Tourism in Chattanooga
Tourism is an important fact of life in Chattanooga, and has been for many decades. In 2011, the industry pumped $893 million into the local economy, employed over 8,500 full-time workers and offset local taxes by $19 million – more than $500 per Hamilton County household.
By Frances Haman-Prewitt
Of Chattanooga’s three million annual guests, 80 percent are regional neighbors, driving in from nearby communities like Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham and Huntsville. Around 14 million people live within 150 miles, meaning they can reach Chattanooga in an easy 2½-hour drive.
It’s a growing trend. Dollars spent by visitors to Chattanooga grew 67 percent over the last decade, from a “mere” $534 million in 2002 to the current $893 million. During this time, Chattanooga’s tourism industry grew every year but one. Its growth has outpaced every other Tennessee community, with Chattanooga overtaking Knoxville in 2011 as the state’s fourth largest market for tourism. Now only Davidson, Shelby and Sevier counties see more tourism revenue than Hamilton County.
This is particularly remarkable given the effect the “Great Recession” has had on tourism among competitor communities like Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Orlando, Savannah and Charleston. “The travel industry took a tremendous hit,” says Bob Doak, President & CEO of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau. “A lot of communities saw double-digit declines, but Chattanooga never missed a beat.”
Along with Chattanooga’s affordability and proximity, much of the credit for this success belongs to Doak and his staff, who outsmarted the recession by rowing against the tide. “Many CVBs cut back dramatically on staffing levels, marketing, sales, promotions,” says Doak. “We increased ours. We were after market share. We thought it was a good time to actually ramp up what we were doing, rather than slow down.”
The Chattanooga CVB was recognized for its efforts – for the eighth time – by receiving a 2012 Pinnacle Award from Successful Meetings. The Pinnacle Awards “celebrate hospitality excellence by identifying the convention and visitor bureaus, hotels, and conference centers that set the standard for others to follow.”
New Hires: Building an All-Star Team
Another major factor in the CVB’s recent success is three new key hires now acting as a management team with Doak as leader. The management team is relatively new to Chattanooga, but is experienced and energetic at selling the city to visitors.
Dave Santucci is Vice President of Marketing. Hired in October of 2011, Santucci works on drawing the leisure crowd to Chattanooga. “The biggest driver is sightseeing, closely followed by the aquarium,” says Santucci. “But the main motivation for leisure travel is just relaxation and time with loved ones. We don’t have a beach, and we don’t have snow or a casino, but we’ve got pretty much everything else on the list of what people are looking for.”
Ed Dolliver is Vice President of Sales. Since July of 2012, he has been cultivating and expanding the CVB’s client base to increase the number of meetings and conventions held in Chattanooga. “The wonderful thing we’ve learned is that everybody’s got a cause – a whole lot of passion and a reason to get together and share that,” Dolliver says. “We’re in business because they do. And we love that.”
If the event involves a ball (or a paddle or a bicycle), it falls under the jurisdiction of Tim Morgan, new president of the Chattanooga Sports Committee. Morgan also joined the CVB in August of 2012.
“There are two things that really drive success in the sports market,” Morgan says. “One is having the tangible assets – brick and mortar sports facilities, hotels, and attractions. The other is the intangible assets, which are the relationships with the experts of those particular sports that will be the backbone and volunteerism of producing successful events.”
With a fresh team and continued success, the CVB has now developed a number of new initiatives and projects. At the CVB’s annual luncheon in September of 2012, Doak called for new investments, particularly in the area of sporting events. “Frankly, we’re being outspent by many communities, and we need to stay competitive,” says Doak.
Anecdotally, a significant percentage of the CVB’s business comes from group gatherings – from family reunions and church assemblies to sports tournaments. In 2011, the Sports Committee helped generate a record economic impact of $26.5 million.
Some highlight events include:
•Head of the Hooch rowing regatta ($4.3 million in 2012)
•Amateur Softball Association (ASA) 16-under girls’ fastpitch national tournament ( projected at $2.8 million for this year)
•National Softball Association (NSA) Class “A” girls’ fastpitch World Series (projected at $2 million)
•Athletic Championships Cheerleading ($5 million this year)
•SoCon basketball tournaments ($1.3 million)
Morgan vows to continue these endeavors and spearhead new ones, including both traditional and non-traditional sports. He’s already seeing success:
In partnership with Redoubt Soccer, Chattanooga Futbol Club, North River Soccer and the East Ridge Futbol Club, the First Scenic City Cup will be held May 3-5.
The Gulf South Conference will hold its eight-team, double-elimination baseball tournament at Chattanooga’s AT&T Field May 2 through May 6.
In other new initiatives, Marketing VP Santucci has recently launched a new website and is working hard to extend CCVB’s reach beyond the traditional 150-mile zone around Chattanooga using social media and digital marketing. “We’re primarily a drive-in market,” says Santucci, but the electronic age allows him to effectively and inexpensively target ads to “the guy in Ohio who’s planning a Florida vacation.” The CVB currently boasts 160,000 Facebook followers, 15,000 Twitter followers, 70,000 email subscribers and an assortment of Instagram and Pinterest fans.
Public relations is also key, and Marketing & Public Relations Manager Candace Davis invests a lot of time and effort in selling Chattanooga to publications like the New York Times, Runners World and Travel + Leisure, to name a few. A new focus of CVB’s outreach includes touting Chattanooga as a “couple’s destination” and as a “music destination.” “Sometimes it surprises people to learn that half of the visitors to Chattanooga are couples,” says Santucci.
Last, the CVB has a new Visitors Center in the works. Temporarily displaced by construction of The Block, a climbing venue that will move into the former Bijou Theatre space, the CVB will open a “chic, sleek, very modern” new Visitors Center by Fall of 2013. The Visitors Center will have floor-to-ceiling glass walls that will extend about 30 feet into the large breezeway where CARTA’s electric shuttles pick up and drop off passengers, leaving the buses an ample 30 to 35 feet of space.
A Vision for the Future
There are challenges ahead – Doak says he’s never seen the tourism industry as competitive as it is right now – but one thing is certain: plans for the future will be mutually beneficial for local citizens as well as tourists.
“This industry is really a win-win,” says Doak. “It drives new, fresh dollars into our community and builds those attractions, those structures that enhance the quality of life of those who live in Hamilton County.”
“That’s really the no-brainer of tourism.”