The coronavirus made 2020 a tough year for tourism, forcing travelers to cancel planned vacations and attractions to close their doors to visitors. Local attractions did their best to adapt, and though they all took a financial hit, some fared better than they initially expected thanks to innovative changes in operation and community outreach efforts.
"Chattanooga is in a really good place because we have had the support of Hamilton County with the mask requirement," Tennessee Aquarium spokesman Thom Benson says. "As a destination, all the attractions, all the hotels, all the restaurants are very focused on safety and recognize that we want to make sure that we are getting the word out about all of the protocols and procedures that we have in place and that this is a safe destination for folks to come to."
Rock City Gardens has operated at half capacity since reopening in mid-May 2020, says Meagan Jolley, public relations manager for See Rock City Inc. To help keep lines and crowds to a minimum, the open-air mountaintop attraction started requiring visitors to reserve timed-entry tickets online.
"Rock City has had great attendance considering the pandemic," she says.
The attraction successfully held a modified version of its popular Enchanted Garden of Lights holiday event at the end of 2020, and plans to this year hold all of the events normally on its calendar, with alterations to prevent spread of the coronavirus. For example, Rock City continued to feature musicians at this year's Shamrock City event, though they performed individually at a distance, in pop-up performances, or in Rock City's pavilion for a limited number of visitors who purchased add-on tickets. An online scavenger hunt activity was also added, Jolley says.
The Creative Discovery Museum reduced its operations from seven days a week to Thursday through Sunday, and started closing for an hour midday to allow staff to deep clean the components of the large exhibits, spokeswoman Kyrstin Hill says.
As many of the museum's programs as possible were immediately put online when the pandemic began last March, she adds. The museum launched "Creativity TV," a video series featuring science lessons, art activities, kitchen lessons and early childhood education that was shared on the museum's social media and YouTube channel throughout its 14-week closure.
"That actually brought in four corporate sponsors for us, so that was really great," Hill says of Creativity TV, for which museum staff recorded around 40 videos in the first few weeks of the pandemic.
The museum was forced to significantly cut back on educational outreach programs, which typically reach about 50,000 students a year, since those programs involve either students coming into the museum or museum staff going into the schools.So staff recorded grade level-appropriate, interactive science lessons for a program they called "View It and Do It."
Links to the video lessons can be purchased online, and students receive an activity kit that allows them to try the experiments themselves after watching the video. Students also get a field journal for taking notes during the video and reporting their findings after completing the experiments, Hill says.
During its 96-day closure, the Tennessee Aquarium added more live web cameras, created educational content and held Facebook Live events to help people stay connected with its animals and experts, and to show people that things hadn't changed within its walls even though everything around it had, Benson says.
"It also, I think, lifted the spirits of our team to know that people wanted to stay engaged with us and they still missed having the opportunity to come here and see our animals and learn about the natural world," he adds.
Almost every aspect of the aquarium's operations had to be re-evaluated in order to keep guests and staff safe when the attraction reopened. "I don't think people realize how many layers there are to that onion," Benson says.
Like Rock City, the aquarium instituted a timed ticketing system to control the number of people inside the attraction and encourage social distancing.
The aquarium's main focus is now making people aware of the necessity of that change as well as upgrades to its HVAC system — including improved airflow and UVC light panels to disinfect the air within its buildings — that were made using an $800,000 Community CARES Act grant, Benson says.
The aquarium's new Global Passport program highlights a different continent — all seven of which are represented by animals at the aquarium — each month from March through September.
A downloadable activity sheet guides kids through a global journey throughout the aquarium's two buildings. Tennessee Tech University, which developed the aquarium's app, added games and activities related to the program that kids can do at the aquarium or before or after their visit, he says.
"For the time being, people aren't able to take big trips and go to distant lands," Benson says. "So this reminds people that you can do some of that exploring right here in downtown Chattanooga."
Aquarium tickets sold out for several time slots over Presidents Day weekend — a good sign for the attraction, which costs $400,000 a day to operate regardless of how many people visit, and a positive sign for the city's economic welfare as well.
"The tourism industry is very integral to the city's success," Benson says.
When operating at full capacity, the aquarium puts $115 million in economic benefits back into the local economy, he says.
When fewer people are drawn to Chattanooga by its tourist attractions, all sorts of businesses take a financial hit, which can then trickle down to employees. Some restaurants have closed, including the Mojo Burrito close to Lookout Mountain and its attractions, and the Blue Plate, formerly located on Chattanooga's riverfront next to the aquarium.
"I'm glad that many of the restaurants are doing well, but it's hurt everybody," Benson says of the pandemic. "Hopefully the travel outlook, the rate of vaccinations — all of these are positive signals not just for the aquarium, but for the city."