwoody and her sister Jillian play on a piano named at the Dunwoody Nature Center in 2018. Local officials hope things like the nature center will attract visitors to explore Dunwoody. (JASON GETZ)
Sadie Preis of Dunwoody and her sister Jillian play on a piano named at the Dunwoody Nature Center in 2018. Local officials hope things like the nature center will attract visitors to explore Dunwoody. (JASON GETZ)

“I think we’re just on a bit of a pause now,” Starling said. “All of the goals and the research that have been done, all of this is still valid in the long term.”

Discover Dunwoody, which is funded by the city’s 8% hotel-motel tax and operated on a $1.8 million budget last year, is now undertaking a campaign to improve the signage around the city, offering walking directions to local attractions like the mall, the Dunwoody Nature Center and nearby parks. Some of the signs were designed to just display the name “Dunwoody” in large letters.

“We’ve always been known for great shopping and dining, but we’re more than that,” said Katie Williams, who led Discover Dunwoody for 10 years. She left the organization in early March to lead tourism efforts for Athens-Clarke County.

Some of the new signs — one of which was designed to replace the O’s in the city’s name with swings — could create “Instagram-worthy moments,” increasing Dunwoody’s digital exposure, said Williams.

Earlier this month, the City Council passed ordinances allowing for breweries, microbreweries and distilleries and creating a open container “entertainment district” around Dunwoody Village — other moves that could make Dunwoody more trendy and appealing to a younger crowd.

This photo shows the area where the High Street project will be developed. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
This photo shows the area where the High Street project will be developed. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Leaders, however, recognize the long term challenge traffic could pose as Dunwoody tries to attract more visitors. Starling estimates that before the pandemic hit, the population of Perimeter Center more than doubled every weekday as employees commuted to work. The intersection of Ashford Dunwoody Road and Hammond Drive is the gateway to Perimeter Center from I-285, and was also the city’s most congested, Starling said. Those problems are eventually expected to resurface as workers come back to their offices.

Starling has hope that a few years down the line, the Georgia Department of Transportation’s project to reconfigure the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange will provide some relief. He also pointed out that tourists could be more likely to visit on the weekends, when the weekday commuters aren’t clogging up the roads.

Williams knows Discover Dunwoody can’t solve traffic.

“But what we can do is make the journey and destination worth it,” she said. “We need to create a place that makes sitting in an extra 10, 20, 30 minutes of traffic worth it.”

Still, when the region’s economy reopens after the coronavirus, Dunwoody could have a hard time competing with the offerings at Avalon in Alpharetta and the Battery in Cobb County, two relatively new mixed-use developments north of Atlanta that are focused on entertainment.

Developer plans to build a mixed-use shopping center in this space. The plan involves paving over a pond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Developer plans to build a mixed-use shopping center in this space. The plan involves paving over a pond. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In a few years, High Street could help with that. The mammoth mixed-use development on Perimeter Center Parkway is set to break ground this year, and the first phase could open by 2022, featuring a public plaza, food hall, movie theater and more office space.

The hotel industry has seen a mini-boom of sorts in Dunwoody; two additional hotels have opened there since it became a city in 2008, and two more are under construction.

The city recently announced that 1.4 million square feet of mixed-use developments, office and restaurant space were leased in 2019. City officials also green-lighted plans for four major mixed-use developments and nine new dining spots last year — a sign of progress for Dunwoody's economy, but not necessarily a promise that it will draw outside visitors post-pandemic.

In an essay in the Atlanta Business Chronicle earlier this month, Dunwoody City Manager Eric Linton wrote that officials are still moving forward with infrastructure projects, including repaving streets and improving sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians.

“As important as it is to manage the COVID-19 crisis, it’s just as important to look to the future and plan for what’s next. We’re in a prime position to do that,” Linton wrote. “Remember that Dunwoody is resilient.”

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BY THE NUMBERS

552,880

Total visitors who stayed at Dunwoody hotels in 2019

61% 

Of visitors surveyed were business travelers

13% 

Were leisure travelers

$362

How much the average Dunwoody visitors spent in a day

40%

Knew they were in Dunwoody

Source: Discover Dunwoody