Economist: Sevier County tourism grew through first eight months of 2013

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 11:24 PM

Sevier County tourism has made a continued bounce-back this year from the recession of the last decade, according to Steve Morse, economist and director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program in the College of Business at Western Carolina University. 

Morse spoke to the Smoky Mountain Area Attractions meeting Thursday and told the group that through August — his most recent numbers — the county had seen an increase this year across the board in theater, retail, restaurant and amusement sales.

“That’s a healthy increase coming out of that recession for the first eight months,” Morse said.

Theater sales, viewed in raw numbers, are up the most — 10.5 percent — over 2012, according to Morse’s research.

Morse said he believes the improvement owes to increased quality.

“The quality of the shows in the area have improved dramatically,” he said. “And there’s been more aggressive marketing — some couponing — and also there have been a couple of shows that have moved to the Parkway in locations that are more visible.”

Morse said the area’s growth is something to be lauded.

“I get to travel all over the southeast,” Morse said. “And people always talk about, ‘How do Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville do it, how are they doing so well?’”

He tells them it’s because of a great team effort.

“Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville all get on the same page when they sell a brand. They’re all selling the same brand, and that brand is a promise.

“This area, Sevier County, has been delivering on that stable, steady message of that brand, and here it is: Value family vacations. No matter what you do in the area, you get a lot of value for your vacation dollar. And that’s why, even during the recession, you guys did better than Myrtle Beach, Branson and some of the other areas.”

Still, whether or not 2013 will be an overall improvement from 2012 is still unknown with four months of data still incomplete.

“October is certainly going to have an effect on it,” Morse said, reflecting on the government shutdown and the impact felt locally because of the closing of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The lost business in October — 6.1 percent less hotel rooms sold when the park shut down — that’s going to have an effect on spending. We don’t know yet, we don’t have those figures. But hopefully it will be off-set by the growth earlier in the year.”

Morse did sound positive about some recent additions to the local tourism economy — specifically Pigeon Forge’s The Island and LeConte Center and Gatlinburg’s Rocky Top Sports World.

  • On Rocky Top Sports World Complex: “This is going to create a whole new generation of tourists in the pipeline that are going to come to Sevier County for the first time,” Morse said of the large-scale tournament oriented facility. “So not only is it going to be a big economic generator for the county, it’s also going to create brand new tourists to Sevier County.

“Seven out of 10 people that come here on vacation are repeat customers, and we need to start filling the pipeline up with new ones for the next generation, and the Rocky Top Sports Complex is going to attract a lot of new people to do that.”

  • On LeConte Center: “(They’ve) been very successful of booking some big groups coming in,” Morse said. “The National Quartet group and some others coming in. That’s going to be a phenomenal center (moving on).”
  • On The Island and the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel: “That’s (and the big wheel) that’s going to be a big attraction, especially next door to the LeConte Center.”

Morse’s data indicated that annual tourism spending in Sevier County has increased or remained level each year since 2003, with the exception of 2009, growing from $1.13 billion in ‘03 to $1.7 billion in 2012.