Campaigning for Visitors: Can Knoxville Really Attract a Lot More Tourists?

The jury's out on whether Visit Knoxville's ballyhooed initiative to attract a lot more visitors to the city will succeed in doing so. But if there's a shortfall, it will probably be due more to lack of resources than lack of effort.

Visit Knoxville, as our Convention and Visitors Bureau is now known, has a dynamic leader in President Kim Bumpas. And its collaboration with Knoxville's leading advertising agency, the Tombras Group, has produced a 24-page Sales and Marketing Road Map that's chock full of worthy and pithy goals and strategies.

A centerpiece is an ad campaign aimed at attracting more leisure tourists to Knoxville whereas the organization's emphasis in recent years has been on booking conventions and other large group gatherings. The campaign's tagline, "The memories stay with you," is catchy and its refrain, "Who says you can't take it with you?", accompanied by a visual of suitcases full of Knoxville memorabilia, is even catchier.

But the $550,000 budgeted for the campaign in the fiscal year that began July 1 pales by comparison with what the competition is spending on tourism promotion. The CVBs in both Asheville and Chattanooga, for example, have $3 million annual ad budgets, and Charleston's is much larger. On top of that, the Biltmore in Asheville and at least three Chattanooga attractions—the Tennessee Aquarium, Rock City, and Ruby Falls—have promotional budgets of their own.

As much as I hate to say this, Knoxville may also be relatively lacking in the types of attractions that appeal to tourists. As many amenities as the city has to offer that contribute to its wonderful quality of life, it isn't clear to me that things like our vibrant downtown for dining and entertainment, our urban wilderness for its hiking and biking, or our cultural and historic sites are that likely to appeal to that many people from afar. There's just not a destination attraction in the mix.

Visit Knoxville and Tombras' strategic plan seems well-conceived in targeting adult couples within a 200-mile radius to drive to Knoxville for a long weekend "getaway" rather than going after vacationers for long stays. And Bumpas is bent on getting the ad budget up close to $1 million in the following fiscal year when substantial one-time outlays for things like a more captivating website will be behind her. Moreover, this year's campaign won't actually kick off until the new VisitKnoxville.com is up and running in October with advertising aimed at drawing people to it because market research shows that most people now plan their trips online.

More than half of Visit Knoxville's overall $3.3 million budget still goes for attracting conventions and other group gatherings to Knoxville, with a special emphasis on convention center bookings. And another Road Map goal is to grow these overall bookings to 80 groups with a minimum of 120,000 total delegate days this fiscal year from 72 with 102,000 delegate days booked in the year that ended June 30.

As one measure of its economic impact, a study conducted for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development placed travel expenditures in Knox County in 2011 at $884 million, accounting for 9,500 jobs and $20.7 million in local tax revenues. So the imperative to grow this important sector of the economy as much as possible is obvious.

Yet Visit Knoxville's total budget also falls far short of the competition. Chattanooga's CVB budget of $7 million is more than double our $3.3 million and Charleston's is almost four times larger. This shortfall results from a much smaller allocation of hotel/motel tax collections that are the primary source of revenue for most CVBs.

Only 40 percent, or $2.2 million, of the $5.5 million budget take from Knox County's 5 percent hotel/motel tax goes directly to Visit Knoxville whereas Chattanooga's CVB gets 100 percent of Hamilton County's hotel/motel tax take. It's true that another 10 percent, or $550,000, of the Knox County total that goes, by ordinance, to the City of Knoxville gets directed to Visit Knoxville as part of an overall city contractual commitment of $1.1 million primarily to support its convention center. (But all of the $2.7 million derived from the city's own 3 percent hotel-occupancy tax goes for convention center debt service, as does $1.5 million that the county agreed to dedicate from its take.

That leaves about $1.2 million of the county total which must also go for tourism-related purposes but in a much more discretionary way. Of this, $350,000 went for the operation of the East Tennessee History Center; $150,000 for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame; $50,000 for the Beck Cultural Center; and other smaller grants. But the biggest single chunk, $375,000, was channeled to the Arts and Culture Alliance, which parcels it out among a consortium of some 25 arts organizations, festivals, theaters, and historic houses. While these no doubt contribute to tourism to some extent, their county support in the past has come from its general fund rather than hotel/motel taxes.

When I suggest that Bumpas should seek a bigger slice of the pie, she demurs. "It's really important to show a lot of results this year so that people will know this investment pays off. For people to get passionate about investing more, I have to show them results," she says.

That's laudable, as is her commitment to putting two "Dashboards" on Visit Knoxville's website—one for group and one for leisure travel—that would show quarterly performance vis a vis a well-defined set of metrics.

One investment measure is hotel/motel-tax revenues which have remained essentially flat for the past five years. But for them to become a rising tide that could lift all boats is probably going to take a big investment.

Contact Joe Sullivan at sullivan@metropulse.com.