Knoxville Tourism Grows With Visit Knoxville’s Efforts

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

OPINION_0820_VisitorsCenterKnoxville has been experiencing marked growth in visitations, and much of the credit has to go to the marketing efforts of Visit Knoxville.

According to a study just released by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, travel expenditures in Knox County rose by 6.2 percent in 2014 to just under a billion dollars ($988 million to be exact). With that growth, Knoxville regained a lead that it had lost in recent years to Chattanooga, which grew last year at close to the national average of 4.7 percent.

It’s not possible to say exactly how much of the growth here is attributable to the emphasis that Visit Knoxville has started placing on attracting leisure travel since it was reconstituted two years ago as our convention and visitors bureau. But there’s little doubt that last year’s 6.4 percent increase in hotel room nights (to 1,906,944) and even more remarkable 15.2 percent growth in hotel/motel tax collections are more than coincidental after having remained flat for the two preceding years.

“People are starting to discover that Knoxville is a premier getaway destination, and they are coming here for a two- to four-night stay because Knoxville has so much to do right now,” says Visit Knoxville’s ebullient president, Kim Bumpas. And she’s clear that the organization’s marketing efforts have been a major factor in building awareness of what Knoxville has to offer.

These multi-faceted efforts include a $700,000-a-year ad campaign, mainly TV spots, aimed at attracting visitors from cities within a 300-mile radius, with Chattanooga, Asheville, Lexington, and Louisville as prime targets. For the peak spring season, these ads feature Knoxville’s array of festivals and musicales—from jazz, Big Ears, and Rossini to Rhythm N’ Blooms, Dogwood Arts, and the International Biscuit Festival. Throughout the year, they are calculated to draw viewers to Visit Knoxville’s ever more expansive website.

“People don’t really buy based on commercials any more,” Bumpas explains. “They see the commercials and then they will Google the product on the Internet. So that’s how our reach expands.” In addition to heralding things to do and places to dine and stay, the website now has online hotel-room booking capabilities and many other fillips.

Visit Knoxville’s newfound emphasis on promoting tourism hasn’t come at the expense of fulfilling its traditional mission of attracting conventions and other gatherings to the city. Groups booked in its fiscal year ended June 30 grew to 130 with 238,674 delegate days from 100 with 201,197 delegate days in the preceding year. Of these, 20 with 106,300 delegate days were at the Knoxville Convention Center. The balance were at hotels, Chilhowee Park, or classified as citywide.

A majority of Visit Knoxville’s $4 million annual budget still goes toward these efforts. But it’s not solely dependent on the $2.5 million it receives from Knox County as a statutorily mandated share of hotel/motel tax revenues and the little over $1 million from the city for convention center sales and services. In fact, VK turns a profit from ad sales and sponsorships of its signature Knoxville Visitor’s Guide, of which 225,000 copies were distributed this past year.

All indications are that robust growth in visitations is continuing this year. According to Visit Knoxville data, hotel room nights rose by 5 percent during the first half of 2015 to a total of 983,703, coupled with a 3.3 percent rise in average rates that beget an 11.2 percent increase in hotel/motel tax revenues (which may have been even higher except for payment delinquencies revealed by a recent audit).

Another testament to Knoxville’s pulling power is the veritable boomlet in new hotels coming on the market after a four-year hiatus in the wake of the 2008 recession. At least five new hotels with a total of about 600 rooms have opened within the past two years and at least two more are in the works.

The recent openings include the Hilton Garden Inn on Cumberland, a Courtyard by Marriott just off Northshore, a LaQuinta Inn on Papermill, an Embassy Suites on Parkside, and a Home2 Suites by Hilton on North Peters.

The two now underway are the 73-room Tennessean in the former state office building adjoining the downtown Holiday Inn and a 120-room Residence Inn on the State Street site that once quartered the News Sentinel. The upscale Tennessean is due to open in November 2016 and should be a boon to the nearby convention center.

Beyond that, as first reported in this column, developer Rick Dover is seeking city support needed to proceed with his grand design for a 160-room restoration of the historic Farragut Hotel at the corner of Gay and Clinch.

The just released report showing that Knoxville has regained the lead over Chattanooga in travel expenditures is part of annual study conducted for the state entitled The Economic Impact of Travel on Tennessee Counties. The study also states that Knox County benefited from $172,210,000 in payroll and 9,110 jobs, both up about 4 percent from 2013.

So it’s easy to see that Visit Knoxville earns its keep as the community’s convention and visitors bureau.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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