Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 29, 2022

Tennessee tourism takes a detour

Pandemic, state push visitors to rural areas in need of a real break

Tennessee tourism is surging back to pre-pandemic levels, which is good news for the major metro areas that spend millions to draw in visitors, as well as the state, which depends on sales taxes to fund its annual budget.

But what about smaller communities where tourism has never been seen as an economic engine? They are beginning to snag some of those dollars, as well, thanks to an evolving partnership with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and its Office of Rural Tourism.

For decades, visitor messaging around Tennessee has largely centered on the big-bucket draws of music and mountains. Memphis and Nashville spend millions luring visitors in for music festivals, year-round live entertainment, entertainment-oriented museums and other related activities.

Knoxville and Chattanooga heavily promote their access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the No. 2 most-visited national park in 2021 with 14.1 million visitors, trailing only the neighboring Blue Ridge Parkway’s 15.9 million.

These destination-marketing efforts are highly successful, as evidenced by the state’s steady growth in visitor and economic impact numbers over the years, as well as the rapid bounce-back from 2020’s pandemic lows.

Rural, more sparsely populated cities and counties have historically been left out, or somewhat sidelined, in the tourism marketing conversation because of a lack of funds, know-how or both.

To solve that, and as part of Gov. Bill Lee’s focus on rural economic development, the rural-tourism office was created in 2019. Its goal, Tourism Commissioner Mark Ezell says, is to help more economically challenged communities learn how to leverage their outdoor offerings and other assets efficiently and affordably. If successful, they can create new, ongoing revenue streams less dependent on the all-or-nothing proposition of luring in large-scale employers such as manufacturing plants or distribution centers.

“We dedicated money to 40 counties that are or have been designated as distressed or at-risk,” Ezell says. “Much of the work has been very simple and inexpensive, but so necessary to help them achieve higher visibility.

“For instance, we ran Google Audits, where a county submits information about their communities for review. We found that a lot of information was not up-to-date or accurate,” he says.

“That means if someone is driving down the interstate or nearby, and they go online to search for a place to eat or stay, they may wind up in front of a restaurant or motel that is no longer there. Helping them do something as easy as update their online information is the foundation of many other efforts that allow these communities to promote their restaurants, museums, lakes and outdoor activities. That leads to visitors, tourism dollars and jobs for residents.”

(The state uses a formula from the Appalachian Regional Commission to designate at-risk and distressed counties. Distressed reflects a position in the bottom 10% of the nation’s counties based on three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income and poverty rate. An at-risk designation means the county falls within the worst 10% and 25% of the nation’s counties.)

The COVID-19 pandemic hit within months of the rural tourism office’s creation. That forced a slowdown – not a stoppage – of work underway because of the enthusiasm and excitement coming from communities who were engaging, says Melanie Beauchamp, assistant commissioner of Rural Tourism and Outreach, who has been tasked with leading the effort to grow rural-tourism economic impact through initiatives that include marketing grants, education and outreach.

“We do a lot of marketing, and so much more,” Beauchamp says. “We’re working to help develop tourism assets in rural communities and showing them how that increased spending from visitors can drive job creation and generate tax revenue that benefits the entire local economy.”

Many, if not most, of these communities have lost a factory or industry and have been trying to replace it for some time. Or they never had one and have been single-minded in trying to bring in that elusive large employer.

Beauchamp says that part of her team’s educational outreach is showing how economic development can happen more quickly and have a longer-term impact by leveraging assets already in place versus chasing down new ones.

“If you’ve lost a hospital, that may not be coming back,” she says. “But if you can create a program that generates interest and revenue around your parks or lakes, that’s a much more sustainable economic driver because those aren’t going anywhere.”

She adds that often a rural county has a small number of officials wearing many hats, and tourism hasn’t been a focus. There, too, education has been around the value of an initial investment in tourism, be that a marketing campaign or a staffer to liaison with the state tourism office, which is offering everything from grant monies to tech assistance such as the online-presence audit.

“We saw very quickly that these leaders don’t have the bandwidth to do a lot of things at once,” Beauchamp adds. “We can give grant dollars all day, but if there’s no time to facilitate a program it doesn’t matter. So first up was looking at how do travelers search for where they want to go, and how to change and update listings on Google. About 54% of what we audited turned up something incorrect or not claimed, so getting all that fixed has been a great first step.”

The state’s less-densely populated areas also were an unexpected beneficiary of the pandemic, when people yearned to travel – but not be in big crowds. Across the state, communities that offered outdoor activities saw an uptick in interest, visitors and dollars, Beauchamp says.

“Travel shifted, and we’re building on that momentum,” she says. “In 2020, 15 of our 95 counties were up for travel expenditures, and I’d consider all of them rural. Of those 15, 11 were ones that were designated as distressed and at-risk. People wanted an authentic experience, to be close to nature and to be safe. That meant we had a lot of people coming to parks and rural areas that aren’t used to that kind of traffic. We have great natural assets all over the state, so it’s interesting to see how quickly these counties are learning what a boon tourism can be.”

That meant looking not just at restaurant and retail offerings, but bigger-ticket infrastructure such as lodging. The rise of short-term rentals is filling the need for communities that may not have much in the way of hotels or motels yet.

The creation of destination events – music festivals, fishing tournaments or other multiday activities – also is on the rise, which will hopefully create an income loop for the other aspects of tourism, Beauchamp adds.

“Tourism is economic development, and to see that shift, to see these communities realize that, is great,” she says. “They are learning that if you build a place where people want to visit, then you have a place where people want to live. That means jobs, just not in the way they are used to thinking about job growth.”

Building on the successes seen thus far will mean pushing a “stay longer, spend more” strategy that’s long been a factor for tourism spent in the state’s metro areas. To achieve it, look for more festivals, as well as ongoing partnerships with other entities such as the University of Tennessee to educate local communities on how to showcase what they’ve got and grow as a destination market organically.

“It’s a multifaceted strategy with a strong education component,” Beauchamp explains. “We’re modeling a lot after the state of Colorado, which has a rural tourism program and, like us, has a lot of natural assets. We’re going to work with counties to define goals and set priorities, and then establish a mentoring program so they can work with tourism partners who have been in the same position.

“If they need a welcome center, we’ll connect them with someone who met that challenge. There is a lot of opportunity with what we already have – Tennessee has 13 scenic byways and other programs that are off the interstates and that go through these communities. All 95 counties in this state can become destination markets in their own way, and so that is what we are working toward.”