How does a mid-sized city go from a struggling manufacturing hub to a regional destination for tourists? For Chattanooga, the answer lies in sound business planning, new products, smart marketing, and expert teamwork.
By George Christian
IN ITS SIMPLEST form, a brand is the perception that a person holds about a product, service, cause, or even a city. City branding, first initiated and led by the city of New York in 1975 following municipal bankruptcy, emerged to change cities from locations to destinations – places where people want to live, work, and visit.
Just like commercial products or services, a city’s brand or perception is formed by tangible benefits (what you can see, smell, taste, hear, or feel) and intangible benefits (how you feel about, or the emotional connection that you have with a product or service). As consumers become more acquainted and satisfied with a brand, they purchase it more often and tell others about it. This leads to higher revenues directly associated with the name of a specific product, service, or city.
For example, the name of the red tomato paste we put on hamburgers, called Heinz, is a $6 billion brand. The name of the sports TV network we know as ESPN has annual revenues in excess of $10 billion, and that super-cool car we call Porsche is valued at $6 billion. And guess what? The city resting on the Tennessee River, nestled in the valley of Southeast Tennessee among the Appalachian Mountains, called Chattanooga, has grown to become a $1 billion brand. Over the last 13 years, Chattanooga has been carefully and thoughtfully marketed not only within the region, but across the nation and around the world. The result is that it has become one of the Southeast’s most popular places to visit, with tourism revenues now approximately $1 billion.
Decades of Product Development
Just like the success of any commercial product or service, the success of a city desiring to attract visitors hinges on the appeal of its venues and attractions to different people of all ages. Sometimes the development of these products can take years. If successful, the totality of what they offer is followed by ongoing marketing efforts.
Chattanooga’s story is one of more than two decades of product development during which a destination city was formed. Through civic leadership and community-wide involvement, the 15-year period from 1985 to 1999 saw the development of the Convention Center, Miller Plaza, Tennessee Aquarium, Ross’s Landing, Bluff View Art District, Creative Discovery Museum, International Towing & Recovery Museum, IMAX® 3D Theatre, Bijou Theatre, Coolidge Park, and numerous hotels.
And more was to be done. From 2000 to 2005, the Convention Center was expanded and AT&T Field and the Chattanooga Market were completed. Through the leadership of then-Mayor Bob Corker, the 21st Century Waterfront Plan was created as a centerpiece for the continued revitalization of the city. With it, the Riverwalk, resting along the banks of the Tennessee River, was finalized, Ross’s Landing Pier was established, the Tennessee Aquarium and Hunter Museum of American Art were expanded, and the Creative Discovery Museum was enhanced.
“I think there was an awakening around the Waterfront,” says Senator Bob Corker. “At the time, the Aquarium had its own objectives that were going to benefit our community, as did the Creative Discovery Museum and the Hunter Museum. What was amazing was the level of collaboration. While each entity hired its own architect and contractor, and the city – through River City Company – designed and built all of the public spaces, one fundraising initiative was put in place for the entire project, which is unique for an effort of this magnitude.”
Early Marketing Efforts
Having developed a host of amenities for people of all ages to enjoy, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County had a story to tell, and that story was placed in the hands of Chattanooga’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). In 2002, under the leadership of President and CEO Bob Doak, the CVB launched “The Attraction’s Only Natural” marketing campaign. Market research showed that in addition to Chattanooga’s many attractions, the city also stood out among visitors for its scenic beauty. The campaign coincided with the launch of two new websites: outdoorchattanooga.com, which showcases Chattanooga’s many outdoor attractions, and chattanoogafun.com, which offers information about hotels, area attractions, activities, meeting sites, local events, and much more.
“Our marketing campaign at that time was based on exhaustive research, during which our visitors told us that Chattanooga was a wonderful, safe city with unbelievable scenic beauty and a terrific collection of man-made attractions,” says Doak. “The research showed that high on the list of visitor priorities was a need ‘to escape.’ They wanted serenity.”
In 2005, following two years of additional research, the CVB launched a new marketing campaign titled “ChattaNEWga.” The campaign highlighted the city’s added attractions gained from Chattanooga’s 21st Century Waterfront Plan. Public relations initiatives were ramped up and travel writers with national and regional publications were invited to visit the Scenic City. Nearly 400 travel journalists generated more than 1,000 broadcasts and articles about Chattanooga. “To get that degree of exposure through paid advertising would have cost almost $7 million,” Doak says.
In 2006, shortly following the “ChattaNEWga” campaign, the CVB’s advertising shifted to focus more on the overall experience that visitors could enjoy in the city and surrounding areas. At the same time, its advertising and marketing efforts continued to target five key markets: Atlanta, Birmingham, Huntsville, Knoxville, and Nashville.
Public officials and private business executives agreed that marketing Chattanooga as a whole was more important than to focus on a collection of venues. “If you think about San Francisco, it has the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf along with many other attractions. But its leaders market the city of San Francisco,” says Doak. “Today their slogan is ‘Never the same. Always San Francisco.’”
“This was a major shift in how we marketed Chattanooga,” says Charlie Arant, president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium. “When the Aquarium first opened, it was evident early on that we were a regional attraction. But as much as we needed to tell our story within the region, it became clear that the success of the aquarium was dependent on the success of Chattanooga. There was a great deal of collaboration and an understanding among area attractions that this new approach would bring more people to visit our city and would benefit everyone. ”
Changing with the Times
Not sitting still, the CVB launched “A Great City By Nature” in 2008, a marketing campaign that emphasized Chattanooga’s scenic beauty and wonderful attractions supported by the area’s eco-friendly initiatives. Then in 2010, the CVB introduced a new campaign titled “Take Me There” and began collaborating with industry leader DCI Group on public relations initiatives.
“‘Take Me There’ was the most tested advertising campaign launched by the CVB,” says Doak. “Over the course of six months, more than 12,000 potential visitors to Chattanooga were presented concepts depicting possible ads.”
Since the ads started running, hotel tax revenue has increased 17% — an increase Doak largely attributes to the advertising campaign. “The campaign has not only won a national ADDY award, which makes you feel great, but it’s been effective,” says Doak. “I think it speaks to the wonderful experience people of all ages can enjoy while visiting Chattanooga.”
Additionally, in the CVB’s first three years of working with DCI, almost 1 billion impressions were generated through national and regional publications such as USA Today, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Outside, Runner’s World, and more.
Social Media and Public Relations Ramp Up
Building on the advertising campaign “Take Me There,” the CVB ramped up their efforts on social media and internet advertising. Today, its Facebook page (facebook.com/ChattanoogaFun) has more than 220,000 likes. “We want it to be a giant commercial for the city,” says Candace Davis, the CVB’s marketing and public relations manager. Between Twitter, Facebook, and email, the CVB can reach 300,000 people at the push of a button.
Reaching New Markets
From 2011 to 2012, the CVB added three seasoned executives to accelerate the growth of tourism: Ed Dolliver, the CVB’s vice president of sales, who focuses on growing meetings and conventions for the city; Tim Morgan, president of the Chattanooga Sports Committee, who concentrates on bringing sporting events to the city; and Dave Santucci, the CVB’s vice president of marketing. “This team has one objective – fill hotel rooms,” Doak says.
From 2002 to 2014, a period that included the worst recession for the U.S. economy since the Great Depression, Chattanooga’s tourism revenues more than doubled from $450 million to more than $1 billion. From the $1 billion, $20 million goes to local sales tax, of which half ($10 million) goes directly to Hamilton County schools. Every homeowner in Hamilton County also saves $500 because of tourism and the impact that it has on the county.
In the last two years, Chattanooga has added the IRONMAN and the IRONMAN 70.3 half-distance triathlon to its calendar. More than 90 cities competed for the IRONMAN, and the addition of the IRONMAN 70.3 made the Scenic City one of only 10 cities in the world to host both events. Studies estimate that the IRONMAN, held last September, had an economic impact of more than $13 million on the local economy. The IRONMAN 70.3 mile half-distance triathlon will be held in May 2015.
When reflecting on the accomplishments experienced over the last 13 years, Doak credits it to the work of a team. “This great success can be attributed to so many people. It started with community leaders such as the late Jack Lupton, former Mayor Jon Kinsey, and now Senator Bob Corker. And it never would have happened without the product that we have to sell, which is the collection of businesses in our city and the people working with them who entertain and serve our guests.”
“You also have to recognize the advertising campaigns run by venues such as the Tennessee Aquarium, Rock City, and Ruby Falls to promote our city,” Doak continues. “Needless to say, the growth that we have experienced is directly linked to the collaboration that has taken place between community officials and private business owners and the financial commitments made by the private sector and Hamilton County government, previously headed by Claude Ramsey and now Jim Coppinger. And then, I believe we have been smart about how we have marketed our city and we have a great team in place dedicated to filling hotel rooms.”
When asked what he sees on the horizon for Chattanooga, Doak points to the development of the Southside district as an entertainment hub. “I envision music and entertainment being the next big thing to happen for us,” he says. “The state of Tennessee has planted a flag firmly to claim music and entertainment. We are the music state, and no other state can claim the amount of music that we have here. We need to capitalize on this opportunity. Chattanooga has a $1 billion brand. There is no reason it can’t be $2 billion. Time will tell, but we are on the right track.”