Tabitha Lavacot, right, and Steve Haase, foreground, keep an eye on Jacob Haase, 7, Calum Lavacot, 5, and Cameron Blankenship, 4, as they look out of the train at the Tennessee Valley Railroad.Staff photo by Jake Daniels
With less than three months until Chattanooga's tourism season begins in earnest, area attractions are gearing up for what they hope will be another positive year.
Hotel room tax revenue reached an all-time record in 2010, up about 18 percent countywide from 2009, said Bob Doak, president and chief executive of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"I'm not sure what other industry right now can claim that kind of success," he said. "That's certainly one of the ways we measure the success of the tourism industry, is the number of dollars created in hotel revenue. And most of that was due to increased occupancy ... meaning more people in hotels, more hotel rooms occupied, which translates into more attraction visits, more restaurant visits."
Andrea Anderson, executive director of the Chattanooga Hospitality Association, said things should continue to get better as the city moves through the new year. With the help of sporting events, meetings and other group events or festivals, there's more that goes into the area's tourism industry than the attractions, she said.
"I think one of the things Chattanooga and individuals in charge have done a fantastic job of is continually reinventing ourselves," Anderson said. "It makes people want to see what you have done now, and when you have events like Riverbend, it not only helps with your lodging, but it also helps with your attractions surrounding that."
Preparing for the season
Tourism in Chattanooga is proportional to the temperature, with much of the city's appeal revolving around its scenic landscape in addition to the area attractions, Doak said. The season officially begins in March, though many attractions are open year-round, and picks up steam in June, July and half of August, he said.
Doak, as well as other local tourism officials, are reserved when making predictions for 2011, exhibiting cautious optimism for the city's ability to reach or surpass last year's visitation levels.
"I think the economy does seem to be improving, so that seems to always help with tourism," said Henry Schulson, executive director of the Creative Discovery Museum. "We'd like to see some potential growth."
Schulson said that being just halfway into the first month of the year, the many variables that go into the equation of a successful year in the tourism industry are still to be determined. He said economic stability, gas prices, admission prices and trends in other cities all influence how visitors will react and ultimately what the year will be like.
"They all sort of go into the mix," he said.
Some of the local tourism leaders are banking on landmark anniversaries to further bolster visitation to the city.
This year marks the 50th anniversary for the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, as well as the 30th anniversary for the weeklong Riverbend Festival that will feature acts such as Miranda Lambert and the Beach Boys.
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN 2011?
* Chattanooga Zoo: Miller Family Deserts and Forests of the World exhibit opens, showcasing a meerkat, Chinese alligator, sloth and a variety of venomous reptiles
* Creative Discovery Museum: Good for You: Healthy Fun on the Run exhibit Jan. 29-May 15; Bob the Builder-Project: Build It exhibit May 28-Sept. 6
* Hunter Museum of American Art: Currently exhibiting "Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color;" Beverly Semmes' "Between the States" will open in early summer
* Outdoor Chattanooga: Several winter workshops in January and February; Outdoor Expo on April 23
* Riverbend: 30th anniversary festival will be held June 10-18, featuring artists such as Miranda Lambert, the Beach Boys, Huey Lewis and The News, and Casting Crowns
* Rock City: Shamrock City March 12-13; EarthDayz weekends in April; Rocktoberfest Saturdays and Sundays in October; Enchanted Garden of Lights in wintertime
* Ruby Falls: Romance at Ruby in February; Racin at Ruby in May; Football at the Falls in September; Haunted Cavern in October; Deck the Falls in November and December; Ruby Red Christmas in December
* Southern Belle: Family Night Cruise on Wednesdays in June and July
* Tennessee Aquarium: Snorkel with the Manatees Weekend Jan. 28-30; Breakfast with the Penguins on Feb. 12; Day in the Life of an Aquarium Diver on Feb. 19; Mother's Day Sleep in the Deep on May 6; Fourth of July Sleep in the Deep July 3-4
* Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum: 50th anniversary year with January Missionary Ridge local train service; Valentine dinner trains in February; Founders Day on Aug. 11; Tennessee Valley Railfest Sept. 1-4
Source: Area attractions
Steve Freer, membership and marketing coordinator for the TVRM, said the museum is kicking off the year by opening its Missionary Ridge local rail service to the public on Saturdays during the month of January for the first time in its history. Throughout the year, the museum also will host several events to highlight the anniversary, including the Tennessee Valley Railfest during Labor Day weekend as a "kind of birthday celebration," he said.
"With the way the tourism industry goes up and down, 2007 was a great year and then in '08 and '09 we saw reductions. Now we're back on the upswing," Freer said. "We're hoping for better things this year. We've added more trains and more services."
Chattanooga's animal attractions are creating additional hands-on or close encounter experiences to reel in visitors.
Thom Benson, spokesman for the Tennessee Aquarium, said the focus this year will be on "raising the bar in regard to the overall guest experience."
"This includes providing aquarium visitors more opportunities to meet animals up close and providing engaging hands-on programs," he said.
At the Chattanooga Zoo, a new exhibit called the Miller Family Deserts and Forests of the World will feature a meerkat, Chinese alligator, sloth and a variety of venomous reptiles, said the zoo's executive director, Darde Long. The zoo also will offer more guided tours, as well as Red Panda excursions that allow guests to explore, feed and interact with the endangered species, she said.
Expanding the market
Though out-of-town visitors make up a bulk of the city's tourism dollars, several attractions are hoping to also increase the number of locals coming to their businesses.
Katrina Craven, spokeswoman for the Hunter Museum, said a special effort is being made this year to get more locals into the museum, even as consumer confidence recovers and visitation from people throughout the region picks up.
Regional visitors -- those who come from about a 150-mile radius surrounding the city -- make up about 80 percent of the total annual tourist population in Chattanooga, Doak said. The market the city draws from includes Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., he said.
"We spend close to a million dollars on television each year to convince people that Chattanooga's the right place to be," Doak said.
As the city's offerings continue to expand, with a new visitor's center that recently opened and the Chattanooga History Center scheduled to open next year, tourism official believe the demographics of the area's visitors also are expanding.
"We're not just attracting the families anymore but also starting to attract more of a couples and adults crowd," Schulson said.
Doak said in recent years the CVB has been actively pursuing demographic groups that are "a little bit younger and a little bit older" than the key family market.
Though the economy is one factor leading to the area's cautious optimism for the year, Doak said there's one thing he can count on through it all.
"People are still going to take family vacations," he said. "That's something that we as Americans aren't ever going to give up."
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Brittany Cofer is a business reporter who has been with the Chattanooga Times Free Press since January 2010. She previously worked as a general assignment Metro reporter. In the Business department, she covers banking, retail, tourism, consumer issues and green issues. Brittany is from Conyers, Ga., and spent two years at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., before transferring to the University of Georgia. She graduated from the university’s Grady College of Journalism in December ...