If things continue on their current course, this fall could feature a busy calendar of entertainment-related events in the Chattanooga area.
Everything from big festivals to smaller fundraising bazaars and recitals is planned as organizers hope to make up for lost revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With nearly every event forced to cancel or postpone since March 2020, many organizers are looking to get back to doing what they do, and fans are just as anxious to be entertained, but will the infrastructure be capable of handling so many events? There are only so many portable toilets, volunteers, vendors, security personnel, venues and even dates on the calendar.
City and civic leaders said it is a good problem to have, and the key will be coordination and communication.
"This is the first time in a long time that we are having this conversation, so that is very encouraging," said Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. "It's been a long time coming."
Nick Wilkinson, executive director of the Tivoli Foundation that operates and raises funds for the city-owned Tivoli and Walker theatres and Memorial Auditorium, said they finally are having real conversations with promoters and agents about booking shows in the fall.
"To me it is just a coordination problem, and it will be incumbent on the various organizations and events to communicate," he said.
Jonathon Susman, special events manager with the city of Chattanooga, said coordination is a good problem to have, and that the city has a plan.
"I hear what you are saying, and some of those issues are not under my jurisdiction, but we will do what we can as far as helping the flow and ensuring things go well," he said. "Events are pressing forward toward September, it looks like, and we have guidelines set forth."
Susman said those include everything from safety guidelines and precautions about bathrooms to setting forth a hierarchy for which events get priority.
"How we are dealing with what will be an onslaught of events is to deal with those that have happened for years with the greatest impact. Those will get first right of refusal," Susman said.
None of the three had a firm schedule of events they could release because things are fluid. The pandemic is still occurring around the country, and no one can predict what the coming weeks and months will bring, White pointed out.
"And, we will have a new [Chattanooga] mayor April 19," Susman said.
He added that event guidelines for safely seating people and having safe bathrooms are still being worked out, "but events are pressing forward for September."
Susman said the city is taking requests now, but making no promises on performance dates for city-owned venues.
Wilkinson said the Tivoli has added hand sanitizing stations as well as magnetometers similar to those found at airports that check for weapons to allow for hands-free checking.
"We've also adjusted the bathroom setup with every other stall and sink closed, and we are figuring out a new seating map in the auditorium that will allow for groups of ones, groups of twos and groups of three, etc.," he said.
Wilkinson said seating capacity likely will be greatly reduced in the Tivoli and Walker theaters and Memorial Auditorium.
Chattanooga is not alone in looking at the fall for events to return in larger numbers, and that means some shared resources such as portable toilets, staging, stage crews, security and even fans could be stretched thin in the region. The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, for example, has been rescheduled for Labor Day weekend.
The University of Tennessee football team has a game Sept. 4 in Knoxville, as well. Ironman organizers look to return in mid-September, as well, and the Chattanooga Marathon, which the Chattanooga Tourism Co. produces, is looking to reschedule from March to the fall.
"And, you have the many art festivals, and people want to see their kids play soccer or do ballet or perform at a church concert," Susman said. "It could be busy, but again, it is positive to be having this conversation."
He said safety will be priority one for everyone.
"People will be running at full speed, and they still want to be safe," Susman said. "We are working with every department and outside agencies. Our police do a fantastic job working with [the] highway patrol on things like this."
Wilkinson said he believes the city and the facilities in our area have progressed over the years and are able to support multiple events on the same night or weekend.
He noted that in the past event planners were especially wary of going head-to-head with college football, but not anymore. He also said the people who work events at the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium, including the ushers, concession staff, stage and lighting crews, which are hired by an outside party, have come to appreciate getting a fairly regular paycheck because of a busy calendar, and they are ready to work.
"We have a pretty dedicated staff of folks who are eager to get back to work," Wilkinson said. "Our volume is significant, and we pay our staff because we know that the No. 1 thing with people is the experience they have with things like finding their seat and getting concessions. It is to our benefit to have a paid, dedicated staff."
Wilkinson said one thing the foundation is prepared to do this fall is scramble to book a date should a big-name artist suddenly want to play in Chattanooga.
"In the past, some shows were booked a year out," he said. "Now, when we get the green light, we will have to jump on it."
White said the pandemic has been "extremely challenging and devastating for everyone, and especially for the hospitality and entertainment industries, and I would never say this in a normal year, but we have survived better than most."
He noted that at its peak during the summer unemployment in those industries locally was at 33% and now is at 5.9%.
White said Chattanooga is attractive to travelers for several reasons, including a vibrant downtown with plenty of restaurants and outdoor activities. The city also has 10,500 hotel rooms with more coming available in the coming weeks.
"All of those things make us attractive," he said.
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.