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Front Page - Friday, April 2, 2021

Signs of life for Chattanooga tourism

Research, bookings show vaccinated visitors eager to return after year of sheltering at home

From the top of Lookout Mountain to the cool depths of the Tennessee River, Chattanooga has a long history of tourism.

A little more than 100 years before the Tennessee Aquarium began welcoming visitors in 1992, Lookout Inn started inviting guests to lodge on the eastern face of the mountain. A few years later, the Incline Railway began carrying them there.

More attractions cropped up in the decades that followed. From Ruby Falls in 1929 to See Rock City in 1932, each one added to Chattanooga’s allure.

When the city’s pollution levels sullied its reputation as a tourist destination, the community pulled together to clean up, reinvent the riverfront and attract downtown investment. The resurgence of focus opened the door to the modern age of tourism in Chattanooga, with the Aquarium welcoming its first visitors May 1, 1992.

Nearly 30 years later, tourism is contributing $1.2 billion a year to the local economy, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development reports.

This industry has now added a new chapter to its storied history that began March 13, 2020, when Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger confirmed the coronavirus had reached the city.

The Aquarium had been bracing for the coming storm and voluntarily closed its doors to slow the spread of the disease in the community.

The timing could not have been worse for the attraction, says Thom Benson, its chief communications and marketing officer.

Benson says the waning months of each year, as well as January, are the Aquarium’s slowest. During this time, the attraction leans on the cash reserves it accumulated during the preceding spring and summer.

But when the Aquarium closed March 13, 2020, it remained shuttered for 96 days – the bulk of its busy season. This made the waning months of 2021 even leaner than usual.

“We had a lot of momentum going into 2020. We had new conservation programs, we were launching our Turtles of the World gallery and we had fantastic films coming to our IMAX theater,” Benson recalls. “Shutting down at the beginning of spring break and staying closed through Memorial Day weekend and into June was crushing.”

By the end of 2020, attendance at the Aquarium was down more than 50%, while IMAX patronage had dropped more than 70%. This led to two rounds of layoffs – one to furlough frontline employees and another to preserve the attraction’s financial stability.

Benson says the Aquarium bore this loss for the well-being of its staff, volunteers, guests and animals.

“We could have reopened in May, but we chose to stay closed longer to make sure we had all of our safety procedures in place and reviewed by an infectious disease specialist.”

Meanwhile, other sectors of the tourism industry in Chattanooga took their own hard blows to the chin, including hotels like The Westin Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Marriott Downtown and The Edwin.

The Edwin is located just a few blocks south of the Aquarium. After reopening in May, its staff saw fewer guests make weekend trips to see the sights, shop and dine out.

This hurt the hotel’s bottom line, General Manager Bill Simmons says. “Tourism is our bloodline. We rely on business travel during the week and leisure travelers on weekends.”

Like the Aquarium and other tourist draws, The Edwin’s management and staff doubled their efforts while traffic was light to create clean and safe accommodations for the people who did stay there.

“We want people to travel, but with that comes great responsibility,” Simmons continues. “So, we adhered to CDC guidelines and additional protocols as part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Hopefully, that gave our guests some comfort.”

If the pandemic has proven anything about Chattanooga’s tourism industry, it’s that no part of it exists in a vacuum.

For example, according to a recent economic impact study conducted at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development, when the Aquarium is operating at 745,000 visitors a year, it returns $115 million in economic benefit to the community.

So, when the attraction closed for more than three months, other businesses experienced fallout.

This includes Patrick and Carolina Molloy, the husband-and-wife founders of Adventure Sports Innovations, who watched their revenues shrink in the wake of the pandemic.

Adventure Sports is a smaller attraction that offers a variety of outdoor activities on land and water, as well as virtual reality experiences, at their brick-and-mortar site adjacent to Coolidge Park on Chattanooga’s North Shore.

From driving a four-wheeled electric vehicle with spider-like arms that move independently while traversing off-road terrain, to navigating a surf board that can glide several feet above the surface of the Tennessee River, to riding a stomach-churning VR roller coaster, Adventure Sports’ diversions are becoming a popular draw, Carolina says.

“A gentleman from San Francisco added Chattanooga to his itinerary because he wanted to learn to use our electric unicycle.”

Carolina and her husband opened Adventure Sports in 2018 after leaving their home and banking jobs in New York City and moving to Chattanooga. She says they chose the Scenic City for its robust entrepreneurial infrastructure, as well as its active outdoor adventure industry.

Like The Edwin, tourism is a vital part of Adventure Sports’ business plan. At the end of 2019, for example, Carolina calculated out-of-town guests had contributed 70% of their revenues for the year.

So, like every other business with ties to tourism, Adventure Sports suffered a loss in 2020.

“Our groups were smaller and we had fewer people walking in,” Carolina says. “We also lost our bachelor parties and team building events.”

Chattanooga Tourism Company president and CEO Barry White confirms that leisure and hospitality business was down in the city in 2020, but not as much as Tennessee or the nation were.

“Leisure and hospitality in Chattanooga was down about 11%, while the state was down 16%. Nationally, it was even higher. So, it’s been tough, but we’ve fared better than most.”

White also says the resiliency and ingenuity of Chattanooga’s tourist attractions helped to sustain the industry during the ongoing pandemic and is now contributing to their recovery.

The Aquarium, for instance, spent most of a Tennessee Community CARES Program grant on upgrading the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems within its buildings.

The attraction purchased 10 additional HVAC units with the funds, including eight units for its River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings and two units for its ticketing center and administration buildings, increasing airflow and air quality within those structures, Benson says.

The Molloys used the slow days at Adventure Sports to pivot their business model. In addition to adding electric scooters, which Carolina says allows riders to enjoy themselves while remaining socially distant, they began pushing sales of their four-wheeled electric vehicle, called the Swincar e-Spider.

Not only will Adventure Sports be serving as the sole distributor of the French-manufactured vehicle in North America, the Molloys are developing a network of dealers throughout the continent.

Swincars start at $15,800, Carolina says, and she says she expects sales of them to boost her company’s returns.

As White shared during its annual tourism summit March 9, the coronavirus vaccines are contributing to increased confidence in travel, which should give Chattanooga’s tourism industry its own shot in the arm.

“One number I shared at our summit on March 9 was intent to travel. Eighty-one percent of the people we surveyed said they will travel in the next six months,” White adds. “That’s a 16% increase from when we polled them in January.

“Things are not all rosy, but the future looks good as we prepare for spring break, Memorial Day weekend and the peak summer season.”

The guest registry at the Edwin suggests most of its visitors are coming from cities close to Chattanooga rather than traveling by plane and have pleasure rather than business on their mind.

“We’re seeing a lot of people driving here from Nashville, Huntsville, Birmingham, Jacksonville and Atlanta,” Simmons says. “People are telling me, ‘I just got the vaccine, and I’ve been waiting for this trip for a year.’ So, the appetite is there.”

Carolina says Adventure Sports is also seeing people from Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta and Knoxville cross their threshold. “A lot of people are tired of being confined; everybody wants to be outdoors.”

Despite encouraging news regarding the availability and distribution of the vaccines, Benson notes the Aquarium is not yet ready to throw open its doors to the masses. Instead, the attraction is taking a cautious approach based on the recommendations of disease experts.

This effort includes limiting the number of guests who can be in the Aquarium’s building at any one time, as well as the length of time they can spend at the attraction, and holding off on relaunching dive shows and other events that can cause crowds to gather.

The Aquarium is also requiring visitors to purchase tickets in advance, like they would for a concert.

Benson says the attraction’s capacity limits allow for 2,700 people a day to tour its exhibits – about half of what the attraction hosts on a summer holiday weekend.

“We feel like that allows us to have enough space between everyone.”

Likewise, even though the IMAX theater can hold 400 moviegoers, the Aquarium is limiting the attendance at each showing to 70.

Despite the restrictions, the attraction is welcoming enough guests to begin to recover and bring back staff, Benson says.

“It’s gratifying to see families having fun at the Aquarium again. If vaccinations continue to increase and we’re able to relax our capacity limits later this year, then we’re going to need even more people on-site.

“If we’re able to meet our objectives for this year, we hope to have a narrowly positive bottom line for 2021.”

The Edwin is also seeing a significant uptick in activity, Simmons says, with the last weekend in March bringing in the highest room revenues in the three-year history of the hotel.

“We’re seeing glimmers of hope, and as quarters continue to progress in 2021, we’re prepared for what will hopefully be a record-breaking year for us,” Simmons says.

White is giving added credibility to the optimism he’s hearing with news that meetings, conventions and events are booking dates for 2021. While most events – including the Chattanooga Marathon and Iron Man competition – are eyeing the fall rather than spring or summer, White says he’s glad to be having those conversations again.

“As long as the vaccine continues on its current trajectory, I feel confident these events will happen.”

The Aquarium, the Edwin Hotel, Adventure Sports and every other business in Chattanooga that depends on tourism revenues will be ready.

“Travel is coming back strong, and hotels need to be prepared,” Simmons says. “Our guests are going to need beds.”