Even in an increasingly online world, many visitors to Chattanooga still want in-person advice and answers to their questions about the Scenic City.
So 2 1/2 years after closing its downtown visitors center in the CARTA garage breezeway, the Chattanooga Tourism Co. has built and opened a new information storefront near the Tennessee Aquarium on the downtown riverfront.
"We've built a strong social media presence to tell the Chattanooga story to help bring visitors here, but sometimes our visitors have questions and want to talk with an individual about their specific request or need," Hugh Morrow, president of Ruby Falls and chairman of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said during a ribbon-cutting Friday for the new visitors facility. "This gives us a personal touch with all of our guests that come to the aquarium and the downtown area and helps them find out all about our city and this region."
(READ MORE: Tennessee Aquarium -- Chattanooga's biggest tourist magnet -- turns 30)
Using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan funneled through Tennessee's Department of Tourist Development, the local tourism bureau built and opened the information storefront a couple of weeks ago. The new facility includes both indoor and outdoor kiosks and interactive video screens, along with staff members who not only answer questions but also sell merchandise about Chattanooga and even have old-fashioned print brochures to distribute.
The total cost of design and construction of the Chattanooga Information Center was around $480,000, according to Chattanooga Tourism Co. spokeswoman Hannah Hammon.
The facility bills itself as Chattanooga Information, not Chattanooga Tourism, and Morrow said it is intended to provide information and assistance for both visitors and residents.
Chattanooga Tourism Co., formerly the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, previously operated an information booth in the downtown CARTA parking garage for nearly a decade until the pandemic forced its closing in the spring of 2020. Prior to 2010, the tourism bureau's main office was housed at the aquarium park in what has since been revamped into the Medal of Honor Museum.
(READ MORE: National Medal of Honor Heritage Center opens with patriotic welcome in downtown)
When the tourism agency began planning to reopen a downtown information booth to offer in-person help to visitors after the pandemic, Chattanooga Tourism Co. President Barry White said officials wanted to create a new and more inviting facility to showcase the city and its outdoor appeal. White said the tourism agency has operated a mobile information booth using an electric vehicle that has moved around town over the past year.
"But this is really the perfect place for this information center here at the plaza, where more than 1.4 million people come every year," White said during Friday's celebration of the new information center.
Hamilton County Deputy Mayor Tucker McClendon recalled that when he once worked nearby at the Chattanooga Market, he was often bombarded with questions by visitors wanting to know about area attractions, places to eat, best hotels and where to go to eat.
"This is a great addition for one of our key industries," McClendon told those gathered at Friday's ribbon-cutting, noting that more than 31,000 people in metro Chattanooga work in the hospitality industry.
Tennessee Tourist Development Commissioner Mark Ezell said Hamilton County was one of the top 10 counties in Tennessee last year bouncing back from the pandemic slowdown in travel, recording a 40% jump in tourism spending in 2021. Ezell said he expects the industry will be up again in 2022, and even with a softening economy, East Tennessee should be well positioned as a driving destination that is more affordable than many other tourist attractions.
"We know that this information center is one way to present the beautiful Southern hospitality of Tennessee and to encourage people to not only come once, but to come back and visit our attractions a second or third time," Ezell said during Friday's ribbon-cutting.
The visitors center opening comes as Chattanooga hosts tens of thousands of visitors at the Motorcar Festival on the Westside last month, the Future of Freight Festival this week at the Chattanooga Convention Center and this weekend's Head of the Hooch rowing competition on the Tennessee River and the Chattanooga Softball Classic competition on area softball fields.
(READ MORE: Yearning, nostalgia mix during day two of Chattanooga Motorcar Festival)
According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, Chattanooga hosts more than 15 million visitors who spend $1.5 billion annually. On an average day, Chattanooga draws more than 40,000 visitors. 15,000 of whom stay the night in local hotels and spend $4.1 million per day on entertainment, shopping, dining and more. White said the visitors are temporary taxpayers who save every Hamilton County household $868 per year in taxes.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @DFlessner1.