Product Development: Devising a New Tourism Brand for Knoxville

It's got a new name and a new lease on life, but it remains to be seen how well the organization now known as Visit Knoxville can deliver on its imperative.

Attracting more visitors to Knoxville has long been the mission of its predecessor, the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., which has been funded by Knox County and the City of Knoxville. But dissatisfaction with some of the measures of its performance, especially those that contributed to what was considered exorbitant compensation of its ousted CEO Gloria Ray, led County Mayor Tim Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero to jointly initiate a competitive selection process for awarding their tourism contracts.

The name change was just one of many new directions that Visit Knoxville took in its 246-page response to the joint city/county request for proposals. Perhaps most fundamental was the formation of a partnership with the city's leading advertising agency, the Tombras Group, to guide the process of creating and promoting a new tourism brand for Knoxville.

"The Tombras Group will provide expert assistance in both research and branding via their Total Marketing Approach to Strategic Planning…[and] once a brand strategy is in place, the partnership will realize other benefits such as increased buying power in national and regional advertising," the proposal stated. It went on to describe in great detail, a six-phase process by which "we will develop a clear, strong brand identity that communicates the unique attributes of the KC/COK area in a compelling and persuasive manner intended to boost business and visitor recruitment."

It seems clear that the Tombras connection was crucial to Visit Knoxville's winning out over six other applicants for what was officially called a contract for Destination Marketing and Event Management Services.

A five-person selection panel consisting of two county and two city purchasing officials, plus a Dollywood marketing director, chose Visit Knoxville by the narrowest of margins over runner-up Rivr Media, which is headed by powerhouse Dee Haslam. Following negotiation of an extensive set of reporting requirements, County Commission at its Oct. 22 meeting approved a contract for which $2.2 million a year is budgeted. City Council was expected to follow suit at its Oct. 30 meeting with a separate $954,000 contract.

Their approval will trigger an intensive, 12-week brand development process leading up to the launch of a multi-media campaign based on same. The process starts with market research, including community surveys. Then, "based on the research insights, the Tombras Group will synthesize the information into multiple alternative creative expressions that capture the core message and tone that should be communicated to the target audience." These will then be tested "to determine which approach will best resonate with the audience,"

Synthesis and core message would appear to be the key words, but I for one still struggle to grasp what might constitute Knoxville's brand. Kim Bumpas, who succeeded Ray as president of KTSC and orchestrated its name change, attempts to help by offering that "everyone always has a brand, but right now Knoxville's brand is convoluted because we have so many vibrant things going on at the same time. We have the arts, we have downtown revitalization, we have Outdoor Knoxville. We have all this stuff. So our brand is just confused, and we have to get a combined voice and package our variety."

To me, the diversity of what we have to offer is Knoxville's greatest asset. So I can only hope that this new branding process will capture that and not just produce another failed attempt at sloganeering such as "Where Nature and Technology Meet," "Knoxville Naturally," and others that have been interred.

Before assuming the presidency, Bumpas was then KTSC's sales director and is generally credited with having done a good job of garnering convention center bookings and other group gatherings. But she acknowledges that Knoxville hasn't done as well at attracting leisure travelers.

According to a study conducted for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development by the U.S. Travel Association, Chattanooga has been outpacing Knoxville in overall travel-expenditure growth in recent years. Whereas travel expenditures of $854 million in 2008 was well in excess of Hamilton County's $762 million, by 2011 Hamilton had moved ahead of Knox by a margin of $893 million to $884 million.

"I think that over the past few years Chattanooga has done a better job of saying to the leisure traveler ‘Come to Chattanooga,'" Bumpas says. But she predicts that "once we get our new strategy up and running that says Knoxville is the place to be, I think you will see us regain our lead pretty quickly because we have more to offer."

Visit Knoxville's new contracts with the county and the city provide for quarterly reports that include extensive measures of performance. "The biggest difference with this contract is that it's a pay-for-performance contract," the county's purchasing director, Hugh Holt, told Commission. "They have a set of goals to meet every quarter and if they meet those goals we will release the funds. Otherwise, we won't."

Bumpas welcomes the challenge and adds that Visit Knoxville will also be posting its results publicly "in a more user-friendly fashion so that the community can understand them… We want to focus on community involvement, transparency, and education as it relates to tourism because that is one thing that was missing in the past."