Sevier County tourism up over 2013

Jul. 14, 2014 @ 06:04 PM

Tourism season is off to a strong start in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, with revenue increases over the early part of the 2013 tourism season, according to officials from each city.

Sevierville's sales tax collections have increased to date over 2013, Brenda McCroskey, chief executive officer of Sevierville's Chamber of Commerce, said.

"We've been pleased so far, and all indications are pointing to a strong July," she said. "As the economy continues to rebound, discretionary income increases."

McCroskey said joint efforts of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to promote the area together will spur continued growth. Recently the three cities combined to target a marketing campaign in Chicago — "Integrated Fly Smokies" — following the announcement that Frontier Airlines would bring introduce a low-fare flight from Chicago to Knoxville at McGee Tyson Airport.

Officials from Frontier Airlines will consider the results of the first summer in which the dedicated, low-cost flight is available to determine if it is profitable to continue it.

Officials from each city recently visited Chicago to promote Sevier County tourism, and McCroskey said she thinks the marketing push will pay off, with or without a low-cost airline option.

"We actually talked to a lot of people at the AAA offices (in Chicago) that told us that a large majority of their customers are willing to make that drive, and they're very educated about the Smoky Mountain area," McCroskey said. "We just haven't made a push before in that market, and this joint effort between the cities should generate impact. All indicators are that this could be a new, untapped market."

Pigeon Forge is also posting increased tourism revenue over last year, according to Leon Downey, the city's tourism director, who has preliminary revenue figures for the first five months of this year.

Through the first five months of the year, gross revenue has increased 9 percent, amusement revenue has increased 18 percent and lodging has increased 6 percent, all compared to the first five months of 2013.

In the month of May alone, gross revenue was up 12 percent, amusement revenue was up 27 percent and lodging revenue was up 2 percent compared to May of 2013.

"Those are strong numbers for the early season," Downey said. "May isn't really part of the high season yet. Our really busy season gets started in June, July, August. So these preliminary numbers are strong, and we hope we'll continue a good revenue season throughout."

Downey said this information is generally two months behind, so he cannot say specifically whether June numbers continue the trend of revenue growth, though he is optimistic because of other numbers.

"We have sent out more individual travel planners this year in the first six months than we did all of last year," Downey said. "That's one way to gauge interest in Pigeon Forge, because our research has shown that the vast majority of those who order a planner then end up coming. To send out more in the first six months than all of last year, that's pretty strong."

New developments in the city — as well as longstanding tourism draws — are the key to continued revenue growth, Downey said.

"There are so many new things going on in our market — Margaritaville, Paula Deen and on and on and on — it gets a lot of attention," he said. "The number one thing people are interested in for Pigeon Forge is the scenic beauty, and then the variety of attractions. In Pigeon Forge it's never static. People are always interested to see what's new."

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are separately reaching into the sports market with two projects: the Cal Ripken Experience youth baseball complex, which is expected to be opened in 2016 in Pigeon Forge, with construction beginning soon, and the recently opened Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg.

"The sports travel market is reported to be one of the fastest growing segments in tourism," Vicki Simms, executive director of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. "We anticipate attracting many new visitors to Gatlinburg who will want to experience a top-notch sports tournament in the midst of our premier vacation destination. The economic impact has unlimited potential."

Gatlinburg Vice Mayor Mike Werner said he believes the new sports facility will encourage growth in the area, and in turn, future tourism revenue.

"I can see there being new developments on 321 — it's really in a prime situation for that with a lot of older properties that can be replaced, and things that will have some value or connection to Rocky Top Sports World," he said. "I could see fast food places popping up, sporting goods stores, newer motels and hotels."

The future outlook for Gatlinburg tourism with the addition of Rocky Top is not the only positive; according to Simms, so far tourism this year has been good, particularly because of the weather. Last year rain coincided with many spring and summer special events in the city, and a long, harsh winter followed.

"We had a strong spring season, in part due to the great weather, which has certainly played a role in what seems to be a strong summer," Simms said.

jold@themountainpress.com