Chattanooga tourism officials want growth trend to continue

Chattanooga tourism officials want growth trend to continue

April 15th, 2012 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

Jennifer Bigil holds up Chloe Wagener, 3, to look at a jellyfish at the Tennessee Aquarium on a recent weekend. The two were visiting with others from Hoover, Ala.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

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The Tennessee Tourism Committee will meet Thursday to discuss ways to improve the state's tourism draw and whether to establish a dedicated Tennessee marketing fund. The meeting will take place from 9 to 10 a.m. in The Chattanoogan.

Hamilton is the only Tennessee county with double-digit tourism growth since the beginning of the recession, a trend local experts hope to continue.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Chattanooga area's tourism take shot up by nearly $100 million to $810.1 million, just $2.3 million behind the state's fourth-highest tourism county, Knox.

The upturn is continuing for Hamilton County, aided this winter by unseasonably warm weather and general improvements to the national economy.

"We've exceeded all of our projections, really since the beginning of the year," said Karen Baker, senior marketing director for Rock City and Ruby Falls. "People are just ready to get out of the house."

The two attractions have seen double-digit increases this spring over last. Spring of 2011 was a bit slower because of problems like April's tornadoes. Still, Chattanooga seems to be having an exceptionally strong year so far, and all indicators point to that strength continuing.

"Spring break is a strong predictor of summer, and we had a great spring break," said Bob Doak, president and chief executive officer of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I'm really optimistic about the growth."

Regional Draw

Although Chattanooga's tourism industry once drew heavily from Midwest travelers headed to Florida, the majority of visitors today come from Knoxville; Nashville; Birmingham, Ala.; Huntsville, Ala.; and Atlanta. There are 9.5 million people living within a 21/2-hour drive of Chattanooga, giving the city a large pool to draw from.

But competition is fierce. The Tennessee Aquarium is one of a half dozen within a day's drive of Chattanooga. Hamilton County's mountain attractions and scenery must compete with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

It's the convergence of the attractions, scenery and amenities at a variety of price points and an easily accessible location that gives Chattanooga its edge over nearby competition.

"We've got water, we've got mountains, we've got attractions," Doak said. "We are what we are. We're a very genuine, real community."

In the past decade, tourist dollars dropped only once in Hamilton County, between 2008 and 2009. That ground was more than recovered by 2010.

Tourism has been a huge driver for the city's riverfront revitalization since the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992.

"The county has been very, very supportive of tourism," said Charlie Arant, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer. "It's really about making the city a destination."

The goal of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is to sell Chattanooga as a destination. Several organizations with stakes in Chattanooga's tourist economy, including attractions, hotels and city leaders, work together through the bureau on a daily basis to draw more visitors to the area.

The close relationship between competitors has worked. Attractions such as Rock City will sell tickets to competitors such as the aquarium. No matter how entertaining an attraction is, few tourists will spend their whole vacation there. But when they can easily find things to do, they're more likely to have a good time and more likely to come back.

"We're working on the same song sheet," Arant said. "We all work together to get people in Chattanooga; then we'll fight over them when they're here."

That collaborative attitude is unusual for cities. Getting competitors to work together can be difficult, even if it is for everyone's benefit.

New approaches

But several tourism leaders said drawing people to Chattanooga, whether for the food, kayaking or the Civil War sites, increases the size of the total pie, even if individual organizations' slices stay the same.

A new group is looking to find ways to formulate a collaborative, Chattanooga-style model for the whole state. The Tennessee Tourism Committee, comprising 19 industry leaders including Doak and Arant, will meet in Chattanooga on Thursday to pitch ideas and listen to community feedback.

"If Nashville benefits, we benefit," Doak said. "You've got that many people in a room, you're going to get some good ideas."