How $1.5 billion in annual tourist dollars improves quality of life for Chattanooga residents

Photography by Dan Henry / Sean Phipps

In 1939, the vice president and general manager of The Chattanooga News made a bold recommendation about Chattanooga's future as a tourist city. Walter C. Johnson said: "No city has ever been favored with a more exceptional opportunity to capture the imagination and the favorable attention of the world than Chattanooga enjoys today."

That was the opening line of a detailed plan Johnson and a committee had authored as justification for investing in tourism promotion. At the time, Chattanooga was already enjoying a reputation as a unique place to visit. Attractions like the Incline Railway, Lake Winnepesaukah, Ruby Falls and Rock City were active and thriving.

Johnson saw the necessity of a marketing plan and he wasn't alone in his sentiments.

At the same time, a group of locals created "Chattanoogans, Inc." for the purpose of "advertising the resources and advantages of the City of Chattanooga." That organization would later be renamed the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and, more recently, Chattanooga Tourism Co.

The Chattanooga of 1939 is much different than the Chattanooga of 2023. But some things haven't changed. Hospitality and tourism are a part of our community DNA. And thanks to those early visionaries who saw enormous potential, we are in an even better position now to invite the world to enjoy all our region has to offer.

Why Chattanooga?

Years before I was in this role and just a resident, I always wondered how those tasked with marketing Chattanooga did it. To my eyes, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches to mine. Throw a dart and everywhere it could land would be a marketing bullseye, right?

You already had the attractions mentioned above -- the "legacy" namesakes that have been around for years. But thanks to other community visionaries, Chattanooga now has an emerging culinary scene, an ultra-modern aquarium, curated outdoor resources and natural assets. We have live music around every corner, unique public art in unexpected places, and diverse cultural festivals and events. And beer. So much beer.

Geography is also on our side. Chattanooga is within driving-distance of several major metro populations. Nashville and Atlanta -- along with Birmingham, Huntsville and Knoxville -- are our "drive markets," supplying year-round potential leisure visitation. But we also market to cities like Chicago, Tampa Bay and Orlando, Washington D.C. and even Denver.

I was not aware of how much effort goes into marketing a destination. That we had an organization whose main objective was to walk that fine line between encouraging visitation and ensuring the results of tourism positively impacted residents. And now I get to be a part of those decisions every day.

I also took for granted just how incredibly lucky we are to call Chattanooga home. Because I discovered that our best asset is not our mountains, river or internet speeds. That one thing that sets us apart from all other destinations -- that other places just don't have -- is our people. Without such a strong community of residents that embraces tourism, which is one of our top industries, by the way, we would be in a far worse position to do what we do.

What we do

"Destination marketing" is about adaptability and strategy. We are constantly looking at the most recent data and fielding our own research, working and listening to our tourism partners and tweaking our marketing to reflect the current traveler sentiment, while strategically positioning ourselves to jump at opportunities that make strategic sense.

And while destination marketing includes paid advertising campaigns and social media posts, there is so much more that goes into the pot. For example, our public relations team is constantly working to help pitch Chattanooga to national/regional publications, working with journalists and influencers to highlight the best of our city.

This includes working with national television shows like "Samantha Brown's Places to Love" (the Chattanooga episode airs this season on PBS.) Positive press doesn't just happen. Earned media is just that; it's earned. Those mentions in Forbes, the New York Times, Southern Living just don't happen without a ton of work on the front end.

Our business development team is always working to recruit large meetings and groups to our Chattanooga Convention Center and beyond, traveling most of the year to get Chattanooga in front of meeting planners. Our events services team works to make sure those meetings and events are successful.

Likewise, Chattanooga sports, a division of Chattanooga Tourism Co., captures new sports-related events and cultivates those relationships for multi-year opportunities -- Ironman, Head of the Hooch, Chattanooga Marathon, Blue Cross Bowl, etc. -- that enrich the community and have a positive economic impact.

We have entire teams and roles devoted to the digital experience of Chattanooga (through and our @VisitChatt social platforms), a brand experience director, and a position directly focused on the promotion our culture, heritage and arts partners.

And we're incredibly excited about our new information center in Aquarium Plaza. Staffed with a team of knowledgeable specialists, the center is a one-stop shop for visitors and residents to begin their journey in Chattanooga with the information they need.

These roles work in tandem to support our mission: to promote and develop visitor experiences for our community's economic and social prosperity.

Why tourism matters

Our mission at Chattanooga Tourism Co. in 2023 is not too distant from Johnson's 1939 goal, with one major exception. We also strive to make sure our marketing efforts enhance the economic and social prosperity of the whole community.

But what does that prosperity look like? Well, Chattanooga is a better place for us to live because of visitor spending. Each year, Hamilton County sees more than 15 million visitors who generate $1.5 billion for our community. That's 43,000 visitors every day in our county.

A part of those visitors -- on average about 15,000 -- spend the night in our 11,000 hotel rooms with a whopping $4.1 million in daily spending.

Day-trippers stay in our community at least four hours and spend money on shopping, eating, attractions and our outdoor natural assets.

And finally, jobs. The tourism/hospitality industry supports 31,300 jobs. Of those employees, many fill "front line" roles and are often the first faces a visitor might see when they arrive. Many are developers, executive chefs, hotel managers, and event planners.

Residents of Chattanooga enjoy direct impacts through visitor spending and our quality of life is improved by visitation.

Chattanooga is a city bursting with pride. When we share that pride with visitors -- through a favorite restaurant recommendation, that local hiking spot, or perfect tucked away coffee shop -- they feel like they're one of us. They may technically be "tourists," but nobody should feel like one. An authentic local experience is key.

When done right, destination marketing is a shared value throughout the community. Something that is achieved only through collaboration and the support of residents and our tourism partners.

As a marketing director for Chattanooga Tourism Co., it is my job -- and our entire organization's job -- to support this positive momentum through integrity, accountability and collaboration. That privilege is not lost on me or any of us here.

And now some 80 years after Johnson's vision, I'd like to think he would be proud of where we are today. He might not understand TikTok, but that's OK. The reality is that -- like 1939 -- we are once again poised with an exceptional opportunity to capture the attention of millions. And with your support we will.

Sean Phipps is a communications specialist with more than 20 years of experience championing Chattanooga. His role as marketing director for Chattanooga Tourism Co. intersects two of his favorite things: data-driven marketing and pride in place. He lives with his wife, Monica, and 2-year-old son, Elliott, on Signal Mountain.