How Chattanooga made $1 billion last year from tourism

More visitors are coming to Chattanooga, doubling spending since 2000

Amber Jones, right, and Dennis Doyle look out over Chattanooga from Sunset Rock.

What does a $1 billion tourism impact mean?

It's the amount of money left behind by visitors in Hamilton County. The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development partners with the U.S. Travel Association calculate tourisme xpenditure figures.

Top tourist attractions in Chattanooga region

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, doesn't provide visitor totals Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, 906,000 visitors in 2014 Creative Discovery Museum, 209,000 visitors in 2014 Incline Railway, 20,000 trips annually Lake Winnepesaukah, doesn't share attendance records Rock City, about 500,000 visitors annually Ruby Falls, about 400,000 visitors annually Southern Belle Riverboat, no data available Tennessee Aquarium, about 700,000 visitors annually Sources: Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau; attendance records: National Park Service, and all other attractions provided their own attendance

Visitor breakdown

* Estimated number of annual visitors: 3 million * Average household income of visitors: $85,000 * 50 percent of visitors have children under age 18 * 23 percent are age 35-44 * 28 percent are age 45-54 * 25 percent are age 55-64 Source: Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Hotel rooms sold in metro Chattanooga

2009: 1,842,808 2010: 2,107,462 2011: 2,155,001 2012: 2,111,425 2013: 2,062,183 2014: 2,217,252 Source: Smith Travel Research, hotel demand in metropolitan Chattanooga

Let's get straight to the numbers. Tourism hit $1 billion in Hamilton County last year. Another record: 2.2 million hotel room nights were booked in metro Chattanooga in 2014.

Those figures come thanks to family-friendly attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium, according to the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Conventions and events also factor into the figures, as do the region's top-notch outdoor features that draw adventure sports enthusiasts - though the outdoor element is hard to put a number on.

To be sure, the $1 billion economic-impact mark is an estimate; the firm number won't be known until September. "It will be fairly close," says Bob Doak, the president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Generally, people come to the Chattanooga area to simply "get away," Doak says. "For a family experience, relaxation." That's why they head to the most popular attractions: the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Creative Discovery Museum, Incline Railway, Lake Winnepesaukah, Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Southern Belle Riverboat, among others.

There's no "tangible number" to attach to the visitors who come for outdoor activities, the area's rich offering for rock climbers, kayakers, mountain bikers and trail runners, among other sports.

"That's fairly hard to kind of get your arms around," Doak says. They aren't activities that require visitors to, say, buy tickets in order to participate. More so, access to pretty much all of the outdoor sports is free. Still, "it's part of what we promote," Doak says. "I kind of put technology and the outdoors in a similar category."

Visitors might not do much with Chattanooga's super speedy Internet or take to the trails on Signal Mountain, but the technological and outdoor features of the area "add to the ethos, the charm, and are part of what makes it a cool place to be," Doak says.

Most visitors come from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, which is also where attractions spend the lion's share of their marketing dollars. So does the tourism bureau, generally looking to draw people who are within a day's drive.

"We wouldn't advertise in USA Today and Travel & Leisure," says Candace Davis, the bureau's manager of marketing and public relations. "We try to stay a little more targeted to the South."

The Convention and Visitors Bureau budgets about $3 million a year for direct advertising, with about $1.25 million of it going to television spots in its target markets: Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham and Huntsville. Most are 30-second spots. The bureau works with The Johnson Group, a Chattanooga advertising agency that handles creative components and digital media campaigns, along with helping place media.

A research firms helps test the ads with feedback from randomly selected consumers in the targeted markets, who field questions such as, "Does this motivate you?"

"It's the only way to know if something is resonating," Davis says. "Anytime you go out to market with a spot, and you're spending that kind of money, you better make sure you got it right."

Click on the bureau's website and you'll see the latest local tagline: "Chattanooga, take me there," which has held the stage for three years. Previous ones: "Chattanooga, the attraction's only natural" and "Chattanooga, a great city by nature." The most recent tagline is "more of a call to action," Davis says. And one that literally tells people to come to the area.

Cindy Todd, Tennessee Aquarium's chief marketing and branding officer, has had a leadership role in Chattanooga's tourism industry since the 1980s. Back then, Todd recalls, the strategy was to get people to stop on their way to other places such as Gatlinburg or Florida. Soon after that, the Lookout Mountain attractions took off, and the aquarium opened in 1992. Development came downtown and along the riverfront.

"For years we produced cooperative advertising along the lines of 'look at all the things we have to do in our city,' " Todd says. Then in 2008, the aquarium and the Convention and Visitors Bureau partnered on a study that revealed "it was time to stop advertising as the sum of a lot of parts and to start branding Chattanooga as a destination," she says.

photo Aerial shows downtown Chattanooga, the Aquarium, Market Street Bridge, Tennessee River and the Bluff View district.
The Tennessee Aquarium averages about 700,000 visitors a year, and 70 percent of them are from outside the area. To maintain that, the aquarium has to "keep improving and investing." The aquarium recently opened an alligator exhibit, where visitors watch alligators get fed with the help of audio cues; the sound of wind chimes brings several to the surface for feeding and the sound of cow bells being rung brings all of them up. Generally the aquarium has worked to enhance the experience of guests by creating programs where they can engage more with the aquarium's experts and have more experiences with the animals, says aquarium spokesman Thom Benson.

But an outside study showed that the most likely way to sustain increased attendance is for Chattanooga to get a major new attraction that appeals to a different, incremental audience, Todd says. "We already have overall satisfaction ratings that are the highest for any aquarium in the country, and we have enough substance to our experience, so the answer isn't a major expansion for us, it's another attraction. That's how interdependent thetourism industry is."

Indeed, much of the marketing of the top attractions is done cooperatively with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. And many of the attractions work with each other. For example, the aquarium handles a slew of functions for the Creative Discovery Museum and the Hunter Museum of American Art, such as accounting and market research. "Their marketing department is like an advertising agency for us," says, Lynda LeVan, Creative Discovery Museum's director of external affairs.

photo Andree Herbert tries out the Oculus Rift virtual reality device on March 20, 2015, in a classroom at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX Theatre in Chattanooga. The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality device, and the aquarium is using a development kit version to build VR programming which teaches students about stream ecology conservation.
The aquarium even has a collaborative exhibit with the Hunter, Jellies Living Art. And, the Lookout Mountain attractions are official sponsors of the aquarium, as well. "We sell each other's tickets and cross-promote to drive business," Todd says. For the Creative Discovery Museum, collaboration happens with nearby hotels, too. Desk staff check out the museums exhibits a couple of times a year, so that they are informed when hotel guests ask about the museum or things to do in town.

Generally, big attractions like the aquarium or national military park bring guests to the area, and the smaller venues reap from that.

"When they get here, they are looking for other things to do, too," LeVan says. Still, sometimes lesser known attractions lead visitors to more commonly known ones, like the aquarium. "Having High Point in the downtown area helps us. There may be people who come for climbing events and find us," Benson says.

This article appears in the May issue of Edge magazine, which may be read online.