Tennessee: High Notes

Diversity is the key to the Tennessee travel experience, say state and local tourism offcials. The state has great natural beauty, numerous opportunities for outdoor adventure and sport, historic sites, museums and cultural activities, theme parks, and, of course, a wealth of unique attractions associated with its status as the birthplace and home to so many forms of American music from the blues to country.

"We have a rich historic and cultural side, big cities as well as small towns, the musical heritage of country, rock, gospel, the blues and blue grass, plus the outdoors and hiking, canoeing, fishing, golfing and white-water rafting," says Kelly McBrayer, travel industry sales manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

That diversity is embodied in the state's new theme tag-line, "Tennessee. Sounds good to me." The change to the new theme and a new accompanying logo for the department's promotional materials and literature has proven successful, with a 25% increase in inquiries on travel to the state within the first six months of 1998, according to the department's 1998-99 marketing plan.

The plan lists the state's top 10 attractions, in terms of 1997 visitations, as Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, the Opryland Theme Park (which has since closed for financial reasons), the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort & Amusement Park in Gatlinburg, Gaylord Entertainment Performance Halls (includes the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville On Stage and the Ryman Auditorium, all in Nashville), the Casey Jones Village in Jackson, the Chattanooga Choo Choo Complex in Chattanooga, Graceland in Memphis, the Libertyland Mid-South Fair, and the Memphis Zoo & Aquarium.

The department, says McBrayer, "can provide travel agents with information on just about any attraction as well as hotels, state parks, camping, or destinations in Tennessee.

"We continue to look for more ways to get involved with the agent community," she says. The department is active in ASTA conferences and events, as well as with ACTA (the Association of Canadian Travel Agents) and has conducted agent fams, she notes.

Last summer the department established a toll-free number for agents to order bulk quantities of state tourism materials, McBrayer says. (The number is 888-232-6713).

This year the department debuted a special travel agent edition of its Official Vacation Guide. The guide contains a message to agents from McBrayer as well as information on how they can obtain more information on the state and promotional materials like videos, posters, tour shells and vacation guides.

"We're now trying to step up our involvement even more with ASTA and ACTA," McBrayer says. "We hope in the future we can move more aggressively with the agent community, but unfortunately we have limited funds."

The Tennessee Motorcoach Association is also interested in developing closer ties with travel agents, says its new president, Randy Ingram. Ingram, a manager at Clinton Bus Co. in Clinton, Tenn., says agents can play a vital role in the motorcoach business.

"Agents can help us a great deal in passing on business to our members," he says, "and the relationship works both ways. We can make suggestions and referrals to agents looking for something new in terms of attractions or hotels and motels."

According to Ingram, the amount of business his association's members do with agents varies depending on their location and the nature of their business. Clinton Bus Co. operates charters but doesn't put together its own tour programs. Some association members do both charters and their own tours.

"Location is very important too," says Ingram. "A motorcoach operator in Nashville, for example, will be doing a lot of business with agents."

Nashville is one of the state's major motorcoach destinations. Others include Pigeon Forge -- "which is booming; you can't visit there without seeing something new" -- and Chattanooga with its Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain and revitalized downtown.

Nashville has been shifting away from the motorcoach market in an effort to broaden its market, says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We have been changing as a destination in the last three to four years," he says. "We're shifting away from motorcoach visitors, families and pure country [music] fans to younger visitors. This has been by design but also occurred because of the tremendous growth of Nashville's convention and meetings business. You expose the city to a different audience with this kind of business, and convention attendees then come back on their own."

Spyridon says Nashville in the '80s "put most of its eggs in the motorcoach basket. That was great for a while, but we didn't diversify and we let our market share erode.

"We spent a good deal of energy in the '90s on product development," he adds. The results of that campaign, including a new focus on professional sports, "have given Nashville a whole different spin." The National Hockey League's Nashville Predators launched their inaugural season in the city last fall, while the National Football League's Tennessee Titans (formerly the Tennessee Oilers) will kick off its 1999 season in a new 67,000-seat venue in downtown Nashville.

"The sports focus is new and different; it's something we can lay over our music backdrop to give us a truly unique combination of attractions," Spyridon says. Other significant new developments include the Opry Mills shopping/entertainment complex, to open next spring; the headquarters of the Country Music Hall of Fame, to open next year, and the Frist Center for Visual Arts planned to open in the spring of 2001.

"Cultural tourism has never been our strong suit," Spyridon says. "The new Frist Center rounds out our attractions and will help open the door to the rest of what Nashville offers."

The change in Nashville visitors' market has so far been a good thing for the city, according to Spyridon. "The new visitors are staying longer and spending more. We've gone from travel parties averaging 4.1 persons to those averaging 2.8 persons. This reflects less families and more couples. The shift has given us the opportunity to become a year-round destination, instead of just the three months during the summer when families come here. We certainly want both kinds of visitors but we want to be open for business 12 months a year."

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