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Barry White

The most powerful force for promoting Chattanooga as a tourist destination was gathered around dozens of tables at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon, said Barry White, the CEO and president of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One of the city's strengths as a travel destination is "positive resident sentiment," or the word-of-mouth power of people who love living in Chattanooga and love to talk about it, White said during the CVB's 2019 Chattanooga Tourism Summit.

"Our job is to recruit more visitors, and this is the most valuable form of marketing," he told the gathering of leaders from across industries.

Visitors to Chattanooga and Hamilton County dropped $1.16 billion during their travels in 2018, a record amount and an increase of 4.75% over 2017. The dollars are a good measure of success, but the number he's most interested in boosting is the number of people who visit the area, White said.

"People travel here to see our culture," he said. "It's about the place and the people."

Tourism in Hamilton County

* $1.16 billion — Visitor spending last year, up 4.75 % from the previous year

* 8,970 — Number of hospitality jobs

* 438 — Number of new hotel rooms added last year, bringing the total to about 11,000

* $15.1 million - Occupancy taxes collected by the city and county

Sources: Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. Figures are for 2018 in Hamilton County

strategic plan rolled out at the luncheon last year includes a range of tactics to make the CVB "the most competitive and innovative destination organization in the nation" by 2025. Goals include increasing annual spending by visitors to $1.33 billion, but the plan also includes a move to make it easier for some businesses to raise their profile with CVB resources.

"The CVB is currently restructuring its membership program and moving away from a dues-based model, which required an annual fee for basic services such as a website listing," according to the CVB's 2019 Tourism Report. Instead, to welcome a more diverse range of businesses into the organization, a new partnership model will mean all qualified CVB partners get a free website listing on the CVB site. A dedicated strategy for culture, heritage and arts is also in the works, as is a strategy specific to sports.

Growing the hospitality industry workforce is a focus, as well. During a breakout session at the event Wednesday, leaders in education and the tourism industry discussed the challenges of recruiting the people who deliver the experiences visitors have when they spend time exploring Chattanooga. Rock City President Susan Harris was a member of that panel.

"Talent development is an opportunity across many industries," she said. "Within the tourism industry, we're committed to working together — we have strong collaboration with the CVB, with the Chamber of Commerce, with others through the Chattanooga Hospitality Association."

Rock City has also invested $250,000 to develop an Institute of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the Howard School that provides financial contributions and commitments for field trips, job shadowing, faculty touring, advisory roles and preferential part-time job availability for students.

White touted Chattanooga's long history of drawing local visitors through unique attractions, including the Incline, which opened in 1895, and Rock City, which has been around since 1932. Chattanooga is "an early adopter, an innovator," in drawing people to the city, he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com.

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