Branding Blount County: New tourism director pushes Smokies-Blount connection
By Robert Norris (email@example.com)
Tourism is big business in Blount County. In 2011, there was more than a $305 million economic impact, an increase of 12.6 percent over the previous year.
That ranks Blount eighth in the state in tourism expenditures.
In fact, tourism is a huge segment of the entire economy of Tennessee, where it is the second largest industry. Because of tourist activities each household in the state pays an average of nearly $300 less in state and local taxes.
Tami Vater has been delving into the development of local tourist activities since she joined the Blount Partnership as director of tourism in July 2012 to oversee the newly formed Smoky Mountains Tourism Development Authority.
She did quite a bit of traveling herself in January and February to events such as the American Bus Association Marketplace and the Travel South Showcase, where she was able to meet directly with the people who plan trips throughout the region.
“We were able to meet with about 70 to 75 tour operators, and in addition we met with about 20 travel writers that were interested in writing about the Smokies and Blount County in general,” Vater said.
The reception to her presentations about what Blount has to offer visitors was “very positive.” It also put something in perspective relative to public awareness.
“One of the things that we learned is that a lot of people are familiar with Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But when you say, ‘Do you know where Townsend or Blount County or Maryville is?’ they’d say, ‘Well, we know where Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg is.’
“So it was a real eye-opener for us that we really need to look at branding who we are.”
It’s no coincidence that the Blount County agency charged with driving tourism contains the words Smoky Mountains. That’s a brand name everyone knows.
“The visitor doesn’t see a county line, where the city ends and begins. But they can relate to the Smokies, because they know it’s a vast area. It’s a national park.”
And it’s next door to built-up tourist areas that offer a different type of visitation experience.
“We don’t have the development, the hustle and bustle that you see in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg,” Vater said.
But Blount does have Cades Cove on the Peaceful Side of the Smokies.
“That in itself is pretty huge. And we want to market that as part of our destination — that we’re a major gateway into the Park that sees over a million visitors just at the Cades Cove entrance. Trying to reach out and network and let people know that we’re here.”
Part of that networking is the spring FAM tour, a familiarization tour where the tourism authority hosts travel writers and other media professionals including freelance writers and a German couple who are making a return visit. A motorcycle FAM tour is in the works with Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson.
“We’re working with two motorcycle groups. We’ve got the H.O.G. Rally, and we’ve got the Smoky Mountain Rumble that’s going to be in here in September. There’s a Brazilian group that’s coming in that Smoky Mountain (Harley-Davidson) is hosting.”
There also are bids out on two conferences. One could involve up to 1,000 people at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base. Another specialty FAM tour will be held in the fall.
“That’s going to be highlighting the culinary experience of Blount County. What are some of the hidden wonders that people aren’t aware of? It could be everything from Hot Rods hamburgers to Becky’s out in Walland. You’ve got the Chocolate Gravy here in Maryville. So there’s a lot of things we can promote that are unique and they’re very special to the area,” Vater said.
She also knows that people will be watching the results.
“We’re trying to justify what we’re doing by knowing our numbers, knowing what our responses are, creating that accountability. This is what we’re doing with these tax dollars and this is how it’s calculating back in return services.”
Hotel/motel tax revenues have been tallied since 1992, when the total was $427,752. Revenues grew steadily until the Great Recession, which knocked the tax take down from $1.64 million in 2007-2008 to $1.45 million in 2008-2009. Economic revival brought revenues up to its highest point ever in 2011-2012 — up to $1.83 million.
The authority’s revamped website gets return visits from 20-30 percent of page lookers. Ten thousand people like the Facebook page. Get Vater started on the possibilities and she’s hard to stop.
“We’re trying to target different things, adventure tourism, the culinary experience, history and heritage. You’ve also got Blackberry Farm. You’ve got Dancing Bear. Maryville/Alcoa alone, as far as tax dollars, is bringing in nearly 50 percent of the transient room tax in a four-month period base on September through December 2012,” Vater said.
“That’s showing that we have a large business/corporate market that’s coming in and utilizing the airport as well as doing business here. We’re trying to capitalize on that. How can we get them to come back?”
Events could do the trick. Major ones such as the city of Maryville’s Foothills Fall Festival, the Smoky Mountain Highland Games, the Townsend Spring and Fall Festivals and Old Timers Day. And smaller one like the Smoky Mountain Fiber Arts Festival and the Smoky Mountain Photographer’s Showcase the Great Smoky Mountain Quilters Road Show that’s held at one the newer and more popular tourist draws, the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.
Note the branding. Lots of Smoky Mountains everywhere.
“We’ve got Tuckaleechee Caverns, which is very historic — dating all the way back to Native Americans — which is 20 to 30 million years old. We’ve got the Shadows of the Past Trail in Townsend. You’ve got the Clayton Center for the Arts with phenomenal stuff. We’ve got events going on in Blount County almost every weekend of the year,” Vater said.
The newest twist is — well, let Vater tell it: “The philosophy is, what is it the visitor wants and how can we create that customer service, that concierge kind of moment. The BTAP program, the Blount Tourism Ambassador Program is going to be a huge asset in that.
“We’re putting in a training program, the first of its kind in Tennessee, that trains frontline staff from the gas station attendant to the restaurant hostess or waiter or waitress. It could be city employees, police officers, firemen, volunteers — and we train them on the important aspects of tourism and what it creates for our community.”
To Vater, what it creates is obvious.
“Our job is to create that experiential moment that they’ll remember and they’ll want to come back and they’ll tell other people about. We all benefit from it. It creates jobs. It creates sales tax dollars, and it promotes who we are.”
And it brands us as the Smokies. The website for the Smoky Mountains Tourism Development Authority? http://www.smokymountains.org .