published Friday, April 20th, 2012

Tourism leaders want Tennessee marketing funds

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To see how the state entices tourists, visit www.tnvacation.com.

Tourism leaders are confident they can send Tennessee at least $10 for every dollar spent promoting the state. They just need lawmakers to find that same faith.

"We can easily spend tens of millions of dollars more before we reach saturation," said Colin Reed, chairman of the Tennessee Tourism Committee. "We have to have a realistic sum of money to compete."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam formed the tourism committee in September to find ways to promote tourism across the state. The 29-member group of local and state leaders met with local stakeholders Thursday to discuss how the state best could help their businesses.

The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development operates on $5 million annually, a budget Reed would like to see bumped to a minimum of $10 million to $15 million. That is only a fraction of the $20 million annually spent by Michigan or the $50 million a year spent to promote California.

"We have to have a realistic sum of money to compete," he said.

Reed runs Gaylord Entertainment, parent company of the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville's Opryland Resort and Convention Center. He didn't identify exactly where he'd like to see the state tourism department's money come from, but said it should not come by raising hotel taxes.

Tourism is big business for both the state and the Scenic City. The industry provides 170,000 jobs and $14 billion in taxes across Tennessee. Of that, 8,000 jobs and $800 million go to Chattanooga.

"If we really got our act together, it could be exponentially a much much much bigger industry," Reed said.

Local hoteliers, attraction managers and restaurateurs called for a focus on improving air and road access to the state, but mainly focused on how to spend marketing dollars.

"We spend $1 million, you'd think the state of Tennessee could spend some," said Hugh Morrow, president of Ruby Falls. "When you look at the investment in a sales-tax-driven state, I think $25 to $50 million is a drop in the bucket."

Tourism within the United States is a $604 billion industry. Two thirds of tourists live within a day's drive of Tennessee.

"The problem is we're not on their itineraries," said Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the state tourism department.

Whitaker sees almost no limit to the returns the state could see by investing marketing dollars.

"You have to saturate a market before you see them diminish," she said. "We don't even saturate the markets bordering us."

The committee plans to study tourist data from member organizations to learn who's coming to Tennessee, then by May commission a study to learn why people aren't coming.

Bob Doak, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau and member of the committee, expects any marketing dollars spent on the state will have a positive effect on the Scenic City's tourism.

"If the state does well, so does Chattanooga," he said.

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