In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee tourism commissioner talks marketing

Jun. 14, 2013 @ 11:48 PM

Hundreds of Sevier County marketing and tourism officials gathered at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge Thursday to hear a state tourism commissioner give an update on the forthcoming statewide marketing program.

Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, spoke during a joint meeting of the Pigeon Forge Hospitality Association and the Sevier County Lodging Alliance. She focused on what's ahead for Tennessee tourism marketing, which just received an additional $8 million for its budget.

"We are having a lot of fun planning what we're going to do with those dollars," Whitaker said.

Whitaker discussed the ever-increasing buzz around Tennessee tourism. The tourism industry brought in $15.4 billion in direct tourist spending in 2011, making it the second-largest industry in the state. Tourism supports 282,700 jobs and pays approximately $3 billion in federal, state and local taxes, according to the Tennessee Hospitality Association.

"People have noticed Tennessee," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the state's marketing programs will look to branch out even further and reach new markets, including Atlanta, which Whitaker said is an important market that Tennessee hasn't sufficiently tapped.

She also discussed the need to use newer forms of communication, specifically social media.

"The digital world has absolutely exploded," she said. "We are working in a real-time world, and that's where we as marketers have to stay cutting-edge. We have to be where the people are listening.

"All that takes great research, and a large part of what the tourism department has working on is getting research from across the state, finding out where everybody is currently marketing, finding out what kinds of things they're doing, what's been effective for them. Then also looking at, where are the trend lines?"

Whitaker cited Michigan's recent advertising campaign, Pure Michigan, as a model for success. After the decline of the auto industry in the mid- to late 2000s, Michigan poured millions of dollars into its small tourism budget and came out with the ad campaign, which markets the state as a tourism destination.

"They just blanket the airwaves," Whitaker said. "They figured out what we figured out a long time ago: You can't export tourism."

Whitaker said Tennessee's tourism department will bring in an agency to create a similar kind of campaign. A strategic plan is due to Gov. Bill Haslam by the end of the month.

"A marketing plan is going to be put together in much more detail, (requests for proposals) going out, just lots of opportunities with our branding and all of that," Whitaker said.

rhargett@themountainpress.com