Williamson County seeks its own tourism identity

Friday, February 14, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 7
By Hollie Deese

Arrington Vineyards, owned by country music artist Kix Brooks, winemaker Kip Summers and entrepreneur John Russell, is a working vineyard and the venue for “Music in the Vines.”

-- Photo Courtesy Of Visitwilliamson.Com

Williamson County now ranks sixth in terms of visitor spending in Tennessee, taking advantage of being so close to the tourist behemoth that nearby Nashville has become.

Once people make their way south of the city, charming communities like Franklin, Nolensville and Leiper’s Fork certainly seal the deal.

Numbers don’t lie – Nashville is having a moment right now and people are willing to pay to be a part of it.

Visitor spending in Davidson County was close to $5 billion last year, according to Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitor Corporation. That’s nearly 30 percent of the entire visitor spending in the state being focused in one of its 95 counties.

“We recognize that we are both a part of the Nashville region, as well as unique as Williamson County, and I think our visitors do, as well,” says Mark Shore, executive director of Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

New research suggests tourists are distinguishing Franklin from Nashville now more than in the past.

“Our research five years ago said that 40 percent of the people who went back home, even if they stayed in Franklin, referred to their trip as, ‘a trip to Nashville.’ But we are working on that and building on those relationships to try and be another asset of a visitor that comes to Nashville as well as a visitor who comes to our area.”

Tourism offsets taxes

Shore says the Williamson bureau has been working to build relationships with Music City Concierge and has increased distribution routes of marketing brochures.

150th Anniversary of The Battle of Franklin

The Battle of Franklin is considered to be the bloodiest five hours of fighting in the history of the Civil War.  On November 30, 1864, nearly 10,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or went missing.

This year commemorates 150 years since the seminal battle, and Franklin will update its new website (150thfranklin.com) with events associated with the anniversary, including the two-day re-enactment planned for Nov. 15-16, 2014, with nearly 800 active participants.

“With Williamson County’s growth, we still have folks who are not fully familiar with that story, and it is a real opportunity for people to realize what happened in Franklin 150 years ago,” says Mark Shore of the Williamson County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It is pretty significant.”

– Hollie Deese

“We think our marketing has been strong enough that people are asking for stuff about Franklin when they come to Nashville, and we are trying hard to make that more accessible.”

And every tourist counts. Shore says each household would have to come up with another $396 in annual taxes if not for tourism revenue.

“Our tourists are temporary taxpayers for us and lessen the burden on our homeowners,” he says.

Williamson County also benefits from those looking for a central location to visit a number of Middle Tennessee attractions, and rising hotel rates in downtown Nashville are moving even more people south.

“We are a place for people to stay before they drive over to Nashville or over to Murfreesboro and Stones River, especially for the Civil War oriented,” Shore says. “And we have seen an increase in the hotel room rates in Nashville, which is starting to push some traffic to Williamson County, as well.

“We knew all along that the convention center would be a boost for the entire region, and it is starting to show that. We we are definitely feeling the effects of compression in a good way.”

Still, a 9.1 percent increase in room inventory because of 2012’s Drury Plaza was a bit hard to absorb last year,

For more information on tourism in Middle Tennessee, visit www.tnvacation.com.

“Our room demand was up six or seven percent overall, so even though we were bringing more people to the area than the year before, 10 percent is a lot of rooms to absorb into the marketplace,” Shore says. “Still, as a suburban county around Nashville, we are doing really well.”

Nashville as ‘big brother’

J.T. Thompson, executive director for the The Lotz House, a Civil War site, is happy to piggyback on marketing efforts out of Nashville.

“Nashville has a lot more money and a lot deeper pockets to bring people to Tennessee,” he says. “Does Franklin market to the entire country, or do we let big brother, the behemoth Nashville, market to the country and we market to the people who are in Nashville?”

Nashville may be bringing a lot of new faces to the area, but the communities in Williamson County have no problem sealing the deal – and offering plenty of independent restaurants, boutiques and attractions where tourists can spend.

And what is offered is the perfect counterpoint to big museums and honky-tonkin’ on Broadway.

“Timing is everything,” Thompson says. “Nashville is booming, and Franklin truly is a bedroom community of Nashville. People are coming to Nashville and looking for things to do, and Williamson County has positioned itself as the place to go and visit and get an incredible amount of history, along with downtown Main Street and Arrington Vineyards and great shopping.

“Franklin is a nice little package that has been tied up, and everybody works hard to get people to come.”

A big part of the area’s plan to increase visitor spending is by funneling them through the revamped visitor’s center, which grew from 200 square feet to 1,400 square feet about a year ago. It drew 30,000 visitors last year.

Retail was added, and everything was created from recycled materials from naturalDesign’s Tennessee Barn Project. It’s won a national design award and has been featured on Tennessee Crossroads.

“It’s not your mama’s visitor’s center,” says Laura Musgrave, director of visitor services.

History sells

The goal is to maximize visitor spending by making sure tourists know about all attractions, and then nudging them from place to place.

“A majority of the visitors come in here not knowing what we have to offer, just came on the good references of other people,” Musgrave says. “The No. 1 reason people would come to visit would be our history. And we offer some great historical tours.”

A tour group listens as the Carter House’s role in the Battle of Franklin is explained. Civil War tourists often use Franklin as a hub for visiting other battlefields, including Stones River in Murfreesboro.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Visitwilliamson.Com

If the idea of touring sites seems stale, they make it anything but in Franklin. There are many ways to experience the 26 Civil War sites in the area, including iPad-guided tours. But the best way is to have the story told by one of the passionate caretakers of the historic sites, starting with Lotz House’s Thompson.

A history buff and sixth-generation Texan, Thompson had three relatives fight and die at the Battle of the Alamo.

“In Texas that is a pretty big deal,” he says. “Everywhere else, not so much.”

His parents moved to Tennessee when he was 15, and his very first job was as a tour guide at the historic Carter House earning $2.50 an hour. Built in 1830, The Carter House was home to one of the bloodiest battles during the Civil War, the Battle of Franklin, and was used as a Federal command post.

“I grew up loving what happened, studying what happened and adoring what happened in Middle Tennessee, specifically Franklin,” he says.

Now Thompson shows visitors the sites of one of the most emotional moments in time in Franklin’s history. His passion brings the war’s history alive.

“The Civil War is important to Williamson County,” Thompson says. “Historic tourism is important to Williamson County.

“It sounds strange when I say this, but Franklin is very blessed – in a strange way – to have what happened in Franklin happen 150 years ago. There are cities the size of Franklin all over the country that would kill to have the history and the story that we have had happen in their back yard. This is the only war where American fights American, and it moves people.”

Shopping, history, festivals, art, food and more – Franklin knows how to provide an exceptionally good time, the sweet ending any visitor to Nashville can hope for, benefiting both counties and bringing visitors back.

“We have long felt there is a combination of historic and hipness in Franklin,” Shore says. “It’s not history that’s stodgy, it’s history that’s vibrant.

“We have a strong creative class that lives in Williamson that makes it a comfortable place for our visitors to come, as well.”