Q&A With GDEcD Deputy Commissioner of Tourism Kevin Langston

Stefanie Paupeck Harper

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

In the second of our series with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, deputy commissioner for tourism division Kevin Langston discusses growing agritourism, the film industry in the state, traveler demographics, and his love of economic development.

How is the tourism department capitalizing on Georgia's foundation on agriculture to attract visitors?

Georgia has a wealth of agritourism sites all across the state – wineries, farm stays, U-pick farms, farmers markets, corn mazes, and a whole lot more.  There is growing interest by Americans in learning where their food comes from and having a connection with those locations.  People want to see what a Georgia blueberry looks like on the bush, and see how their Sweet Georgia Shrimp is caught. The burgeoning agritourism industry helps people have those types of experiences.  We are working closely with the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Grown team to help Georgia’s farmers accommodate visitors, and to help draw visitors to our agriculture sites.

Another related aspect of travel that is very popular right now is culinary travel. Restaurants who can serve “farm-to-table” meals are very popular, and Georgia is fortunate to have incredibly talented chefs and delicious produce and meats in abundance, all across the state.  We’re working with the Georgia Restaurant Association to jointly sponsor Georgia’s first statewide restaurant week this summer, July 13-19, 2015. It will feature special tasting menus, great bargains and fantastic culinary experiences in communities all across Georgia. We believe that Restaurant Week will spur Georgians and other travelers to get out and experience parts of the state – and food and drink – that they’ve never experienced before. It’s sure to be a rich and rewarding experience – on several fronts!

What is the tourism department doing to connect visitors with Georgia's burgeoning reputation as a film industry hub?

People will travel half-way around the world to be able to see and experience the locations made famous in their favorite movies and TV shows.  With Georgia now being the third-largest TV and movie production market in the country, fifth largest in the world, a lot of those locations are right here! We partnered with our Film Division to create a website, ComeTourGeorgia.com, to make it easy for visitors to find those sites. A whole cottage industry has grown up to support these travelers. You can now have a terrific meal at the Mystic Grill, a tribute to The Vampire Diaries in Covington; or join the Big Zombie Tour in Atlanta to take in the sites from The Walking Dead, Zombieland and others; or take the Capitol Tour at the Swan House in Atlanta, President Show’s home in The Hunger Games sagas.  And of course, everyone has to get their selfie on the “Forrest Gump bench” in the Savannah Historic District and shoot an Instagram shot of Georgia’s most famous fried delicacy at the Whistlestop Café in Juliette, made famous in “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

How have the demographics and desires of travelers, both domestic and international, changed in the last 5-10 years? How is the tourism industry in Georgia responding to that change?

The tourism industry is in a constant state of flux. As gas prices ebb and flow, preference for driving vacations versus fly-away trips does the same.  And as the economy strengthens and weakens, that impacts decisions among Baby Boomers about whether to spend part of their retirement nest egg on travel or not.  We have noticed a couple of broader shifts in recent years in Georgia though that impact us.  One of those trends is the rise in international visitors from emerging markets. Traditionally, Georgia has hosted many visitors from Canada and from Western European countries – the UK and Germany, in particular.  While we continue to welcome large numbers of those travelers, we have now begun to welcome increasing numbers of visitors from places like Korea, Brazil and China.

Georgia has been working hard to win business from China – on all sides of the economic development equation – international trade and investment, as well as tourism.  Virtually all of the major Chinese outbound tour operators now carry Georgia tourism product. The numbers of Chinese visitors has skyrocketed over the past five years, and we expect that trajectory to continue.  It is now a top 10 market for Georgia tourism and I predict that it will be a top 3 market for us within 5 years.  Attracting the Chinese market requires work and change. We have a cadre of hotels that have agreed to cater to Chinese tourists – to offer tea pots and slippers in the rooms and to add foods like congee (China’s answer to grits) to breakfast offerings.  A number of restaurants offer menus in Mandarin.  Over time, more and more hotels, restaurants and attractions will step up with Chinese language and cultural sensitivity, because it pays off in additional business.

Why did you decide to work in economic development?

My career in economic development started because of a love of international cultures.  I really enjoy getting to know people from other cultures and learning about other places. That interest led me initially into the international trade consulting arena and my initial position in the international trade division of our agency. On the tourism side of our business, where I now work, it’s very motivating to see the effect that our work has on communities. I was just in Dublin, Georgia and had the opportunity to see the changes that community has implemented following a visit by one of our product development teams that went in and gave the Dublin leadership a strategy for how they could best improve and position their community to attract tourists.  They have made significant changes to their infrastructure, restored several historic buildings, and are now reaping the benefits of increased tourism traffic.  They’re also experiencing renewed pride in their community. It’s gratifying to work with a team of individuals who genuinely care about communities and are able to offer concrete help to them – and then to see the impact they have months or years down the line.

What do you enjoy in your spare time?

I am a runner. My work involves traveling both across the state and abroad, and I’ve found that running is a fantastic way to get a feel for a new city. You get to see things when you’re running that you would miss if you are speeding by in a car. Some of my favorite experiences have been running the Sydney (Australia) Harbour Bridge, a misty run along the Thames in London and an early morning run (before the traffic sets in) along the Bund in Shanghai, China.  And I love to run in many of Georgia’s races – the Peachtree Road Race being right at the top of that list.  My wife and I are also big music and theater fans, and now that our sons have a band based out of Athens, Georgia, we get to follow them to great music venues, and more than a few earthy but fun little dives, across Georgia.