TN steps up effort to attract more visitors

By Nate Rau | The Tennessean

Working together for the first time, tourism leaders from across the state will release a plan today that they hope will serve as a road map to turning Tennessee into one of the top 10 travel destinations in the country.

Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, has already committed an additional $8 million in the current state budget -- more than double last year's spending -- to help put the plan in action.

Haslam formed the Tennessee Tourism Committee shortly after taking office in 2011. The committee was co-chaired by Ryman Hospitality Properties CEO Colin Reed, Dolly Parton Productions business manager and partner Ted Miller and Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden and made up of other key industry leaders from across the state.

The group was facing a challenge: jump-startingthe state's flat performance in attracting tourists.

In 2011, Tennessee was ranked No. 17 among U.S. states for visitors, and its 1.9 percent U.S. market share has remained stagnant during the past five years. Meanwhile, international tourism has declined as well.

After the report's release, the next step will be choosing a marketing firm that will put the "Tourism Strategic Plan" in place and help grow the industry, which brought $15.4 billion to the state in 2011, officials said.

A sampling of the plan's desired results includes:

* Establishing a Tennessee-specific brand that can be used throughout the Volunteer State by tourism attractions.

* Developing a marketing plan focused on key U.S. markets that would be focused on attracting new visitors and encouraging longer stays for visitors.

* Establishing a Statewide Festivals and Events network with a specific focus on music that could be in operation by 2015.

* Creating a plan to target the growing youth sports tourism market.

The committee believes the state can continue drawing day trip visitors from border states, which are the most common tourists in Tennessee, while increasing visitors from secondary markets such as Chicago. Those visitors spend more on their trips by a margin of 6-to-1, Reed said.

"The goal is to take us from 17th in revenue generation and take ourselves into the top 10. If we can do that, it's an additional $2.5 (billion) to $3 billion of revenue coming in to Tennessee," Reed said. "And the tax and job creation is enormous."

Marketing dollars

Between Graceland in Memphis, Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Nashville's honky-tonks on Lower Broadway and Dollywood in East Tennessee, among others, Reed said the infrastructure is already in place to draw tourists from all over the world. The hope is that the report serves as a guideline for getting the word out, he said.

Reed said Haslam has provided the seed money to start doing just that.

According to Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Susan Whitaker, the $8 million added to this year's budget will increase the state's total marketing dollars to $13.5 million.

Whitaker pointed to the "Pure Michigan" slogan as one that was successful. She hoped to have a new marketing agency in place by the end of December. Whitaker said Tennessee was a unique state to market to visitors because of its diverse musical offerings and outdoor activities.

"I'm looking for that 'Pure Michigan' brand that really elevates all three region brands across the state and takes us to a new level of people's understanding of what they can find here for a vacation," Whitaker said.

Cooperation across state

To understand tourism in the state, the committee needed the cooperation of industry leaders from across the state, Tennessee Hospitality Association CEO Greg Adkins said, adding that it was the first time major stakeholders worked together in such a way.

Leaders from the major tourist attractions and the regional Convention and Visitors Bureaus shared detailed and proprietary data so the committee could learn who is visiting Tennessee, how much they spend per visit and where they visit from. For instance, the data show that 87 percent of all visitors to Middle Tennessee travel by car, compared with 89 percent for East Tennessee and 76 percent for West Tennessee.

"We're going to be able to use laser-focused marketing aimed at the kinds of visitors who will come here and stay longer and spend more money," Adkins said.


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