NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee's "Tennessee on Me" tourism promotion campaign — a $2.82 million effort offering $250 air flight vouchers for up to 10,000 travelers booking hotel packages to the state — has received about a fifth of the hoped-for takers.
Despite that, state Department of Tourist Development officials believe the much-criticized program — it's a candidate for a "Pork of the Year" award from the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank in Nashville — has helped hotels and motels in major counties since it began in July. Package reservations for the air travel vouchers must be booked before Dec. 31, with travel dates through March 31.
As of Nov. 19, the promotional effort resulted in 2,188 travel packages translating into 5,274 hotel nights in major cities. That's cost state taxpayers $547,000. But it's nowhere near the $2.5 million (plus marketing costs) appropriated by state lawmakers for it.
During his agency's annual budget hearing before Lee this month, Tourist Development Commissioner Mark Ezell told the governor that Nashville hotel occupancy rates rose in July, noting it coincided with "our big hotel campaign."
"These are over 2019" pre-pandemic levels, Ezell said. "That's what's so impressive."
Asked by reporters later whether he viewed the Tennessee on Me program as successful, Lee said, "We'll have to look at the data and see. I did look at tourism data just when they made their presentations and actually when that presentation was done, we did see a big spike in hotel occupancy across the state," Lee said. "We saw that happen during that time frame, so we actually are very encouraged with where tourism is headed in the state."
Still, Lee said, he had not examined the "specific numbers."
Tennessee on Me packages
Total: 2,188 packages sold for 5,274 total room nights
— 1,081 packages in Nashville.
— 518 packages in Knoxville.
— 322 packages in Chattanooga.
— 260 packages in Memphis.
— 7 packages in Tri-Cities.
Source: Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who is chairman of the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee, is no fan of the program, which has drawn bipartisan criticism from lawmakers.
"I wonder how many were coming to Nashville anyway on a convention that now we are subsidizing," Gardenhire said Monday in a telephone interview. "You know the hotel/motel industry is probably one of the biggest subsidized industries we have in this state. They have a hotel/motel tax, they have a development district tax, they get tax breaks.
"You know, I didn't see the need to throw more goodies on the table for an industry that is not suffering in Davidson County and Nashville," Gardenhire said.
The effort generated 322 packages in Chattanooga, according to state Department of Tourist Development figures. Besides Nashville and Chattanooga, other cities included in the program are Memphis, Knoxville and the Tri-Cities.
"Tourist Development, along with our local partners like Chattanooga Tourism Co., have implemented a number of efforts to help jumpstart our state's tourism industry," department spokeswoman Amanda Murphy said in an email to the Times Free Press. "Tennessee on Me not only helped Tennessee stand out as a first-choice destination, it is helping our hotels and businesses get back on their feet."
Murphy said while many areas of the state were seeing pre-pandemic or higher levels of occupancy earlier this year, it was different for major cities.
"Challenges remained in our big cities — particularly those that rely on convention, business and international travel," Murphy said. "When a visitor books a hotel through Tennessee on Me, they create an immediate, non-refundable investment in our hotels. We know once they come, they spend money in our restaurants, our shops and at our tourist attractions."
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, joined Gardenhire in offering criticism.
"It feels as though this was not the best use of the state's dollars when you talk about tourism," Hakeem said. "I'm sure there are tried and true methods that could have been considered or utilized, but we come up with one that is probably subsidizing people who were already inclined to come to Tennessee."
Hakeem also pointed to Lee's decision back in July to end the extra $300 a week in federal jobless benefits for thousands of jobless Tennesseans.
"The light of the fact was that we were being cut off from unemployment subsidies. It raises questions where we put our priorities," Hakeem said. "We're talking about people who pay taxes ... In a sense they were kicked to the curb."
Lee's program kicked off with a $120,000, 60-second video on social media featuring Lee and country music star Brad Paisley. In the spot, Paisley sang about the Tennessee on Me promotion with Lee insisting the "me" was himself, and Paisley should change the lyrics to "Tennessee on Gov. Lee," as if the governor was personally picking up the tab for people's travel. A number of lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, were not amused, since taxpayers were actually footing the bill.
The $120,000 was part of $320,000 in funding that came from the Department of Tourist Development coffers for the promotion. Of the remaining funding, major expenses included $100,000 for video programming, another $30,000 went to YouTube promotions and another $50,000 for Facebook and Twitter marketing.
Another $11,000 went to 11 social media "influencers," including @chattanooga.guide, an Instagram page with 14,400 followers.
Figures on hotel/lodging sales and use tax information provided by the Department of Tourist Development to the Times Free Press show those taxes beginning to drop, then plummet during 2020 when compared to 2019.
Hamilton County's worst showing was in April 2020 when local governments collected 66.81% less in certain tourism revenues than a year earlier, about an $880,000 loss. Davidson County that same month and year saw hotel/lodging taxes taxes drop off a cliff, falling 93.36%, a $9.63 million loss from 2019.
Hamilton County only got back in the black on hotel/lodging taxes in April 2021, exceeding what it collected in February 2019. Davidson County finally crawled out of its hole in July 2021, the first time it collected more hotel/lodging taxes since February 2019. But Davidson County again showed a slight loss in August compared to 2019.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.