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Hundreds of people enjoy the visual experience at the Imax Theater adjacent to the Tennessee Aquarium. (Staff photo by Tim Barber)
some text Cory and Rachel Shain, left, of Columbus, Ohio, experience the sturgeon touch tank with their children Solenne, Manny and Simon. (Staff photo by Tim Barber)

On a sunny Friday afternoon in April, the Miles family walked between buildings at the Tennessee Aquarium downtown, which was the first stop on their three-day vacation to Chattanooga. From the Clarksville area, Haley and Keith Miles were in town with their 22-month-old twin sons, Cooper and Owen, with plans to also visit Rock City and the Chattanooga Zoo in the coming days.

Attendance at Chattanooga's top attractions in March was up 9 percent over March 2017, said Dave Santucci, marketing vice president for the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. April figures are not yet available.

"It's good, consistent growth for Chattanooga," Santucci said. "There's no reason to be overly positive or negative."

After a strong spring break for tourism in the area, tourism officials said they are already seeing a positive response to the city's new tagline — Chattanooga "In a State of Joy" — that was released in February, and they are expecting a steady increase in summer visitors. Chattanooga's $1.1 billion-a-year tourism industry is busiest in the summer months.

While the number of couples attracted to the area is growing, Santucci said Chattanooga still remains the "affordable family weekend getaway" compared to bigger cities, such as Nasvhille and Atlanta.

Officials said "In a State of Joy" won out over the 100 taglines originally proposed and promotes Chattanooga as being a "joyful" experience while also capitalizing on the fact that Tennessee is becoming more of a destination in the region.

The visitor's bureau spends about $2 million of their roughly $8 million budget on advertising, and a majority of that comes from the county hotel and motel occupancy tax given to the tourism agency. Occupancy tax collections rose 60 percent in the past 10 years from $4.5 million in 2008 to $7.6 million last year.

"We want to be responsible stewards and make sure every dollar generates some return," said Barry White, president and CEO of the tourism bureau. White came from the CVB in Augusta, Ga., after former president and CEO Bob Doak retired last year.

Figures from 2017 show Chattanooga hotels sold over 2 million hotel rooms and the area saw 3.5 million visitors overall. The tourism bureau has launched television ads in those markets and pushed the new tagline out over the radio, Facebook, YouTube and other social media.

"We have a lot of competition in the tourism market," Santucci said. "We have to remind people to come or they will stop coming."

The new tagline was created before White began his post, but the new tourism head said they'll keep it around as long as it is resonating with tourists. The visitor's bureau will also begin a strategic planning process in the coming months – the first time the bureau has undergone one in several years. The bureau will hire an outside firm to create a three-year rolling plan, which will be updated annually.

Tennessee Aquarium spokesman Thom Benson said attendance was up 5 percent this year at Chattanooga's biggest attraction downtown compared to attendance during the spring break period a year ago. Benson said thanks to "aggressive marketing efforts" by the aquarium, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and features in national publications, there has been a rise in visitors from outside the primary markets within a 2- to 3-hour driving radius.

For the summer months, the aquarium will hire more employees as tourists flock to the new lemur forest exhibit, free programs offered with admission and special screenings coming to the IMAX theatre, he said.

With local gas prices up by more than 40 cents a gallon from a year ago, industry leaders said they still don't anticipate the rise in fuel prices to negatively impact hotels and attractions. About 75 percent of tourists to the Chattanooga area travel from markets within a 2-to-3-hour drive, like Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham and Knoxville.

"People aren't likely to change their vacation or weekend plans because of an extra $5 cost of gas," Santucci said.

Susan Harris, president of See Rock City, said the mountaintop attraction had a successful spring break and she is looking forward to a successful summer season, as well. Rock City will be holding their Southern Blooms Festival and Founder's Day celebration this month, and this summer the attraction will host a summer music concert series featuring country and bluegrass acts.

It also won "Travel Attraction of the Year" in April at the Southeast Tourism Society conference.

"We saw strong visitation during the primary spring break weeks, and have been pleased with our guests' responses to our spring event calendar," Harris said. "We are looking forward to a successful summer season as we welcome visitors to beautiful Rock City Gardens, Battles for Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at ashirk@timesfreepress.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.

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