Across the calendar of big, crowd-pleasing events planned for Chattanooga in 2020, tentative rescheduling is turning into hard stops.
"We've had 129 events cancel with a total of $110 million in economic impact," said Barry White, the CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. "Some of those are events that the organizers canceled in March or April and rescheduled for the fall. We're now seeing those events canceled."
The Ironman event set for September recently became the latest in a steady rhythm of cancellations, delivering a roughly $17 million blow in terms of direct and indirect economic impact. The cancellation of the Ironman 70.3, which had been rescheduled from May to August, delivered another $5.7 million financial hit.
"It's very difficult to see and we were hoping to be in a better place than we are right now," White said.
Chattanooga's billion-dollar tourism industry is largely driven by relatively resilient leisure travel — couples and families who drive in for the weekend — but the costs of losing large events are greater than just dollars and cents, White said. Big signature events raise the city's profile in a way that's tough to quantify.
"The best type of publicity we can have is spectators and visitors posting to social media about coming to Chattanooga," he said. "We will miss out on the mentions, the shares, the posts, the likes — those are gone."
At the Chattanooga Convention Center, only about six people are working to support a thin calendar of gatherings, said executive Director Mike Shuford.
"We had a decent August planned until two weeks ago with 12 events, and now we're down to one," he said. "People cancel as it gets closer and closer and they see they're not going to have any attendees."
Some folks are pushing their events into 2021, but they're also asking questions he's not sure how to answer, Shuford said.
"We had a lady call up yesterday, her event is in May, asking what we'll be doing COVID-wise then," he said. "I don't know if I can tell you in two weeks what we'll be doing."
The Convention Center has laid off 76 employees to cut costs and is subsisting on its financial reserves, but the outlook for the rest of 2020 is not encouraging, Shuford said.
"We've got another six months of reserves," he said. "If we get to the first of the year and nothing has changed, I don't know what we'll do then."
The top 10 lost events of 2020
1. 2020 Little Debbie IRONMAN Chattanooga, Sept. 27
Estimated economic impact: $17 million
2. 2020 Scenic City Summer Showcase, June 4-27
Estimated economic impact: $10.2 million
3. 2020 Sunbelt Bakery IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga, Aug. 23
Estimated economic impact: $5.7 million
4. Chattanooga MotorCar Festival, Oct. 16-18
Estimated economic impact: $4.8 million
5. 2020 USSSA Southern National Championships by Next Gen, July 8-12
Estimated economic impact: $3.5 million
6. 2020 Water Professionals Conference, July 18-23
Estimated economic impact: $3.2 million
7. 2020 Battleground Explosion, March 19-22
Estimated economic impact: $2.9 million
8. 2020 Scenic City Cup, April 24-26
Estimated economic impact: $2.8 million
9. 2020 Tennessee Tow Truck Show, Oct. 6-11
Estimated economic impact: $2.3 million
10. Tennessee Skills USA Annual Convention 2020, April 18-22
Estimated economic impact: $2 million
TOTAL: $54.4 million
Source: Chattanooga Tourism Company
Hamilton County has announced record numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past week, and the Hamilton County Health Department had reported 41 deaths from the virus as of Wednesday. The health department announced 78 new cases Wednesday, bringing the county total to 4,539. There were 1,611 active cases in the county, with 86 people hospitalized.
Until things improve considerably in terms of containing and combating the virus, the travel and tourism industry can't fully recover, White said. There is a glimmer of good news, however, in the leisure travel market, he said. The Fourth of July weekend saw hotel occupancy of about 70%, and higher spending per capita than is typical.
"We're fortunate that leisure is a big market," White said. "That's what we're really going to be living off of."
Hamilton County's hotel room tax collections, which fund the Chattanooga Tourism Co., bottomed out in April. The county collected about $260,000 in room taxes, versus $774,000 in the same month in 2019.
Those numbers were up slightly in May to $384,000, but that's less than half the 2019 collection of $807,000.
"We've never experienced anything like this," said Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander. "It's going to be a while before we get back to numbers like we saw for October 2019."
That month, the county collected more than $900,000 in room taxes.
"I think it's going to be a long time before we see that again," Hullander said.
Contact Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.
Hamilton County room tax collections
The data reflects fiscal years 2018-2019 and 2019-2020
JULY (reflects June receipts)
2018: $831,403.27 | 2019: $828,711.82
AUGUST (reflects July receipts)
2018: $821,063.58 | 2019: $872,909.10
SEPTEMBER (reflects August receipts)
2018: $673,812.76 | 2019: $749,389.81
OCTOBER (reflects September receipts)
2018: $742,944.17 | 2019: $727,090.59
NOVEMBER (reflects October receipts)
2018: $825,761.78 | 2019: $905,989.56
DECEMBER (reflects November receipts)
2018: $652,236.74 | 2019: $746,963.55
JANUARY (reflects December receipts)
2018: $496,076.33 | 2019: $584,470.16
FEBRUARY (reflects January receipts)
2019: $524,391.0 | 2020: $565,149.07
MARCH (reflects February receipts)
2019: $531,432.31 | 2020: $547,103.48
APRIL (reflects March receipts)
2019: $829,569.95 | 2020: $427,502.48
MAY (reflects April receipts)
2019: $774,364.93 | 2020: $259,611.12
JUNE (reflects May receipts)
2019: $807,476.82 | 2020: $384,226.17
Source: Hamilton County Trustee’s Office data for hotel/motel room tax collections.