The Williams family has inked a deal with Safe Harbor Developments, with the Lake Lanier Island Development Authority approving a partnership between the two entities at a board meeting Tuesday morning.
"Excitement, I'll tell you the entire family feels that way," said Virgil Williams, chairman of the LLI Management Company. "We've been looking since Fall 2005 for an opportunity to partner with people who are experts in their field and are geniuses at creating good opportunities , a high quality product with good service... and I believe we've found the right partner here for the recreation component to bring those pieces to the table."
Williams and his family, operating as The Virgil Williams Family's LLI Management Company, LLC, will still manage the hospitality aspect of the property, including the wedding business. Meanwhile, Knoxville, Tenn. based Safe Harbor Developments and Margaritaville Holdings partnered to work on the resort aspects, including the marina, special events and activities on the property, as well as food and beverage service. Safe Harbor Developments is also known for operating The Island at Pigeon Forge and 12 marinas spanning the east coast.
Jim Wiseman, president of Margaritaville Development, said they were looking for an urban setting near Atlanta and that's how he came across Lake Lanier Islands. "Literally, I was riding around one day, came to Lanier Islands and couldn't find a parking space. As developer, I thought 'Wow, there must be really something going on here.'"
As the partners enter the second month of 2018, they have a few changes they'd like to implement or at least begin work on before the year's end.
"First and foremost, we plan to enhance what Virgil has already built here and that would be this year, hopefully roll out enhanced food and beverage and service," said Safe Harbor President Darby Campbell.
"We do have a set plan. This year, it's really focused on the food and beverage and the service down at the waterfront and really giving the guest a great experience. We've already brought a culinary team on and food and beverages operators. We think that's going to be a terrific new addition. Not that they haven't done a great job, but to have Margaritaville involved down there, that's going to be nice."
After that, a new RV resort and slip enhancements at the marina are next on the list. "Really, take what he's done and enhance it. We definitely think we'll have additional opportunities but it's not going to transform overnight. We've got a lot of work to do," said Campbell.
Another thing Campbell said they were interested in working on was expanding the season to include more cold weather events or events outside of the typical lake resort season. "Figure out ways we can create events, wine festivals, music events and build on those to be able to extend the season. So on weekends, there's always something going on at Lake Lanier Islands."
Campbell, who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., referenced vacation spot Pigeon Forge as something Lanier Islands could look towards for inspiration. "It used to be, four or five months everything was great, then they turned off the lights, closed the hotels and went to Florida for the winter. Anymore, it's a 10 to 11 month season and that's strictly finding other opportunities. Here, it's Magical Nights of Lights. In Pigeon Forge it's Winterfest. Winterfest is lights, but it's other things. It's Dollywood and festivals... it's true, people don't think about going to the lake in the winter, but they also are looking for stuff to do, get out of the house, the kids are driving them crazy and you don't want to go all the way to Pigeon Forge. It can be expanded , but it's different. And ultimately I'd like to see other opportunities for year-round stays."
There is no change to the master lease, so Williams said his family will hone in on the hospitality side. "This is going to let us focus on an area of that we've been very good at and that is the hospitality side, which includes weddings. And, we're going to have all the auxiliary functions like golf," said Williams. "We're commanding the property as a whole and promoting the resort as a whole. We'll, obviously, be developing other hotel sites, other cottages and villas, other opportunities for people to participate in on Islands. That will all be supported by the recreation component."
After the unanimous approval from the board at the LLIDA meeting, the paperwork was signed, but it will be effective beginning February 1.
Also at the meeting, the board noted there was a 30% increase in car count at Magical Nights of Lights this past season and online reviews for the event were positive. Williams and Campbell both spoke at the meeting and presented the partnership details to the board, development teams and media. It was also made clear that in the new partnership, the goal was to retain the current public-private partnership with the LLIDA.