COLUMBUS, Georgia — Business was brisk in the Whitewater Express store on Bay Avenue Wednesday.
The lone outfitter on the Chattahoochee River whitewater course was preparing to put more than 200 rafters down the river on a mid-week day. One of those was Melody Harper of Pelham, Georgia, 122 miles southeast of Columbus.
Harper brought eight people from Hand Memorial United Methodist Church's youth group on the day trip to Columbus.
"Columbus really wasn't a place you think of when you think of whitewater rafting, but it is now," Harper said.
The group from Pelham was searching for an adventure doable in a day. And that is typical of what Whitewater Express has been experiencing this summer as the numbers rise in the second season of operation.
This year, Whitewater Express has put more than 13,100 rafters on the river and should surpass last season's mark of 16,300 in the next few weeks. The Atlanta-based outfitter could put as many as 20,000 people on the river this year, owner Dan Gilbert said.
"We are on target with our expectations," Gilbert said. "That is important. But what I am looking at is in terms of the success of the venue. What we are finding is people love this experience. And that is much more important than anything we are doing day to day right now."
That's because happy rafters will translate into bigger numbers down the road, said Uptown Whitewater Management LLC President Richard Bishop said.
"If we go from 16,000 to 20,000, that's a good year, but if we go from 16,000 to 25,000 that is significant," Bishop said. "The growth at that rate is giving us a chance to manage what we are doing and how we are doing it. Because every one of our guests who leave here are ambassadors. And they are the ones helping us get the word out, which will help us grow this thing. They are taking the message back home with them."
Harper, the church youth leader from Pelham, is among those who will be spreading the whitewater gospel. She will be a student at Kennesaw State University northwest of Atlanta this fall.
"I am going to try and bring a group from Kennesaw here," she said.
Harper learned of the course through a sales call from Whitewater Express. In addition to the sales calls, marketing efforts for the Chattahoochee course have been stepped up.
Uptown Whitewater Management and Whitewater Express have a $100,000 marketing budget this year, Bishop said. That money is being spent on social media, print, television, billboards and other advertising in and around Columbus, Bishop said.
While the weekday business is up 40 percent over last year, the increased advertising and word-of-mouth is translating into busy weekends.
"They have put more than 600 people in the river the last three Saturdays and the trajectory is to put at least 600 on the river this Saturday," Bishop said.
The daily record was 649 last Saturday, said Lucas Brown, Whitewater Express' director of operations on the Chattahoochee. To put that many people on the river it took five different trips, filling the rafts about 110 times.
"From a logistical standpoint, it has gotten a lot easier," Brown said. "The 650 is just as easy as 200. In fact, it felt like about 200 last weekend."
Part of that is due to the planning that was done in the spring, Brown said. Whitewater Express has doubled the number of guides available from 25 a year ago to 50 this season. The new setup on the Chattahoochee now allows Whitewater Express customers to walk back to the store after they get out of the river behind the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
And those people are coming from across Alabama, Georgia and Florida, Gilbert said. The bulk has been from a 100-mile radius, but they are also coming from as far as Jacksonville, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and extreme southern Georgia.
"That is one of the things that blows my mind," Gilbert said. "Many of them say they are coming in strictly to do the river."
The biggest weekend of the season is scheduled for Aug. 9. The Georgia Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, has scheduled what is being billed as "The Grand." They are hoping to put 1,000 rafters down the river that Saturday. Part of the draw is an event with food and music in the area near Whitewater Express' Bay Avenue office.
Whitewater Express is expecting heavy weekend traffic through Labor Day, with business tapering off after that. The company runs guided tours throughout the year, but the larger trips typically end in November.
Cost of the rafting trips range from $35 to $49 depending on river flow and discounts. Whitewater Express is offering an end of the summer special Monday-Thursday. The low-flow, or "Classic," run is being offered for $25.
Another draw for the 2.5-mile whitewater course will be a 1,200-foot zip-line across the river. The $400,000 project is being paid for by Whitewater Express.
Engineering is in the final phase and construction could begin in a week, Gilbert said.
He hopes to open the course Labor Day weekend, but said construction will take six weeks. Three towers, two of them on the Alabama side, have to be erected.
Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com